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A Ballade in a Minor Key

One of the highlights of the academic year for me is a piano recital by Wojciech Kocyan. To hear some of the world’s great music performed live by a virtuoso is a rare opportunity and gift.

Kocyan gave another of his annual concerts this past Saturday evening, on Nov. 19. Murphy Recital Hall was full, and members of the Los Angeles Polish community and his LMU students, who greeted him like a rock star, made up a significant part of the audience.

Born in Poland, Kocyan is clinical assistant professor of music in LMU’s College of Communication and Fine Arts. His is an unassuming title, though it fits Kocyan’s gentle, reflective demeanor. Pass him while walking on campus — wearing an open-collared shirt, corduroys, a satchel slung over his shoulder — and you’d likely guess he’s a grad student. I often think he looks lost in thought, but I imagine he’s lost in sheets and sheets of music. He makes me think that if I had the power to hear people’s thoughts, I’d spend my days at a music conservatory — to eavesdrop on the inspiring scores and compositions coming together in the minds of composers and performers.

Kocyan has performed around the world and conducted master classes in Hungary, Austria, Poland and France. He has recorded several cds, and his DUX cd titled “Skriabin Prokofiew Rachmaninow,” which features his renditions of pieces by Prokofiev, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, was named one of the 50 best classical recording ever made by Gramophone in 2007. He has won awards in competitions for his performances of the work of Frederick Chopin and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, both fellow Poles. LMU’s clinical assistant professor of music is — it hardly needs to be said — quite accomplished.

I met Kocyan a few years ago, when I interviewed him for LMU Magazine. We met in a student lounge, not his office, and I found that relaxing. I also felt some apprehension: My piano instruction was limited. I studied for six years in elementary school from a retired Catholic nun, then for one more in college in Delaware with an accomplished piano major who was a senior, Chris Williams. In recital, Kocyan is likely to perform a Chopin ballade, one Beethoven’s major sonatas, or a portion of Messiaen’s “Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesus.” These are big, exhausting pieces. My piano career peaked with Beethoven’s Op. 49, No. 2 sonata. I think of it as a piece that child prodigies perfect and leave behind at the age of 4.

Kocyan in his interview was thoughtful and precise. He said the artistry of a piece appeals to him more than its technical difficulty, though he takes satisfaction in performing highly challenging compositions. But I’ll never forget his answer to a question I intentionally closed with: “Is there one composer for whom you have such high regard that you believe your life would be different if he had never lived?” His answer was immediate: Mozart. I wasn’t as much struck by his regard for Mozart as by the fact that Kocyan answered immediately. He didn’t say, “Hmmm, a great question. I’ve never thought about that.” In other words — I’ve decided so, at any rate — for Kocyan the work of his musical predecessors shape his life at its core, and that he is quite aware of it. His present is peopled by figures from the past.

For his recital last week, Kocyan included three large works: Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, and Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata. Chopin is my favorite — that he can convey both intense pain and sublime joy within just one or two measures is exquisite. I’m tempted to fantasize that Kocyan enjoys a subconscious connection to the composer because they are both Poles. But I don’t think so. When I began to learn Beethoven’s straightforward Op. 49, my teacher counseled me to not be discouraged that other students were deep into Beethoven’s “Pathétique” or “Appassionata.” “This is the sonata you are learning now, so learn it to fullest,” she said. “Play it to the best you can.” Kocyan seems always to take a moment of preparation before starting a Chopin ballade; I try to never miss it. Just before he places his fingers on the keyboard, he first looks down at his hands in his lap. It’s only a moment, not even two. Rather than calling on Chopin’s spirit, Kocyan, I imagine, instead is calling on his own: It’s a sign of his determination, his promise, to perform the composer’s work as best he can. It strikes me as a sign of his sense of responsibility to the piece, and perhaps to Chopin himself. It’s a moment of commitment. I should ask Kocyan; he would enjoy the question.