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PPO music director Grzegorz Nowak: ‘This orchestra deserves a much larger audience’

The award-winning Polish conductor leads the orchestra with Russian piano soloist Nikolay Khozyainov on Nov. 17

New PPO music director Grzegorz Nowak

When Polish music director Grzegorz Nowak leads the PPO on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, at Samsung Theater at the Circuit Makati, he will surely relive working with his legendary soloists, among them pianist Martha Argerich, who is a good friend of pianist Cecile Licad.

The piano soloist in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor is a young Russian named Nikolay Khozyainov, a prizewinner in the Dublin and Sydney International Piano competitions.

Russian pianist Nikolay Khozyainov.

The concert is PPO’s way of celebrating the 150th birthday of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

For concert-goers, the new Russian soloist will most likely face comparison with Cecile Licad, who is closely associated with the Second Rachmaninoff concerto.

The Filipino pianist has recorded Rach 2 with the Chicago Symphony under the eminent conductor Claudio Abbado. The Licad–Abbado Rachmaninoff recording hit the top billboard charts in the late ’80s and the ’90s, and was favorably compared with the interpretations of Martha Argerich and Van Cliburn.

It was also with the same concerto that Licad debuted with the Boston Symphony under the baton of Seiji Ozawa at the Tanglewood Festival in Lennox, Massachusetts, where some 8,000 people cheered her.

The next day, her picture landed in the New York Times, with the venerable critic Harold Schonberg writing that there was plenty to admire: a big accurate technique, precise articulations, power, temperament, and the courage to try to make the popular concerto into something more than a virtuoso piece.

When her first Rach 2 was heard in Chicago, critic Robert Marsh wrote: “Cecile Licad is one of the great flaming talents that come along one or two times in every generation, and she can produce a great soaring tone from the piano in a class of Rachmaninoff himself.”

Moreover, Licad and Khozyainov have one thing in common: They have both performed at the famous Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow as soloists of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra.

Khozyainov has pretty good notices from New York audiences. From Dave Saemann of Fanfare: “He has everything: a big sound, splendid technique, and a musicality far beyond his years. “

The New York Times: “The music world is taking note of Nikolay Khozyainov’s stunning virtuosity and prodigious technique.”

Through the years, the Polish conductor has learned to work peacefully with soloists.

In an email interview with, he notes: “Some conductors impose their own interpretations on soloists. Karajan was the biggest example. Bernstein supposedly had a famous ‘disagreement’ with Glenn Gould when performing the Brahms concerto in New York. However, he did not try to impose his interpretation (no one could impose anything on Gould). But before the performance, he told the audience that ‘This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto.’ Media commented on it negatively, as if the conductor betrayed his colleague. But Bernstein wrote that it was a false presumption because he ‘never loved him more.'”

The Polish conductor is aware that soloists put in many months and even years of work before they come up with original and unique interpretations. “It is not fair for a conductor to ask them to change it within a day or two. On the contrary, conductors should adjust and fully embrace whatever interpretation soloists are proposing.”

The conductor is also aware that with more excellent schools and talented, dedicated teachers, young excellent players are emerging now more than ever before. “Technical perfection is much better, but musicality and personality still are and always will be the main factors that separate ‘cold,’ perfectly efficient performers from true musical geniuses.”

‘Musicality and personality still are and always will be the main factors that separate “cold,” perfectly efficient performers from true musical geniuses’

Another Russian soloist he has worked with is the distinguished cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who also debuted as soloist with PPO in 1982. In another engagement Manila engagement, Rostropovich led the PPO with Licad as soloist in the Saint-Saens piano concerto.

The new PPO music director (third from right) with former CCP president Margie Moran Floirendo (fourth from left), president of the PPO Society Foundation Nedy Tantoco (second from right), CCP artistic director and vice president Dennis Marasigan (leftmost),  soprano Rachelle Gerodias and  baritone Byeong In Park

Recalls the Polish conductor: “I worked with Rostropovich for an entire month performing several concerts during the Festival Musique en Mer, which is a tour on board the ship Mermoz with concerts in Mediterranean ports. With Rostropovich, we performed the Dvorák Cello concerto, Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, Haydn Cello concerto No. 1, and the Beethoven Triple Concerto. It was a month of wonderful experience and fantastic music making. Rostropovich complemented me by saying that nobody gave him better accompaniments.”

Founded in 1973 as an accompanying orchestra of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Philippine Philharmonic—as it has been known since 1982—has evolved from the time of its first music conductor, Maestro Luis Valencia.

Its first concertmaster was Julian Quirit, who is now based in Sydney and who has conducted the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras.

Among its winning moments before it became the PPO was its first team-up with piano prodigy Cecile Licad who, in 1975, played three concertos in one evening. This was when the ensemble was still known as the CCP Philharmonic.

The members of the PPO

It had its first foreign distinguished soloist in American diva Beverly Sills, who sang at the Meralco Theater in 1969 under the baton of the PPO founder Maestro Valencia.

Maestro Novac considers his first team-up with Martha Argerich as musically fabulous and also quite dramatic.

A younger Cecile Licad and Martha Argerich with other distinguished artists in Germany

Recalls the Polish Maestro: “It was some 10 years after she quit the jury of the Chopin International Competition to protest the case of Ivo Pogoreli, who was not allowed to be one of the finalists, even though he was one of the best. Only one rehearsal was scheduled in the morning. She did not show up and the manager told me that she will not perform, because all the night she did not get any sleep, quarelling with her partner, Alexandre Rabinovitch, and that they were still ‘fighting’ in hotel room. I suggested that the radio should offer to Rabinovitch a guided tour of Warsaw, so that she could get some sleep and we would perform the Chopin concert in E-minor without rehearsal.  When she arrived in the evening, she drank several cups of coffee and said that she could not perform. She was too tired and her hands were shaking. I suggested that she should at least let the audience see her for a few minutes, during orchestral opening, and if she did not play at all, or would stop at any moment, I would explain it to the audience.”

They played the Chopin introduction with all their heart, hoping that she would play at least one movement.

The conductor continues: “She liked what we played and performed like a goddess with flawless technique, full of passion, drama, temperament, love, tenderness, melancholy—a totally inspired, perfect, dream-like performance.”

The concert was broadcast live on Radio Varsovia. The clever manager asked her if she would agree to release a CD with this wonderful performance. When she said yes, he pulled a printed agreement and asked her to sign.

He continues the recollection: “That’s how a very unusual CD was issued, with a typical program from concerts: overture, piano concerto, and symphony. The CD got fantastic reviews, with Diapason in Paris hailing it as ‘indispensable…must collector’s item. ‘“

He is starting to get acquainted with the members of the PPO. “I am learning about the varied customs of this populous country with its rich and colorful history and cultural tradition. Working with these musicians and seeing how quickly they make progress in rehearsals give me joy and satisfaction. By working hard and with dedication, we can propel this ensemble to become one of the best orchestras in the world.”

‘I only wish that competitions would stay objective and fair and do not turn more into competitions of teachers rather than young talents’

While he is not totally sold on joining competitions, he admits that winning one is the quickest way to get noticed and get invited to concerts with excellent orchestras and in famous venues. “I only wish that competitions would stay objective and fair and do not turn more into competitions of teachers rather than young talents.”

A top prizewinner of the Dublin International Piano Competition and the Sydney International Piano Competition, Khozyainov  has performed at Carnegie  Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, Kennedy Center in Washington, Wigmore Hall in London, The Louvre and Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Salle Gaveau in Paris, Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, Sydney Opera House, among others.

The first Polish conductor to lead the Philippine Philharmonic, Maestro Nowak was principal associate conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and was music director of the Polish National Opera in Warsaw from 2017 to 2020. (Filipino tenor Arthur Espiritu will debut with the Polish National Opera in April 2024.)

Nowak studied conducting, composition, and violin at the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Academy of Music in Poznan, Poland, before receiving his doctorate degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He obtained a Serge Koussevitsky Fellowship at Tanglewood, where he later became Kurt Masur’s assistant. He won the prestigious Ernest Ansermet Conducting Competition in Geneva and bagged all the special awards, including the Grand Prix Patek Philippe, the Rolex Prize, the Swiss Prize, and the American Patronage Prize.

The maestro was pleased with his opening concert with PPO last September. “The orchestra lived up to my expectations with that very good concert. The Filipino audience is warm, friendly, and supportive. But with such a large venue, we need a larger audience. This orchestra deserves a much larger audience.”

A top winner of the Ernest Ansermet International Conducting Competition, Maestro Nowak recalls the maestros who inspired him when he was just starting. “When I saw on TV the concerts with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, I decided that I absolutely had to study with these masters. I made it happen, thanks to my winning the Koussevitzky fellowship at Tanglewood (the summer season of Boston Symphony Orchestra and master classes for students with world most famous artists). Among conductors I worked with were such superstars as Eric Leinsdorf, Kurt Masur, and Maurice Abravanel. But Bernstein and Ozawa were my heroes and both had the biggest influence. When a few years later I assisted Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic and showed him our photo from Tanglewood, he commented with a smile, ‘We were both much younger then.’”

His advice to aspiring conductors: “Practice, practice, practice.”

The full program on Nov. 17 PPO concert: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin: Polonaise, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 & Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. All PPO concerts will be held at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater, Circuit Makati. Tickets are priced at P3,000 (Orchestra Center), P2,500 (Loge Center), P2,000 (Orchestra Side), P1,500 (Loge Side), and P800 (Balcony 1). For tickets, call CCP at tel. no. (0999) 884-3820 or TicketWorld at tel. nos. 8891-9999 or (0931) 033-0880.

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves film, theater and classical music. Known as the Bard of Facebook for his poems that have gone viral on the internet, he is author of a first book of poetry, Love, Life and Loss – Poems During the Pandemic and was one of 160 Asian poets in the Singapore-published anthology, The Best Asian Poetry 2021-22. An impresario on the side, he is one of the Salute awardees of Philippines Graphic Magazine during this year’s Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. His poem, Ode to Frontliners, is now a marker at Plaza Familia in Pasig City unveiled by Mayor Vico Sotto December 30, 2020.

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