WARSAW Poland is celebrating the 200th birthday of one of its most famous sons, composer Frederic Chopin, with a week-long marathon of recitals of his music, a commemorative bank note and a new state-of-the-art museum.
Internationally famed pianists including China's Lang Lang, Israel's Daniel Barenboim, Polish prodigy Rafal Blechacz and American Garrick Ohlsson are playing to packed concert halls and Chopin's wistful face gazes from posters on every street corner.
Long considered a national treasure, Chopin's bicentenary provides a timely opportunity to market Poland as a land of high culture, firmly back in the European mainstream after a tragic 20th century, and should help lure large numbers of tourists.
But a recent poll shows many ordinary Poles know woefully little about their illustrious compatriot and some say Poland would honor Chopin's memory much better by investing more in music education than in paying foreign artists to come here.
With experts split on whether Chopin was born on February 22 or March 1, 1810, festival organizers have decided to bridge the two dates with round-the-clock recitals of his work lasting 171 hours at a neo-classical building in Warsaw's old town.
"People of all ages are coming to our recitals and that is exactly what we were aiming for," said Edyta Duda-Olechowska, one of the organizers.
"Pensioners who have not been to a concert for more than 10 years are very happy, they can't believe it is all for free."
Japanese pianist Ai Kayukawa, 25, performed on Monday evening, one of the first of around 250 musicians taking part.
"When I started listening to Chopin (back in Japan), it was the beauty that struck me. That is why I decided to come and study music here in Warsaw," she said.
Chopin's oeuvre, ranging from elegiac sonatas and concertos to lively Mazurka folk dances, is revered in Japan and China as well as in the West and concerts marking his bicentenary will be held in many countries, including at the Shanghai Expo 2010.
NOSTALGIA IN EXILE
Poland's central bank has unveiled a special 20 zloty bank note bearing Chopin's image and a refurbished, multi-media museum devoted to Chopin's life, housed in a Warsaw palace, will open its doors on his second "birthday" next Monday.
A new concert hall has opened on the renovated estate of Zelazowa Wola near Warsaw, also a museum, where Chopin was born to a Polish mother and French father 200 years ago.
Chopin left Poland at the age of 20 and spent most of his adult life in Paris but he remained a staunch patriot and his work is suffused with nostalgia for his homeland, at that time partitioned between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Prussia.
In exile, he counted fellow composers Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz and artist Eugene Delacroix among his friends. He had a turbulent love affair with the female novelist George Sand. Dogged by poor health, he died in 1849.
"The language Chopin's music speaks is perhaps the most intimate in the whole canon of Western music," wrote historian Adam Zamoyski in his book "Chopin, Prince of the Romantics."
"It transcends everything we know about the man and draws the listener into a world of spirit which is the very essence of the Romantic artistic experience."
Yet despite all the hype and enthusiasm surrounding his bicentenary, a poll cited by the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper said only three percent of Poles professed interest in Chopin's music and barely a third recognized his work.
Sociologist Barbara Pabjan, who conducted the poll, told the daily that Poles were proud of Chopin but his national status prevented them from enjoying him on his own merits.
"Chopin has become an icon of mass culture, his image is on chocolate wrappers, on vodka bottles, on stamps. But when we asked questions measuring deeper knowledge of him, the results were worse," she said, adding that only six percent of those surveyed associate Chopin's music with the romantic style.
SPREADING THE WORD
Increasing Polish appreciation for Chopin's music hinges on reform of an education system which puts too much stress on the passive learning of dry facts, Pabjan said, a view strongly echoed by Richard Berkeley, a Warsaw-based British musician.
Berkeley has written a musical based on Chopin's life which he is now taking to schools around the country in an effort to introduce children to the joys of all music.
"In most state schools there is no music at all. This is scandalous. We want to take advantage of this Chopin year, when there is a bit more awareness of who he was, to make people aware that music really matters," Berkeley said.
"We get the children to act and sing and dance," he said, adding that the musical included different kinds of music.
"If you don't have Chopin in schools, if he is confined to the concert halls of the elite, how can you spread the word?"
Under the project, partly financed by the government, Poland's BRE Bank will donate money to schools whose teachers and parents are able to show they are getting involved.
Berkeley, who runs his own orchestra and choir, said the bicentenary should honor Chopin as an innovator and visionary.
"In one sense, Chopin is the antithesis of modern Poland, a society full of rules... because he is a man who broke all the rules... He is a role model for young Poles because he was ready willy nilly to follow his own instincts, ideas and creativity," he said.
"Chopin would not have survived in a music academy today."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)