Capitalism's Sour Notes In Poland

September 30, 1990|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

Warsaw -- As capitalism replaces communism, commercialization is recasting culture in countries where communist governments once heavily subsidized the arts and guaranteed Everyman's access to theater and concert hall.

The latest and most spectacular sacrifice on the altar of profit is the 12th edition of Warsaw's quinquennial international Chopin Piano Competition, which begins tomorrow.

The contest, for performers between the ages of 17 and 28, is one of the world's most prestigious, for the winners a sure-fire stepping stone to a keyboard career. Krystian Zimerman, Maurizio Pollini, Dang Thai Son and Garrick Ohlsson (the only American to win) have all claimed titles in Warsaw.

The panel of judges always glitters with concert stars or teachers of international repute, such as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Halina Czerny-Stefanska and Baltimore's Leon Fleisher, members of this year's jury.

The audiences are sophisticated and knowledgable, music lovers who have for more than 60 years flocked here for a three-week immersion in mazurkas and waltzes, etudes and polonaises, sonatas and concertos played -- who knows -- by an emerging Martha Argerich or an Ashkenazy.

The prize money was always peanuts and still is -- just $2,000 to the winner. The costs, both to contestant and concertgoer, were also negligible, thanks to communist Poland's token ticket prices and cheap living.

But times have changed in Eastern Europe. A Western-style business manager has replaced the communist bureaucrat and the result, across the board, is soaring prices.

The final costs of the three-week tour de force of daylong piano concerts are not yet clear, Frederic Chopin Society director Bogumil Palasz said last week. But even though the impecunious Polish state will still bear the brunt of the expense, competition organizer Marek Bykowski said that Warsaw's Ministry of Culture had cut its contribution from nearly 90 percent in 1985 to somewhere between 60 and 70 percent this year.

So the Chopin Society, which runs the competition, and vital support troops like the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Polish television, the Academy of Music and even the Orbis travel agency, are now out to make money.

Both concertgoers and contestants -- this year 140 from 31 countries (30 after Oct. 3 when the two Germanys reunite) -- are footing the bill for free enterprise in the East.

Competition entry fees have increased fourfold since the 10th edition 10 years ago. But more of a strain on the contestants' purses is accommodation. Organizers reimburse expenses to those who make it into the second round, but those eliminated in the first round must pay the bills for 10 days in hotels for themselves, their teachers and their intimates.

This is no great hardship for Westerners, such as the 13-member U.S. Team, which includes Peabody Conservatory graduate Kevin Kenner. But the outlay is intimidating for East Bloc performers, especially those from the Soviet Union, where inspired teaching and superb keyboard techniques have led to a near Soviet monopoly of the top places.

"The Soviets complained," Mr. Bykowski said. "They asked for cheap hotels. They couldn't understand that there aren't any cheap hotels anymore." Warsaw has abolished the two-tier tariff system under which Comecon citizens -- persons living in economically aligned communist countries -- paid only a tenth of the hotel bills charged to Westerners. "They couldn't fathom that now everyone pays the same," Mr. Bykowski said.

Even so, the Soviets are fielding a large contingent of 19 performers, second only to Japan's 20. "It's the first time we have accepted pianists who wrote to us directly, without government sponsorship," Mr. Bykowski said. "So there are several from Lithuania and the Ukraine." A Soviet pianist, Stanislaw Bunin, won in 1985.

If the Soviet contingent is large, a correspondingly large Soviet audience is unlikely. Tickets to the entire series of concerts cost a staggering $995, with the inaugural concert tomorrow and the finalists' concert Oct. 20 costing $340 on top of that.

"These are similar prices to other great events in the world," Mr. Bykowski said defensively, and the Chopin Society's Mr. Palasz added, "We are having no problems with ticket sales."

But some Polish concertgoers are furious.

"The nouveau riche will go for the snob value," retorted Wojciech Adamczewski, a music lover who has always attended the TC competition concerts. "But all the people who really love music and understand it don't have these millions."

Mr. Adamczewski said he couldn't afford any of the concerts this time and that his only hope lay in one of the freebies floating around the now-privileged music world.

Indeed, something like a third of the philharmonic concert hall's 1,300 seats will go free to dignitaries and hangers-on. Organizers have invited Queen Sofia of Spain for the inaugural concert and Queen Fabiola of Belgium for the finalists.

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