The Internationally Acclaimed & Gifted Daniel Wnukowski
From Windsor Life Magazine, Feb/March 2008 Edition
STORY BY LORI NEWTON
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RAMZA SARUNA
Every now and again throughout history, a child is discovered to possess such extraordinary talent at such an incredibly young age that it seems almost too unbelievable to be true. Whether they are in science, languages, the arts, athletics, or some other human endeavour, we call them child prodigies and we watch them in awe. Among musical prodigies we can point to Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart, Chopin, Paganini, Yehudi Menuhin and Yo-Yo Ma — all who displayed exceptional musical gifts at a very young age. The restof us mere mortals can only wonder what it might be like to possess so much awe inspiring talent.
Virtuoso pianist and Windsor native, Daniel Wnukowski can tell you all about being a child prodigy. “I did not choose to do music,” he says, “rather, music chose me.” While he was a mere three and a half years old—too small to even reach the pedals of the piano – he begged his parents to let him play the instrument. Both parents were artistically inclined, and they had taken the toddler to a music store where he had been fascinated by a glass piano. “You could see everything inside,” he recalls, “and I wanted to start playing.”
His parents were dubious about the seriousness of the child’s request but after persistent pleading, they agreed to engage a music teacher. Alas,the music teacher refused to accept such a young student until he could at least read. He advised the parents to wait as, in his opinion, the boy was far too young to be able to concentrate to the degree required to learn to play an instrument. Undaunted, and by then convinced of her son’s genuine desire to play, his mother put him on an “intense reading diet” and was gratiﬁed to discover that her son soon proceeded to devour book after book. It was not long before the piano teacher conceded to give the boy a try, only to discover that Daniel was able to focus longer than most of his other, much older, students.
By age ﬁve, Daniel was enrolled in the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and within a year the precocious child was composing classical pieces for piano. From there, the list of accomplishments is impressive. At 14, Daniel performed for government diplomats and officials at the Polish Embassy in Ottawa, making him the youngest pianist ever to perform there. At 16, he performed a recital for 2,000 people at the National Theatre in Warsaw, Poland to commemorate the outbreak of World War II—a performance that was broadcast internationally on European television. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Canada with his teacher Piotr Paleczny to perform at the Living Arts Centre Concert Hall in Toronto, a concert that was proclaimed by UNESCO to be the Canadian inauguration of the “International Year of Chopin Celebration”. At 19, Daniel’s Chopin recital in Ottawa was recorded live by Radio-Canada for broadcast across the country, and in 2006, his performance of Brahms’ 2nd Piano Concerto with the Polish Radio Orchestra was recorded for Polish radio stations.
There have, of course, also been numerous winning competitions over the years. When he was four, he won his ﬁrst 1st prize trophy at a local competition – standing while he performed because he couldn’t reach the pedals. As a teen, Daniel was a multiple winner of the top pianist award at Ontario Kiwanis Festival Competitions, and he graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Music at age 15, earning his ARCT diploma with a grade of 95. He won ﬁrst prize at the National Chopin Piano Competition in Poland, he was a laureate of the XI International Chopin Competition in Szafarnia, Poland, and he was singled out at the XIV Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw for his unique interpretations and compelling performances of Chopin’s music.
Born with an extraordinary gift and a musical destiny to fulfill, at 26 years of age Daniel is no longer a child prodigy, but his remarkable musical gifts and his youthful energy have captured the hearts of audiences around the world. Despite his youth, he is already recognized internationally as a mature pianist and he can look back with pride upon a series of performances he has held in prestigious concert halls across Europe, Asia, and North America, including the National Philharmonic in Warsaw, Poland, the Concertgebouw Music Hall in Amsterdam, Holland, the Salle Pleyel in Paris, France, and the Stadt
Casino in Basel, Switzerland – and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario where his recent virtuoso performance brought tears to the eyes of many who were in the audience that evening! But the successes have come at a great personal cost, and Daniel will tell you that his has not been an easy path to follow. The lives of child prodigies are often tragic, and Daniel credits his supportive parents and the rich education he has received from some of the world’s top artists and teachers for the relatively positive experiences he has enjoyed. Nevertheless, high school in Windsor was tough for a teen who was passionate about classical music and whose life revolved around playing music. “For a long time I was married to the piano. I saw nothing else—just laborious hours of practicing, sometimes sitting at the piano for 72 hours straight!”
At 16, Daniel was traveling and performing across Europe and studying in Poland where he enjoyed the culture of the Chopin Academy in Warsaw. He returned to North Arnerica and completed his studies at the Peabody Institute of Baltimore at John Hopkins University under the guidance of Leon Fleisher, who invited him to accompany him to France to perform in a chamber music class there. Following his graduation, he travelled extensively through California before returning again to Europe. Then, in 2006, he was invited to participate in the prestigious Lake Como International Piano Academy in Italy where he was chosen as one of only seven pianists out of 500 applicants – a dream of a lifetime. And that is where Daniel remains today, enjoying the beauty of Northern Italy and an immersion in the beauty of the music he loves so deeply.
Between studying and performing, Daniel made many trips home to visit and spend time with his family in Windsor and he has quietly and generously given back to our community through a number of performances, including benefit concerts he gave for former Windsor Symphony musician Henryk Uziel. Home again this past December, Daniel was very pleased to have an opportunity to give back once again, this time to create a special evening at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church with proceeds going to help a local 16 year old girl battling leukemia. “The Windsor audience has always been very supportive and I wanted to give back to the community,” he says with genuine pleasure. That evening was a truly magical one for all who attended. Daniel’s technique mesmerized the audience as his fingers flew ever faster across the keys ﬁnding meaning and beauty within the score … his body and mind perfectly absorbing and giving life to the music he was interpreting.
Daniel concedes that he faces some tough challenges ahead. “Classical artists tend to be grim and morose,” he says ruefully. “They are individuals with passion, personality … and quirks.” Although he has suffered through his share of depression, he remains an optimist at heart and is quick to point out that Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Chopin all suffered debilitating tragedy in their lives and yet all overcame the sadness and despair by creating incredible music that “bottoms out in hell yet rises to sublime heights”. When Daniel interprets their work, you sense that he is living and breathing their pain and their joy as his hands fly across the keys as though with a direct link to his heart—connecting the audience with the very spirit of the music he is playing.
And the future? All he can say is that he can’t imagine what lies ahead beyond school in Italy. He senses a grassroots reawakening of an appreciation for classical music and he is excited about the independence being achieved by many classical artists today. Most importantly for his home town fans, Daniel promises to keep returning and bringing with him the music that never stops playing in his heart and his soul.