Josh Shaffer

Shaffer: Raleigh gives festival for oft-forgotten Paderewski

Jan Paderewski, in this 1891 portrait, was a well-known pianist who was a Polish native and a resident of California and New York. He also had numerous connections to Raleigh, where he first played in 1917.
Jan Paderewski, in this 1891 portrait, was a well-known pianist who was a Polish native and a resident of California and New York. He also had numerous connections to Raleigh, where he first played in 1917. IGNACY JAN PADEREWSKI FESTIVAL

Few people today might recognize the name Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the Polish-born pianist with the flourish in his fingers and the mop of windswept hair – a white-suited look-alike for Mark Twain.

History largely forgot the composer so famous in his day that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, so esteemed that a piano teacher in a 1953 movie told his student, “We’ll make a Paderewski out of you yet!”

But Raleigh, a city with only the thinnest historic ties to Poland and scant connections to classical piano, will throw the long-dead musician a four-day festival starting Thursday – a Paderewski smorgasbord that includes three concerts.

This news landed on my desk Friday, and I polled my newsroom colleagues. Heard of this guy? Whole lot of shrugs. Whole lot of stabs in the dark. “Field goal kicker for the (Kansas City) Chiefs in the 1970s?” went one stab.

But after a few hours spent immersing myself in all things Paderewski, I can tell you the key-pounding old master deserves to be celebrated here as much as anywhere. And Raleigh figures into the composer’s long life for a string of curious coincidences.

“He was certainly well-known in my generation, and all through the ’50s he was a very strong presence,” said Alvin Fountain, honorary consul to the Republic of Poland and the festival’s director. “By the ’60s, he began to be forgotten.”

More on those ties to Raleigh in a second. A quick biography:

Paderewski is best known for his piano playing, but he also looms large as a statesman in Polish history, serving as prime minister for one tumultuous year after World War I.

He spent his life in the struggle for Polish independence: He was born in 1860 when his homeland sat inside the Russian empire and died in 1941 shortly after Nazi Germany consumed it.

But he lived in both California and New York, an adopted American, and he toured its concert halls relentlessly – first coming to North Carolina for a Charlotte performance in 1905.

The News & Observer raved at his first Raleigh concert in 1917, calling him “the premier pianist of the world.”

“Raleigh has given great assemblages to noted artists and to the leading statesmen of America,” the article read, “but never before has there gathered a paid admission audience in the auditorium as that which last night expressed its delight with the music given by Paderewski. It nearer approached the free admission audience which heard (Williams Jennings) Bryan and (Theodore) Roosevelt than any other.”

And while in Raleigh, the pianist read in those same pages of the N&O that President Woodrow Wilson had called for an independent Poland – a demand Paderewski had urged him to make.

At his final concert in Raleigh, in 1939, the N&O carried a front-page picture of the pianist’s chief waiter, an Oak City native named Charles Smith who had once worked in the newspaper’s mailroom. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and black bow tie, Smith served Paderewski in his private rail car for five years.

Even more compelling:

As Adolf Hitler blustered through a two-hour speech carried on the radio that day in April, denouncing the nonaggression pact with Poland, Paderewski napped aboard his Raleigh train.

The last connection that grabs me is the piano that Fountain now owns, one of two the Polish composer signed and gave to people he admired. Fountain and his wife, Brenda Bruce, a well-known concert pianist herself, acquired it years ago.

But it once belonged to Mary McMillan, a Raleigh native who served as secretary to Paderewski’s wife during World War I, while she was a student at Columbia University.

“Every time Paderewski would come to this area, he would communicate with her,” said her son, Robert McMillan, a Raleigh attorney. “I remember as a small boy going to a recital at Memorial Auditorium and another at Duke. They were always very gracious. I remember the piano. I grew up playing it. It was a Steinway baby grand. I remember vividly as a young boy that he commented how as a boy, he’d been redheaded. I was a redhead, too. I’ve never forgotten it.”

I woke up Friday morning never having heard of Jan Paderewski. And on my half-mile drive home, I crossed the trace of his footsteps three times. I’ve only had a few mild brushes with high culture. Corrosion of Conformity informs my idea of Raleigh music. But I’ve been humming a Chopin ballade all day, one favored by the Polish pianist who, much like me, ended up here thanks to a series of happy accidents.