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Pianist Woodward receives highest arts honor from Poland

Oct. 20, 2011 -- Internationally renowned classical and contemporary pianist Roger Woodward, a professor in the SF State School of Music and Dance, has received Poland's highest honor in the arts.

A photo of Roger Woodward

Poland's Ministry of Culture and National Heritage awards the Medal for Merit to Culture Gloria Artis  (Zasłużony Kulturze- Gloria Artis) in the gold category to persons or organizations for distinguished contributions to the development of Polish culture.
The award is the latest in a series of honors bestowed upon Woodward for a lifetime of prestigious collaborations and career as a soloist with many of the world's leading orchestras, including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, London Philharmonia and New York Philharmonic. But it also reflects his ongoing passion for human rights and the need for artists to serve a larger community through their work.


Q: You've received several significant international honors. What does the "Gloria Artis" award signify within the span of your career?

Roger Woodward: Receiving an award from anybody, anywhere is always a very emotional moment, including recognition of the scholar and creative artist. My two sons, daughter, seven grandchildren and good friends are delighted. Recognition for services to humanity and of one's work is always a humbling experience. What is far more important, however, is for us to be able to learn to live and work together in harmony and goodwill and in the workplace that translates into applications of genuine collegiality. As a student in Poland I reached out to people in a completely alien culture, lived and worked with Polish people and tried to learn their language and ways. In their moment of difficulty it was not possible to ignore their extraordinary kindness, so I used my art for the Solidarność trades union movement. At one stage, I memorized the complete works of Chopin, playing program after program worldwide to raise money for that movement at a time when its members were being hounded, imprisoned and murdered. Poland's struggle for freedom in the face of overwhelming Soviet military superiority was achieved through many thousands of such tiny initiatives undertaken by many others. I certainly did not expect to receive Poland's highest cultural honor let alone its gold category but I'm not complaining. I feel a little like the artist who walks into a hall to thunderous applause without having played a note. But rather than feel useless, I know that if what we do can possibly serve others well, including our wonderful students, how much more valuable our whole university's achievement and higher education might well be to the larger community in such times. In this moment I think of Dostoyevsky when he suggested "beauty will save the world."

Apropos other international honors, a few years ago the French government conferred a knighthood on me in L'ordre des Arts et des Lettres for work spanning forty years with French culture, in particular, the music of Debussy and for my work on a more personal basis with Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Jean Barraque, Iannis Xenakis, Gilbert Amy and others, premiering some of their creations. The British government awarded a medal as Officer of the Order of the Empire, Australia awarded me Companion of its Order and the Polish government awarded me its highest civilian honor with the Order of Merit, Commander Class. But how could anyone in his right mind feel comfortable about any of this knowing how things are in Israel and Gaza, Zimbabwe, and the ambitions of those who want to dominate peaceful people and impose regimes of intolerance and discrimination? None of us live in a cocoon. Recognition for what was achieved in the past is therefore something that leaves me feeling uncomfortable. It's what we are doing now that is more important.

Q: What was it about
Poland that drew you to continue your studies there?

Woodward: The music of Fryderyk Chopin -- aptly described by Robert Schumann as "cannons camouflaged as flowers" -- as well as the "new" music of Andrzej Panufnik,Witold Lutoslawski, Henryk Gorecki, Krzysztof Penderecki and other Polish composers, theatre directors, designers, poets and film makers -- in particular Andrzej Wajda and his cinematic masterpieces. There was a freshness of spirit at the time that was radiant, lively and all-embracing. I was offered a post-graduate place in Professor Zbigniew Drzewiecki's class (a very close, lifelong friend of Artur Rubinstein, Karol Szymanowski, Paul Kochanski and Stanislaw Neuhaus—Sviatoslav Richter's teacher) that was difficult to refuse. Until then my teacher at the Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, was Alexander Sverjensky, a former pupil of Sergei Rakhmaninov and Alexander Siloti among others.


Q: I read that you once played in a train yard in Poland?

Woodward: No, that's not quite accurate. During the continuing Soviet occupation of Poland and its neighbors during the 1980s, human rights struggles continued through Solidarność after unsuccessful uprisings in East Germany, Budapest and Prague. At the United Nations, the powerful Soviets had manipulated a voting majority to stop the Solidarność Movement's voice from being heard at the International Labor Organization (ILO). On closer examination it turned out that Australia, to everybody's surprise, was one of the countries that had not voted in favor of Solidarność so we all wondered why? Cleverly, a small clique of hard-line Stalinists had successfully infiltrated a train yard of union workers' "representatives." So I went to that train yard -- Chullora in Sydney -- on the back of a truck with a piano and played Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata to the workers to try and convince them to change their minds. On the back of the truck with me was a magnificent Hamburg Steinway model D, and we drove together with Solidarność representatives into the train yard where migrant workers were cleaning the faces of trains and engines. It was a first but there were further surprises to come. Soon after the vote was carried by a majority of one at the ILO, and Solidarność's voice was heard by the United Nations committee in Geneva at the ILO. So from an obscure rail yard in Sydney, Australia, it was possible to reach out to those who had been imprisoned in Poland and to spur the movement on at a crucial time in its history.


Q: Was it your music career that led you to become actively interested in human rights, or do you see the two as unconnected?

Woodward: Nothing could ever be more important than cultivating and protecting that loftier part of human thought that we so often now refer to as "human rights." Such precious concepts were painstakingly developed over centuries before being handed down to us by colleagues whom we have never met in Alexandria, Athens, Rome, Paris and more recently, Gdansk and Berlin. Whether my first lessons in learning to live with others and looking out for this sacred and caring part of ourselves began with the Solidarność movement or not, I'm not entirely certain. But I do remember sitting next to a boy in kindergarten back in Sydney, Australia, just after the Second World War, who had been born in Auschwitz and who by some miracle, survived together with his mother Clara Kraus (née Halevy). Peter arrived from Budapest and when I met him at the age of six, he hardly spoke a word of English, but somehow we found a way of communicating and ended up becoming lifelong friends. His family, another Russian family who had fled Habin, and Latvian friends in London taught me about the value of reaching out to others. In Australia I also had friends from the magnificent, ancient, Aboriginal culture where very sadly, many brutal atrocities were committed by the allegedly more "civilized" white culture, which taught me a thing or two about racism. By the time I studied in Poland, I was therefore ready for Solidarność, perhaps without knowing it.

But at the end of the day, let's not confuse basic matters of human compassion of which we are all capable with the inspirational courage of leaders like Lech Walesa, Mstislav Rostropovich, Andrei Sakharov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Anna Politkovskaya, and the latest Nobel peace prize winners Leymah Gbowee, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman, who celebrate the finest aspects of modern-day freedom and compassion.


Q: You have had some recently lauded studio and live performance successes, such as your Gramophone Editor's Choice for the Bach "Well-Tempered Clavier" and recent reviews from the Reims festival. Do you prefer studio over live performances, or are they just too different to compare?

Woodward: Live performance is always the most meaningful yardstick by which art, at least for me, is measured whether it be in performances recorded by artists of the stature of Cecil Taylor, Julian Joseph, Andrew Speight or recreated by Wanda Landowska, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Jascha Heifetz, Gustav Leonhardt, Edwin Fischer, Daniel Barenboim, Sviatoslav Richter, Jassen Todorov, Wiliam Corbett-Jones or the Alexander or Arditti String Quartets. Recordings simply document the life of the creative artist and make interesting reference points. No sooner do I  walk out of the studio however, than I feel dissatisfied with most of that which I have just recorded and wish to heaven that I could go straight back and record it all over again. My best recordings are not necessarily those that were awarded prizes although I'm not entirely ashamed of the live performances that went well that were issued as recordings: Xenakis' "Keqrops" with the Mahlerjungendorchester at the Wienerkonzerthaus directed by Claudio Abbado (for DGG/Universal); the live performance of the world premiere of Morton Feldman's "Piano and Orchestra" from the Metz Festival, France, directed by Hans Zender that won Germany's Goethe Prize (on CPO records); and the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas from Melbourne.


Q: As you've been on sabbatical from SF State, are there any particular projects or future challenges that you've been working on during this time?

Woodward: I have just recorded a series of projects for the Celestial Harmonies recording label, the first of which was works by the repressed Russian-early Soviet avant-garde of the first part of the twentieth century with works by Obukhov, Roslavets, Mosolov, Pasternak and others of the time who are better known such as Skryabin, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. I am currently completing my first publication for Harper-Collins that is mainly autobiographical. I am researching the music of Xenakis for a further publication for the Pendragon Press, New York. I am working with Rohan de Saram and Arturo Tamayo, and preparing the other two piano concertos of Xenakis ("Evryali" and "Synaphai"), the three Bartok Piano Concertos, chamber music by Chopin, Brahms, Cage, Feldman and Xenakis. I am about to tour Australia in 12 concerts with works by Chopin and then Germany with works by Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Debussy and Bartok where I will also work with James Creitz, Winfried Rademacher and a phenomenally talented new young Israeli clarinetist named Teddy Ezra.


Q: How do you approach a specific piece, and what do you have in mind when you are exploring it and creating your performance?

Woodward: My students and I always look at works of art music as a whole before considering any fragmentation process or appropriate performance practice. It is crucially important for one's sense of well being to approach a work of art as a living and spiritual entity on a completely inspirational plane before dissecting it for mere structural or technical reasons. Once the work is heard with our musician's inner ear, its inner pulse becomes part of our souls; only then is it possible to engage the more temporal process of considering how it might have been conceived, structured and how its compositional processes operate. Above all, music celebrates the inspirational part of our lives that elevates and transforms our most wonderful thoughts and feelings as well as the most tender and caring part of ourselves.

-- University Communications


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