Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles logo

By Marek Zebrowski (Paderewski Festival Artistic Director and Cultural Exchange Leader)

The Youth Cultural Exchange Program of the Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles encourages the exploration of cultural, educational and musical opportunities between California’s Central Coast and the Tarnów region of Poland—two communities that share historical ties to Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Through this Exchange Program, the Board of the Paderewski Festival provides the chance for young musicians from both regions to further their piano studies and perform together, as well as learn about each other’s countries and histories. More information on the Exchange can be found here.

During this annual exchange, in odd years all-expenses paid trips to Poland are awarded to chosen finalists of the Paderewski Festival’s Youth Piano Competition, who then participate in master classes, perform in prestigious venues and explore the country and culture alongside Polish students. Then, in even years, these Polish students are sponsored for similar visits in California, where they also perform at the Paderewski Festival.

After years of delay due to the pandemic, the Paderewski Festival is thrilled to have restarted the Cultural Exchange in June 2023! Below is a detailed description of the 2023 Exchange participant experience.

Thursday, June 22: Arrival in Warsaw

It was a special day for everyone involved—for Suri Kim and Aidan Purtell (the two students participating in the Cultural Exchange Program this year), and for the Paderewski Festival Board members who organized and funded this endeavor after a four-year break caused by the pandemic. The Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt landed at the Chopin Airport in Warsaw about 20 minutes late, just after 2 p.m. Normally, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but on this fine Thursday afternoon in June, every minute mattered. Thanks to the Festival’s diplomatic contacts, we had received an invitation to the U.S. Ambassador’s private residence for an afternoon garden party—an early celebration of July 4 holiday—that would begin at 4:30 p.m.

There was a long line of arriving travelers waiting for taxis outside the Chopin Airport international arrivals terminal. Since there were four of us (Suri was accompanied by her mother, Eun Young Kim, acting as a chaperone) plus several pieces of luggage, I arranged with the taxi dispatcher to get us a larger car. This move enabled us to get into an elegant Mercedes van that pulled up almost immediately, well ahead of the quickly expanding queue of weary travelers. Bundled into the car, we sped towards Hotel Mercure in the heart of Warsaw, arriving there about 3 p.m. Suri, Eun and Aidan had about an hour to get to their rooms, take quick showers and put on their Sunday best before we assembled downstairs at the hotel reception desk at 4 p.m. sharp.

Another taxi (a smaller one this time) was ordered to take us to the Ambassador’s residence. Rush hour traffic and cordoned off streets in the vicinity of the residence well south of downtown made us arrive there at about 5 p.m. We had to walk a gamut of security personnel posted on street corners, show our U.S. passports to the Embassy staff, and go through airport-style x-ray machines before joining the crowds mingling around the front, the inside, and the residence’s extensive back garden. We were quickly welcomed by the Embassy protocol officers and very friendly press attaché Agata Milton. She showed us inside and invited us to explore various stands with refreshments and drinks.

Following the presentation of colors and singing of anthems, Mark Brzezinski—the U.S. Ambassador to Poland—delivered an address to the assembled crowds, touching on themes of Polish-American friendship and also referring to space exploration, which was the main theme for this July 4 party. After the Ambassador’s remarks, the U.S. Navy Topside Brass Band serenaded the happy gathering with lively music that encouraged quite a few revelers to dance.

Suri and Aidan made rounds of the refreshment tables and were able to get a photo with Ambassador Brzezinski. Other photos from the event made available by the Embassy can be found here.

On the way back to the hotel, our quartet first boarded a tram that took us to a metro station a few stops away. After transferring to an underground train, we alighted at the center of Warsaw, right under the (in)famous Palace of Culture and Science, a survivor of Communist-era architectural aesthetics. Early evening sunshine cast long shadows around the park surrounding this towering structure as we walked back to our hotel for a proper dinner—the first taste of delicious Polish food for the Exchange visitors.

Friday, June 23: Warsaw to Kraków

Rested after an eventful first day in Poland, Suri, Eun and Aidan enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant. With no signs of jetlag, we quickly packed up and headed out across the nearby shopping mall to Warsaw Central rail station for a 9:41 a.m. express train to Kraków. Arriving at the ancient capital of Poland at 12:30 p.m., we rushed across the wide plaza to the Europejski Hotel, where after a quick refreshment (it was an exceedingly sultry day), we raced on foot across the picturesque Old Town to the American Consulate for a 2:30 p.m. meeting with Consul General Erin Nickerson. Facilitated by Maja Brzostek, public affairs officer and an old friend working at the Kraków Consulate, our meeting covered topics pertaining to the Exchange Program, the Paderewski Festival as well as exchanges of personal backgrounds and interests of all participants.

After photos were taken and warm handshakes were exchanged, we quickly raced to the Paderewski Institute of Musicology at Jagiellonian University, where Dr. Andrzej Sitarz gave us a detailed and personalized tour. Located in the neo-Romanesque Pusłowski Palace, the Institute houses a collection of Paderewski’s musical manuscripts, a large portion of his library and several historical instruments. The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Secondary Music School on Basztowa Street, where two practice rooms were given to Suri and Aidan’s disposal until 7:30 pm. Once their musical obligations were fulfilled, a quick evening meal at an Italian restaurant (accompanied by several glasses of milk ordered by Aidan) followed by a stroll through the heart of old Kraków enabled the visitors to see a small slice of Kraków’s Old Town with its lively nightlife.

Saturday, June 25: At the Kraków Academy

After hot and humid Friday, the weather turned cloudy and chilly, unsuited for sightseeing but ideal for music instruction. By 10 a.m. Suri and Aidan (accompanied, as always by Suri’s mom) were at the Kraków Music Academy, recently renamed the Penderecki Academy of Music. There each Exchange student received well over an hour of instruction with Professors Grzegorz Mania and Piotr Różański.

After these morning master classes, the group met their next set of professors—Marek Szlezer, Head of the Piano Faculty at the Academy and Jan Kalinowski, Dean of the Instrumental Division. These two distinguished musicians (known worldwide as the Cracow Duo) are also directors of the Małopolska Talent Academy, a week-long music camp in the picturesque mountain village of Łącko about 70 miles southeast of Kraków. The best way to make new friends is to have some ice cream together and that was the eagerly followed suggestion made by Professor Kalinowski. With his young son, Mikołaj and Jan’s chamber music partner, Marek Szlezer, we found a cozy ice cream parlor that satisfied all tastes. Drizzly and grey weather notwithstanding, we spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing in Kraków’s Old Town and climbed to see the Royal Castle. Another dinner on the town and back to the Europejski Hotel for a night of rest before embarking on another adventure on Sunday.

Sunday, 26 June: Kraków to Łącko

The sun was out and the sky was blue, dotted with puffy white clouds sailing above the old rooftops, church spires and verdant hillsides surrounding Kraków. Around 11:30 a.m., professor Szlezer arrived at the Europejski Hotel in his very fancy SUV that fortunately was able to accommodate all of us plus luggage for the two-hour journey to Łącko. Ola Kuzemko, the indispensable Talent Academy coordinator and administrator, also appeared and was introduced to Suri, Eun and Aidan. Once in Łącko, we were housed in the guesthouse called “Pod Jabłonią” [Under the Apple Tree], where (rather conveniently) all meals were also served throughout the week.

The Łącko Music School and its practice facilities was about a 20-minute hike from our residence along the Czarna Woda [Black Water], a mountain creek that bisects Łącko. With my charges in tow, I quickly introduced them to various orientation points around the village—the main square where a daily market featured flowers, fruit, clothing and various home equipment items, the ice cream parlor and café, and the church where some of the Talent Academy’s concerts would be held. The most important point of interest was naturally the music school located right next to the volunteer fire department with its landmark tower. That evening, the three dozen students participating in the Academy and some locals assembled at the parish hall for the inaugural concert given by the Cracow Duo—a highly impressive and authoritative performance of Rachmaninov’s monumental Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano.

Monday, June 27 – Saturday July 1: Małopolska Talent Academy in Łącko

For the entire week of the Talent Academy, the Cultural Exchange Program participants had settled into a fairly fixed routine. Breakfast at Pod Jabłonią began at 8 a.m. and by 9 o’clock most students would race towards the music school building to grab a classroom with a piano and warm up. Lessons with various professors—besides pianists there were also a few wind and string players—began from 10 a.m. onwards. Lunch (known as “dinner” in Poland) was served at 1 p.m. and afterwards everyone went back to the music school for instruction or to practice. Occasionally, when spirits seemed to sag, a cup of coffee accompanied by ice cream or cake would provide a perfect afternoon cure and be followed by attending an evening concert—either at the historic 17th century St. John the Baptist church or at the Parish Hall, where a superb concert grand Steinway was delivered courtesy of Steinway & Sons representatives in Warsaw.

Evening meals (called “supper”) would always be scheduled after concerts that started around 7 p.m. and usually ended by 8:30. Given the long summer days, all students and faculty could march down either to the Pod Jabłonią restaurant or, on a couple of occasions, to the other guesthouse where some students and all faculty were housed and al-fresco dinners were served. As daylight slowly faded behind the wooded hills, the crackling sounds emanating from the wood-fired grill sharpened appetites and encouraged the formation of new friendships as abundant local delicacies were consumed.

On June 29, the anniversary of Paderewski’s death in 1941, the Małopolska Talent Academy students presented a Chopin-only evening at the Parish Hall auditorium. Nine participants (from Poland, China and the U.S.) selected a variety of Chopin’s works for the program. Suri Kim gave a sparkling performance of Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 42 and Aidan Purtell shone in a romantically fulsome interpretation of the great Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 no. 1.

The closing concert of the Małopolska Talent Academy took place on Saturday, July 1. Also held at the Parish Hall, it opened with a well-received performance of Schumann’s Polonaise, Op. 130 for piano four-hands by Suri Kim and Aidan Purtell, who prepared this charming work during their week in Łącko. Later in the program, which combined chamber music and solo repertoire presented by a total of eleven performers, Suri was heard in three selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music, Op. 75. Aidan then closed the program and brought down the hall with his virtuosic take on Scriabin’s wild Sonata No. 5, Op. 53. Afterwards, all Talent Academy faculty and students enjoyed a farewell meal of long-awaited pierogi—a Polish cuisine staple, otherwise known as dumplings stuffed with a variety of fillings, including meat, cabbage, cheese or berries.

Sunday, July 2: Łącko to Gorlice to Kraków

Breakfast at the Pod Jabłonią dining hall was a chance to say goodbye to the faculty and newly-minted friends. Everyone began packing and leaving for their respective homes near and far away. The Cultural Exchange Program was collected in Łącko at noon by Łukasz Meyger, a young and entrepreneurial conductor, who had arranged a concert for Suri and Aidan in the historic town of Gorlice, about a two-hour ride from Łącko along several picturesque mountain roads.

Held in the Renaissance-era Dwór Karwacjanów in the heart of Gorlice’s Old Town, the 5 p.m. concert began with a warm welcome from the museum’s director, Katarzyna Szepieniec. The historic hall was filled with a capacity crowd of local music lovers who had a chance to hear extended performances by Suri Kim and Aidan Purtell.

Suri opened the program with Paderewski’s Krakowiak, Op. 5 no. 1, continued with three movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet music and closed with a graceful delivery of Chopin’s A-flat Waltz, Op. 42. When Aidan’s turn came, he launched into the first movement of Haydn’s great E-flat major Sonata and followed it with a performance of Paderewski’s only Nocturne, Op. 16 no. 4. His last presentation was Chopin’s C minor Nocturne. Both Suri and Aidan received an exceptionally warm applause and the audience heartily demanded an encore. The young pianists were more than happy to oblige and sat down to Schumann’s Polonaise, Op. 130 for piano four-hands, which clearly delighted the crowds.

After the concert and farewells with the museum’s director (who is very open to scheduling future concerts for the Exchange Program), Maestro Meyger drove us all to Kraków and the now familiar Europejski Hotel. Since on the way to Kraków we were passing within a few miles of Paderewski’s former manor house in Kąśna Dolna, Łukasz graciously made a small detour so that a photo could be taken out in the park. Hungry and somewhat tired, we quickly settled in and made our way to the great Market Square, just managing to order a meal before the kitchen closed at 9:30 a.m.

Monday, July 3: Kraków to Warsaw

With lovely sunny and not-too-hot weather, the first part of the day presented a perfect opportunity for sightseeing the old Kraków, revisiting the Royal Castle and Royal Mint, as well as for buying all kinds of souvenirs. Assembly at the Europejski Hotel at 2 p.m. was followed by a short walk (with admittedly heavier bags) to the railway station for an express train to Warsaw. After a comfortable and quick 2 ½ hour trip, we returned to the Mercure Centrum Hotel and had an early meal, since the following day would be very busy and strenuous with travel and lots of playing.

Tuesday, July 4: Steinway day!

We had an early start and boarded a street car at 9 a.m. for a ride to Warsaw’s National Museum. There, thanks to director Anna Feliks, a comfortable minibus was waiting to take us to the Museum’s satellite location in Otwock Wielki, about an hour south of Warsaw along the banks of Vistula River. Located in the 18th century Bielinski Palace, the Museum has a collection of historical instruments, including Paderewski’s own Erard as well as one of his concert grand Steinway pianos.

Director Feliks had secured an English-speaking guide, the delightful and friendly Anna Knapek, who gave a detailed tour of the entire palace that was opened that morning exclusively for the Exchange Program. Once this was over, Suri and Aidan had a chance for a dress rehearsal on Paderewski’s Steinway grand in the opulent, high-ceiling palace ballroom. After a run-through their programs, all were treated to a delicious three-course lunch with soup and more pierogi, a highly appreciated delight! Sustained by good food and fortified with a nice cup of tea, at 1:30 p.m. sharp our ride was waiting to take us back to Warsaw and the hotel.

An obligatory rest for an hour or so was ordered since there would be another, more formal concert later on that evening. Changed into concert attire, we boarded one of Warsaw’s all electric air-conditioned buses around 4:30 p.m. for a 5 p.m. sound check at the Steinway Salon in Warsaw. This concert was made possible by Marcin Fidos, a friendly and very helpful head of the Riff Piano Salon on Ordynacka Street, a few doors down from the fabled Chopin Music University. Mr. Fidos made available a beautiful, clear-sounding Steinway B for Suri and Aidan, an instrument well-suited to the piano showroom that doubles as a small but elegant concert and recording space. It was another well-attended concert, with Karol Radziwonowicz (a frequent guest performer in Paso Robles, who recorded the complete piano works of Paderewski years ago), several professors from the Chopin Music University, director Feliks from the National Museum, pianist and composer Aleksander Dębicz, and several friends of the Polish Music Center, including Fulbright Scholars Iwo Jedynecki and Katarzyna Mikołajczyk who performed at USC during the past year.

Wednesday, July 5: One last tour of Warsaw

This was the last full day in Poland for the Exchange Program and it was devoted to sightseeing. The day’s itinerary included a 10 a.m. visit to the Chopin Museum (right next door to the Chopin Music University) that was organized by the director of the National Chopin Institute (NIFC), Dr. Artur Szklener. Since Suri felt tired and under the weather, she remained with her mother at the hotel for the day and Aidan was the only one to explore the Chopin Museum with the English-speaking guide. After completing this tour, we proceeded to the Royal Castle next to Warsaw’s Old Town, then ended the afternoon at the Łazienki Royal Palace—the summer residence on a lake in a huge Warsaw park shaded by ancient elm, chestnut and beech trees.

Dinner that evening had to be early, because flights taking the Cultural Exchange Program participants back to the US were taking off from Warsaw at 6:30 a.m. A taxi to the airport was ordered for 4 a.m. and, fortunately, everyone woke up on time!

Thursday, July 6: Farewell but not goodbye!

The airport check in opened at 4:30 a.m. for the first flight to Frankfurt and initially everything went fairly smoothly. However, we soon discovered that the Frankfurt leg was late and the complicated connections in Germany (Aidan going to Cleveland and Suri and her mom returning to LA) would be missed. Fortunately, Aidan was rebooked for a better and faster flight via Washington-Dulles to Cleveland, while Suri and Eun got an even better deal by being routed directly on a non-stop flight to LAX! This was a real godsend since their originally-booked routing (Warsaw-Frankfurt-Toronto-Cleveland-Denver-LAX) would have them traveling for days!

Thus ended the adventure of the 2023 Cultural Exchange Program, sponsored by and administered by the Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles. We are already looking forward to welcoming students from Poland (and possibly from the area where Paderewski was born, which is now Ukraine) to Paso in November of 2024, as well as formulating plans for another group of young California pianists to visit Poland in summer of 2025.