Daniel Vnukowski, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I learned to love music through my parents, although ironically neither was a musician. It skipped a generation in my case. However, my mother listened to classical music while she was pregnant with me as a way of assuaging her labour pains, while my dad was an avid collector of LPs. It was always fun to sneak into the basement and have a listen to my favourite conductors – Fritz Reiner, Leopold Stokowski and Otto Klemperer.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Running away from “labels”! We have a natural inclination to categorize and label people, items and places, especially from a marketing perspective. One musician is an early music specialist, while another is a master impressionist. However, we musicians – and humans per se, are much more complex than that. In my teens, I was labelled a Chopinist, which I quickly counteracted by performing the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas using Leon Fleisher’s careful guidance. Then in my mid-30s, I was labelled as a specialist in the field of exiled composers, which I overcame by playing jazz and improvisation.

Now with the new hat of a radio broadcaster for the New Classical FM, based out of Toronto, my music tastes have expanded even further. Stay tuned for the next chapter!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. This performance was the result of serendipity after I had bumped into the Polish conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk during a layover in Warsaw, Poland. A lady approached us while we were sipping on some Wedel hot chocolate and asked us if we would like to take part in the Warsaw Philharmonic’s New Year’s Gala concert. So, Jerzy looked at me and said “Wanna do some Gershwin?” I ended up learning the work in only two and a half weeks.


Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

From a young age, I’ve always been drawn to the poets of the piano – Chopin and Liszt – which you could call my ‘default’ mode. This music requires a keen sense of improvisation, as that is how many of these works were born. It also requires a very particular kind of expression, filled with an imaginative awareness that evokes intense feelings through the interplay of rhythm. One can trace back this approach to the “written-out improvisations” of J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel, who were inspired by the improvised counterpoint techniques of middle-German polyphonic composers.

I’ve always enjoyed improvising on the piano. However, the ability to improvise can also be a double-edged sword. Recording producers are typically frustrated when working with me, because

I’m rather inconsistent between takes, making it difficult to edit out any ‘mistakes’. Shura Cherkassky was apparently similar in this regard. Yes, you may find a few glitches here and there in the final product, but I promise you that I always settle upon the most thrilling take!

The following sonata is one of Beethoven’s most improvisatory from the cycle of 32, loosening up the “Sonata-Allegro form” in ways previously thought impossible.


What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

The ideal mixture of research, practice and play:

I’ve always had a great passion for reading everything from biographies and musical semiotics to post-modernist philosophy. I also enjoy reading books about piano pedagogy, which have helped me hone my piano technique over the years, including books by Joseph Hofmann, Konrad Wolff, C.P.E. Bach, Charles Rosen and Heinrich Neuhaus.

I approach practicing like a laboratory scientist, trying one combination after another, and settling on the one that sounds best. This can yield fascinating results at odd times, like waking up in the middle of the night with the perfect fingering to a musical phrase.

In my opinion, getting away from music is just as important as practicing itself, and I’ve developed numerous hobbies over the years that have forced me to take time away from the piano. One of them is sailing, which I learned thanks to my wife’s family. However, in order to take up this sport, I first needed to learn how to swim, which didn’t happen until I was 30. I guess I was too busy practicing in my youth!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

Exposure to the live performing arts should ideally happen at an early age, as music can provide youth with a consoling, near-divine experience. I was part of a group of six young Canadian pianists that was highly active before the pandemic called Piano Six “Next Generation”, which involved performing in small, remote towns throughout Canada.

I found that youth admire the intimacy and sensuous immediacy of certain classical music works, but a unique approach if often required to break the ice, so to speak. It’s imperative to know how to go off-script while ‘reading’ the room and to quickly find engaging stories that can tap into their imaginations.

There is a tremendous amount of vitality and creativity online nowadays, with a range of living composers discovering unique ways to express the contemporary experience in their music. Influencers are finding parallels between Beethoven symphonies and nacho cheese dips or Buffalo wings. The continuous improvements to technology will only improve their marketability and relevance, while serving as an antidote to the watered-down, detrimental effects of mass commercialisation in the music industry.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

A Carnegie Hall debut is an unforgettable experience for every pianist: the sights and smells of century-old walls, the prevailing, mysterious aura of legendary, bygone pianists and the bloodstains left behind on the keys from the previous night’s performers.

Life was very chaotic for me at the time of my debut with incessant travel periods, too much time away from my family and personal troubles. This concert was like an oasis of comfort from an otherwise neurotic existence. Among other works, I performed Rathaus’ Third Piano Sonata, a work which had not been heard in New York since 1929.

However, the moment I’ll truly never forget was my encore piece – Bill Evans’ Peace Piece. It’s in the style of Chopin’s Berceuse, which is a kind of lullaby with an improvised treble line set to lulling harmonies. It quietly captures the lonely isolation of an artist trying to find one’s voice in a complex world, while walking amidst looming skyscrapers and a bustling metropolis. A perfect choice that resonated with the New York audience.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

I don’t know. Attaining a whisper in a Schubert piano sonata? Watching the eyes light up in a young person hearing Beethoven for the first time? Maintaining a family life while touring? Not forgetting my concert pants? Answering questions with more questions?

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Keep an open mind, don’t be afraid to change teachers and start a music festival.

What is your most treasured possession?

I had the opportunity to work directly with an incredible composer, Walter Arlen. He is a Vienna-born Holocaust survivor who escaped the atrocities of Nazi Germany by settling in the U.S. and working as a music critic for the Los Angeles Times. However, during this time, he kept on composing. His neo-Romantic, poetic works are very much like a frozen snapshot, capturing the zeitgeist of the Interwar-era.

He engaged me to record 4 CDs of his piano, chamber and vocal works. A couple years after that he and his partner Howard sent me a small handwritten, yellow, post-it note together with some Hanukkah gelt that read: “We remember the day we met you near the Stephansdom. That was a lucky day for Walter.”

I carry it with me everywhere I go.

Hailed as “a pianist to watch” by New York Classical Review and “a dashing pianist” by The Sunday Times, Polish-Canadian pianist Daniel Vnukowski (pronounced Vnoo-koff’-skee) has performed throughout Europe, North America, South America and Asia in prestigious concert halls. Dedicated to giving back to the country that nurtured him as an artist, Vnukowski founded “Piano Six – New Generation” to perform outreach concerts for remote communities in Canada and the “Collingwood Summer Music Festival”. Since November 1, 2021, Mr. Vnukowski has been radio announcer of the Classical Jukebox on the New Classical FM, the only full-time classical radio station in English-speaking Canada. Visit ClassicalFM.ca for more information.

During the Covid-19 crisis, Vnukowski’s virtual live streaming project from home has made waves internationally, reaching over half a million viewers. The livestreams have been endorsed by Fazioli Pianoforte and featured on NPR Radio, Classical FM, Ludwig Van Toronto and BBC Music Magazine playlists.

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