Poland pays homage to its "Elvis"

WARSAW, Poland - Frederic Chopin never painted a mural, never sang jazz, rapped or even wrote an opera, and he never traveled outside of Europe. But organizers of this year's celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of his birth are using all of those elements to bring to life Poland's greatest composer.

Waldemar Dabrowski, the former culture minister in charge of an enormous program of celebrations, calls Chopin the Elvis of the 19th century, remarking on his star status and enormous popularity in the age of romanticism, and he is trying, with some success, to replicate that feeling long after Chopin's death.

“Chopin was the idol of his age. We can be proud of having such an artist,” said Dabrowski, sitting in his cluttered office near Warsaw's Great Theater, surrounded by piles of commemorative Chopin photo albums, posters, books and a box of chocolates dedicated to the composer.

Chopin provides a rare opportunity for Poland to promote itself abroad. Despite being one of the six big nations of Europe, alongside Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain, Poland's intellectual and artistic achievements are of a lower caliber, due in large part to the country's political troubles which forced its people to focus on regaining independence and not on more esoteric pursuits. Probably the only other Pole with a similar name recognition is astronomer Nicholas Copernicus.

“Chopin is really world-class, people all around the world have heard of him, although they don't always associate him with Poland,” says Dabrowski.

This month Warsaw is hosting some of the biggest musical talents in the world for a music festival called “Chopin and his Europe,” which plays with the Chopin theme – either by putting his music in a much more contemporary setting, such as performances by jazz singer Bobby McFerrin and the Paco Pena Flamenco Company, which will present a Chopin flamenco concert, as well as musical troupes playing traditional period instruments.

“From the beginning, a very important part of the event was the original historic sound of the instruments from Chopin's time,” said Stanislaw Leszczynski, the festival's artistic director.

The event is drawing international attention, as will the Chopin contest taking place in Poland in October.

The Polish government has seized on the anniversary as a way to promote the country, drawing on the global popularity of Chopin in order to present a more modern image of Polish culture.

At a cost of more than $100 million, the government has built a world-class Chopin multimedia museum in a formerly derelict palace in the center of Warsaw, as well as benches which play the composer's music to passers-by scattered around the Polish capital – a city Chopin called home before moving to France in 1831, following the defeat of an uprising against Poland’s Russian occupiers.

Once in exile in France, Chopin was consumed with nostalgia for the country he had left behind, and his music incorporates elements of Polish folk tunes. However, unlike other Polish artists who focused on their country's travails, Chopin's music was able to transcend his national origins and appeal to a worldwide audience.

It is that audience that the government is hoping to draw on.

Zelazowa Wola, a small manor house about 35 miles from Warsaw where Chopin was born, has been modernized. In the past it used to be a run-down place with no toilets, a bedraggled gift shop and not much of a draw for anyone to spend much more than a few minutes looking around before fleeing back to Warsaw. Now two new glass, wood and stone pavilions, one housing a restaurant and the other a concert hall, aim to turn Zelazowa Wola into a major tourist destination.

Chopin's global reach was demonstrated at the start of the Chopin celebrations, which kicked off in December with a concert in Beijing (a testament to the composer's enormous popularity in Asia), followed by a Warsaw concert where the headline act was a performance by Chinese pianist Lang Lang. The celebration will end on New Year's Eve in Warsaw, with a performance of Chopin's favorite operas.

Around the world more than 40 committees have sprung up, planning their own events often with no intervention from Warsaw.

“A lot of them were based on local initiatives, and in every case when we asked prominent people to take part and everyone accepted,” Dabrowski said.

Even Poland's infamous lack of organization, which plagues the country's efforts to build infrastructure or plan large-scale events, has not derailed the Chopin celebrations. There has been some overlapping of jurisdictions – one chocolate maker marvels that the foreign ministry, the tourist agency and other bodies all had their own logos and their owns designs for commemorative chocolates, forcing him to make separate production runs – but generally the organization of the year has gone well.

The Hungarians have even been by to take a look, hoping to get pointers for when they they organize the 2011 anniversary of their great composer, Franz Liszt.