Alexander Agate is a young Californian pianist who, after receiving a full-tuition scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music and racking up competition wins and finalist placements, is now pursuing his doctorate. The Raleigh Paderewski Festival‘s Artistic Director, Adam Wibrowski, himself a high-caliber musician and scholar from Krakow and a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire, shared the charming story of Agate’s selection for the festival. Wibrowski was adjudicating the American International Paderewski Piano Competition in Los Angeles, and, after hearing weeks of submissions, was struck after just a minute of Agate’s playing by his “miracle of artistic expression.”

While there was actually only one work by Paderewski on this particular program, the Festival’s heritage and legacy is important – and helps contextualize the remaining three concerts in the Festival. Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) was a world-renowned Polish pianist and composer, considered one of the greatest pianists of the 19th and 20th centuries. His technical virtuosity, musicality and entertaining performances gave him international appeal, and he has a unique connection to the city of Raleigh. According to the Festival, Paderewski visited and performed in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the surrounding area on several occasions. The first of these performances occurred on the notable date of January 23, 1917, the day following President Woodrow Wilson’s first public statement in support of a free and independent Poland, a statement made at the express request of Paderewski only a few days before. Almost one year later, on January 8, 1918, President Wilson issued the famous “Fourteen Points,” of which the Thirteenth Point expressly provided for a free and independent Poland.

This year’s festival coincides with the centennial of Paderewski’s return to the US after these first tours, culminating in a performance at Carnegie Hall on November 22, 1922. The last of Paderewski’s performances in Raleigh occurred April 28, 1939, mere months before Germany invaded Poland and began World War II. Paderewski Festival Raleigh is, accordingly, dedicated to the preservation of piano music, with specific emphasis on the musical heritage of Poland, Hungary, and France, and Paderewski’s musical and diplomatic contributions – especially appropriate during this time of upheaval in Ukraine, with which Poland has had 400 years of direct association. The Polish Embassy, which has been a cheerful partner of the festival for about five years, is understandably absorbed in the current conflict, and Board President Dr. Alvin M. Fountain II made sure to extend compassion for the affected Polish and Ukranians, including featured festival performer, the Ukranian Artem Yasynskyy, who performs on November 12.

Agate is both an engaging performer and very skilled technician, demonstrated in Saturday afternoon’s festival opening concert, a solo recital of punishingly difficult and widely varied piano works at St. Mary’s School’s Emory-Smedes Parlor, itself a storied space that dates back to the original 1842 founding of the school. (Coincidentally, this is about the same year that Fryderyk Chopin’s Impromptu No. 3 in G-flat minor, featured in the first half of the program, was published.)

The first half of the program consisted of older works by very well-known composers JS Bach, Haydn, Chopin, and Liszt, but demanded a variety of emotions and tactile styles. From the start, this was a unique program – the opening Bach composition came from a 19-year-old lamenting his older brother’s departure into military service and does not carry the usual refined and dignified air of his later-established style. Agate’s treatment of the Cappriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo, BWV 992, journeyed through a huge spectrum of emotions, all within delicate and elegant lines ornamented with careful rubato and a soft touch.

Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, Hob.XVI:32, was a showpiece for Agate’s emotional sensitivity and infectious enthusiasm – the same way that Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 in E-flat, “Pesther Carnival” S.244/9, was a showpiece for his technical virtuosity. Agate’s fingers flew with impressive velocity, occasionally becoming forceful and bombastic (which is perfectly appropriate for Liszt!), but he never seemed to take himself too seriously, and moved through each section of music with appreciation for each phrase’s specific emotional intention.

The second half of the program was even more technically difficult and tended to embrace the more powerful and Romantic – even though most of the works played were Etudes (study pieces). Agate explained that Chopin is considered to have pioneered the practice of giving these works high levels of artistry, rather than being strictly technical. He mused a little on whether the pieces themselves can still be considered to help build technical ability, or if they themselves require high levels of technical facility to even approach. In any case, Agate’s performance of etudes from Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Prokofiev – whose work and histories were interestingly intertwined in the early 1900s – was stunning.

John Corigliano’s contemporary (1976) Etude-Fantasy for Solo Piano, was a refreshing yet no less amazing offering, featuring a movement of left-hand-only technical brilliance. While contemporary works can be experimental and aesthetically challenging, which Agate acknowledged in his introduction of the work, Corigliano’s composition is still emotionally accessible and it remains expressive, even though its language favors traditionally dissonant intervals of seconds, sevenths, and ninths. As a proponent of contemporary music, I particularly enjoyed this piece, and appreciated how Agate focused on the emotional honesty of the work, keeping ornaments clean, delicate, and understated, while getting to really let loose in a couple of bursts of frenetic, out-of-control energy.

The afternoon culminated with Paderewski’s Krakowiak fantastyczny, Op. 14, No. 6, a flashy and exciting work full of catchy rhythmic motion and deft passages. Agate’s cheerful vibrancy never let up through the whole afternoon, even through a final encore – Grieg’s “Carnival Scene” from Op. 19, No. 3. His playing was technically dazzling and emotionally evocative through relentless tactile variation – and he visibly enjoyed every moment at the keyboard (although, at intermission, I got a chance to speak to him and he acknowledged how taxing this two-hour program was)! His enthusiasm was infectious in the best ways, ultimately resulting in the best performance I have attended in a long time.

The Paderewski Festival continues through November 12. See our sidebar for details.