January 4, 2011

“One Never-Ending Concert:” A conversation with Adam Golka

Adam Golka, Pianist
23-year-old Adam Golka is the winner of two of America’s most prestigious musical awards:  the 2008 Gilmore Young Artist Award and most recently the 2009 Max I. Allen Classical Fellowship Award of the American Pianists Association.  His professional career jumped into high gear in 2003 when, aged just 16, he ranked first in the 2nd China Shanghai International Piano Competition.  Since then, this truly prodigious prodigy has performed more than 300 concerts with such acclaimed orchestras and festivals as the Atlanta, Houston, Dallas Symphonies, the BBC Scottish Symphony, National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa, the Shanghai Philharmonic, the New York City International Keyboard Festival, the Ravinia Festival.  Closer to home for us, he has appeared with Music@Menlo and worked with San Francisco Opera’s Donald Runnicles.

A first-generation American, Golka comes from an immigrant family of Polish musicians.  His mother is a piano teacher, his father a trombonist who now makes his living as a piano technician.  And older brother Tomasz Golka was recently hired as musical director of Riverside County Philharmonic, to fill the void left when Patrick Flynn, their musical director and a frequent Symphony Silicon Valley guest conductor, died suddenly.

Here are Adam’s thoughts on music, life and the difficulty of playing favorites:

Your repertory this season includes many different solo works and concertos by Beethoven, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and others.  Do you have a favorite composer or set of works that has captured your heart?

I am very promiscuous with my musical loves.  Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms – these seven composers’ masterworks leave me in a never-ending state of awe.

Was there one singular moment or one piece of music that triggered your interest in music?

I could say that I remember one, not necessarily so significant piece of music, that got me drawn into music when I was about five years old.  The 6th and last Romanian Dance by Bartok, which is an obligatory piece for piano competitions.  My mother Anna is a piano teacher and she had 30 students coming to the house and taking lessons.  So they’d be preparing for this local contest and many of her students would play this same piece and I sort of picked it up by ear a little bit.  I remember that I was just crazy about it and I couldn’t stop playing it.

That was when his mother discovered his perfect pitch, his nearly photographic memory – and his passion for music.  “”I always tried to get him interested in other things, “ Anna Golka says.  “Baseball, karate, astronomy.  I told him he might come to a time when he couldn’t play the piano.  He looked at me and said ‘When the day comes that I can’t play the piano, I will die.’ “

Who are your favorite non-classical artists?

Well, I occasionally listen to past and present jazz legends like Tatum, Peterson, Fitzgerald, Monk, Jarrett and Mehldau—with enormous enthusiasm.  But I must admit that I am generally quite one-track minded.  There is simply so much “classical music” (I hate this designation; I prefer “art music”) that I am always dying to hear that I never find the time or energy to explore music of a more popular nature.

Some feel that there is no need to record classical music any more, that it’s all been done before.  What do you tell them?

Why did Monet paint lilies over and over?  Why was there an American remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris?  Why are so many films based on books already written, so many songs based on poetry already written?  I cannot answer this question practically, because art is not practical.  People need to say the same things over and over, and in their own unique way.  And that is beautiful.

If you hadn’t chosen music, what do you think you would do right now?

Well, it’s hard to answer this question…  Perhaps I feel like music chose me, and not the other way around.  I couldn’t and wouldn’t be anything other than a musician.  However, if I had the voice for it, I’d love to be a singer—maybe of Wagner.

This past year marked quite a few great firsts for you:  Your Carnegie Hall debut and collaborating with your brother Tomasz to play both of Chopin’s published concertos at the Chopin Society’s 200th Birthday Celebration of Chopin.

For a musician, Chopin’s music is like looking at the Pyramid of Giza.  Chopin is poetry at the piano.  It’s very moving.  It was quite an exhilarating experience celebrating the composer’s birthday this way:  My brother and I are developing a history of playing these pieces together.

You father is a trombonist, your mother a pianist, your brother Tomasz a violinist as well as a conductor and composer.  Did you try any other instruments before settling on the piano?

Yes, violin.  And my condolences to all who have heard me play it!

Is there a musical philosophy that you live by?

I treat my life as one never-ending concert.  In my preparation for concerts I try to find things to latch on to that will help me lose myself in the music and that will help keep an intense level of concentration.  Hopefully it works and my involvement leads me to moments of great mystery and revelation.  When those moments happen, I develop an unquenchable thirst for more and greater moments.

JOIN ADAM GOLKA JANUARY 15 & 16 with Symphony Silicon Valley
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