In the world of piano competitions, there is perhaps a certain continuity of repertoire selected, with well-known pillars of the literature being featured most prominently. Not so for the Stanisław Moniuszko International Competition of Polish Music – the second edition of which took place this past September – which requires all contestants to perform music exclusively by Polish composers, many hardly known outside of their home country. Indeed, one of the competition’s main objectives is to proliferate the music of unjustly neglected composers. It’s quite fascinating to read through the list of some 56 composers from which the contestants could choose – I suspect even connoisseurs of the piano repertoire will be humbled by the multitude of unfamiliar names! The competition’s namesake – a prominent figure in 19th-century Polish music and culture – also isn’t terribly well-known, though opera buffs might be acquainted with Halka and pianophiles with the Carl Tausig fantasy on the same.

Carter Johnson
© Wojciech Grzędziński

This year’s first prize winner in the piano division went to the Vancouver native Carter Johnson. During our Zoom conversation, he tells me that capturing the top prize “was very exciting, which is an obvious answer, but in this case, there is the added satisfaction of having learned an unusual amount of new music, way beyond what I would normally do for an average competition. And the satisfaction of putting in all of that additional work was really wonderful.”

It was in fact the interesting repertoire that chiefly drew Johnson to this competition. “I was reading about a lot of piano competitions that were happening in person again,” he explains, “and the repertoire for the Polish Music Competition was totally unusual. When I started listening to it I found it really intriguing, and so I thought that this would be something that was worth investing a lot of time in.” As far as selecting a program from the plethora of options at hand, Johnson notes that “it took a long time to choose. I listened to a couple of pieces from every composer on the list. First of all, I tried to only learn music that I thought was really great and that I really liked, but not only did I have to like it, I wanted to have a programmatic cohesion. I deliberately put in some pieces that were easier alongside the more difficult ones, which I think was a very good move for both myself and the listener."

Certainly one of the biggest challenges as a competitor in this event is the sheer volume of music to be learned. Johnson remarks: “this was a new challenge for me. Never before have I had to learn so many new pieces in such a short amount of time.” In addition, unlike the works of Chopin which have nearly innumerable recordings to reference, few if any such reference points exist for the repertoire in question. While a further challenge, it also allowed for a certain degree of artistic latitude, as Johnson explains: “I played a short prelude by Pachulski, and there were no recordings that I could find, but it was almost freeing: I felt totally free, within the bounds of good taste, to do what I wanted with this piece.”

As far as pieces that posed particular challenges both technically and artistically, Johnson highlights the impressive Piano Sonata no. 2 by Grażyna Bacewicz, although this was one work he had under his fingers prior to the Competition. He further notes that the Szymanowski etudes were “very, very hard to memorize and interpret” and speaking of a Gavotte by Władysław Żeleński, he says that it was “not so hard to play the notes, but it was hard to get the character right, to get the charm.”

After saturating himself in the Polish repertoire, Johnson observes that “harmonically speaking, you get a lot of variety in this music, which I liked very much, but I would say that the one thing that is the most special feature that runs throughout all of this music, despite how different it can be, is the aspect of rhythm, and particularly the aspect of dance. The really unique flavor that Polish music has in terms of the dance rhythms, I like to view as the thread through which my programs were held together.” Additionally, the pianist explains how familiarity with Chopin served as essential preparation, and perhaps the most remarkable discovery was evidence of Chopin’s immediately recognizable style in works that predated him. “A lot of people commented that the repertoire sounds like Chopin, but not all of it was written after Chopin. So Chopin didn't just come out of nowhere: there were composers before him where you can see the germ of what he was doing in what they were doing. For example, in the nocturnes by Maria Szymanowska, I couldn't believe how much of what people would identify as Chopin is in this music.”

Matters culminated in a concerto round, for which the contestants could choose from a list of eleven works (and no, Chopin’s two evergreen entries in the medium were not amongst the options). Johnson returned to Bacewicz, performing her 1949 piano concerto with the Artur Malawski Podkarpacka Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. “The concerto was a lot of fun to play,” Johnson tells me. “There are only two recordings of it that I could find, both of which were helpful to me, but in the weeks approaching the competition I also felt myself diverging from those in some ways, in some places where I felt the music differently, which is the beauty of what we do. And it was just very rewarding to play. The orchestra has a very big role, playing almost all the time, frequently with the main melody while I have decorations. I love that because I love chamber music. And so to me, a lot of the concerto was like chamber music.”

On his time spent as a contestant, Johnson highlights the festive atmosphere, as perhaps best symbolized by the bold redecorating of the facade of the Philharmonic Hall in Rzeszów, the Competition’s primary venue. He continues: “the Competition was very well organized. Everything was just totally official, and I got the impression that they really cared and were very dedicated to making it a big and successful event, and it absolutely was.”

Reflecting back on his past teachers who helped guide him to this career milestone, Johnson first draws attention to some twelve formative years spent studying with Shelley Roberts, starting at age five. “I had some positive comments during the Polish Music Competition that particularly pertained to the liveliness of character, the sudden character shifts, and the dramatic effect of some of these things in my playing. And I definitely credit her with making that part of my musical vocabulary, because she would dance and sing and wave her arms and conduct while I was playing in lessons – she didn't just sit there and then comment. So if I hadn't studied with her when I was younger, I might be a totally different pianist, and maybe one that wouldn't have won this competition.”

Carter Johnson performing at the Stanisław Moniuszko International Competition of Polish Music
© Wojciech Grzędziński

Subsequent studies took Johnson to the University of British Columbia where he completed a Bachelor of Music under Mark Anderson, followed by a Master of Music at Juilliard, studying with Matti Raekallio and Joseph Kalichstein. He is currently pursuing a Master of Musical Arts at the Yale School of Music, where he is a pupil of Wei-Yi Yang, with whom he had a mere two lessons prior to the Polish Music Competition. These offered some invaluable last-minute preparation, however, as “he encouraged me to keep at the forefront of my mind a couple of things that I thought were the most special about each piece, the most unique about its character, the most special about its flavor, and let those be the things that I share with people.”

Looking ahead, Johnson already has a number of concert engagements on the calendar as part of his first prize package. Expressing his gratitude, he notes that “the first prize carries a lot of concert engagements, which is totally wonderful. In a lot of these competitions at this level, you might get one or two concerts and then you're forgotten, but with this one, it's not the case. I may be learning another concerto by a Polish composer and my repertoire will definitely be more infused with Polish music.” Johnson also has his eyes on additional competitions, and credits the Polish Music Competition with helping him “get back into shape for competitions,” with this being his first major event emerging out of the pandemic. “It refreshed me and reminded me of what's required for preparation, and the amount of effort that it takes to get your repertoire in shape and ready for competition.” 

With such plenitude of upcoming performances and a wealth of intriguing repertoire, this is a sure sign of exciting things to come.

This article was sponsored by The National Institute of Music and Dance