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SCRUTINY | Note Resounding: Janina Fialkowska’s Literary Labour of Love

By Joseph So on January 10, 2022

Janina Fialkowska's new book, A Note In Time, was released in November 2021 by Novum Publishing. (Photo: Julien Faugère)
Janina Fialkowska’s new book, A Note In Time, was released in November 2021 by Novum Publishing. (Photo: Julien Faugère)

A Note in Time Janina Fialkowska 372 pages (Novum Publishing 2021) ISBN 978-3-903861-97-8. Available here

For music lovers interested in the written word, there’s nothing quite like experiencing a multifaceted artist, in this case on the piano ivories as well as between the covers of a book. It’s particularly meaningful if it is penned by the artist without the service of a second author, or to put it rather indelicately, a ghost writer. And when it’s as readable as this memoir by Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska, published to coincide with her 70th birthday in 2021, it is a volume to savour and treasure.

Born in Montreal of a Polish immigrant father and a Canadian mother, Fialkowska started piano lessons at four from her mother, entered the prestigious Ecole Vincent-d’Indy at nine, made her Montreal Symphony Orchestra debut at 12. She won 1st Prize in a CBC Radio Competition for Young Performers, and at 19, studied with Sasha Gorodnitzki at the Juilliard. While competing in the 1974 Arthur Rubinstein Competition, she so impressed the great Rubinstein that he took her under his wing and became her champion until his passing in 1982. Fialkowska went on to become one of the most celebrated Canadian pianists of our time.

At nearly four hundred pages, A Note in Time is a formidable yet fascinating read. It starts dramatically, around the time of the planes hitting the New York World Trade Centre during 9/11. Fialkowska wakes up on the operating table from having undergone cancer surgery on her arm at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Centre in Manhattan. One can’t help but be struck by the symbolism of it all — a world-class pianist suffering a health calamity that targets her ability to share her artistry. Yet it did not mark the end, far from it. This memoir underscores her remarkable resilience and strength in overcoming this harrowing adversity, eventually emerging triumphant.

Janina Fialkowska’s 70th birthday recital:

The book is divided into 15 chapters, each named after a well-known piano work that resonates with the various events mentioned in the chapter. For example, Schumann’s Kinderszenen is all about her early life, taking up the piano, first successes at competitions, plus the start of her encounters with many fascinating personages throughout her long career. If I may be forgiven for a nonmusical aside — what a delightful surprise to read that Peter Fialkowski, my favourite CHEX-TV weatherman in Peterborough, where I taught for 33 years at Trent University, is her brother!

Subsequent chapters detail her artistic and life journey, in Paris studying with Madame Yvonne Lefebure, at Juilliard with the famous Gorodnitzki, her preparation to compete in the Chopin competition, and many more events. Interesting are the insightful comments about the politics of piano competitions, ruminations about the music business, live performances versus recordings, et cetera. Her encounters with many musical greats like Solti are endlessly intriguing. But, the most significant of all was her competing in the Rubinstein competition, which turned out to be a life-changing experience. About to leave performing to enter law school, her encounter with Rubinstein changed everything. He became her mentor and fiercest champion. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like some artists, Fialkowska’s life/career journey has had its share of ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks. She suffered an initial crisis in 1978, plagued by self-doubt, physical and mental ailments, which led to her almost giving up her career. Thankfully, she found the inner strength that enabled her to eventually emerge from the abyss. If you think it’s all doom and gloom — no, the memoir is also a fun read. It contains fascinating glimpses of personalities in the classical piano world, a veritable goldmine of people both on stage and behind the scenes, artists established and aspiring, impresarios, agents, promoters, fans, and so on. There is Rubinstein of course, but also Mrs. Rubinstein, Annabelle, Sir Georg Solti, Isaac Stern, and a whole bevy of Canucks, including her colleagues in Piano Six (Angela Hewitt, Angela Cheng, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Andre Laplante, and Jon Kimura Parker). There are also illustrious showbiz personalities like Christopher Plummer, whom she met when she relocated to Connecticut.

Her comments and observations about the people strike one as honest, fair, and sometimes quite funny, but never mean-spirited. Her thoughts on Mrs. Rubinstein illustrate my point — she doesn’t shy away from some unflattering remarks, but you can be sure it is based on firsthand observations and not gossipy. A few who are mentioned in the book who did naughty things remain nameless, like the nun who hid in a broom closet to get advanced information from a competition jury, which she would then pass on to her favourites. One is charmed by Fialkowska’s innate sense of humour — I got a belly laugh at her calling her black post-surgical arm brace “Brace Bumbry!”

Then there are chapters devoted to life on tour, to the UK, Italy, Spain, US, and Canada. It really underscores that the life of an artist isn’t glamorous, the way it can sometimes be portrayed. It can be very trying and unpredictable. But, ultimately it’s also infinitely fulfilling to be doing what every artist loves, to communicate and share one’s musical gift.

The book comes full circle in the last chapter, detailing the author’s cancer episode, dramatically gripping, unsettling yet full of hope. I wished I had heard her play Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand — played on the right hand, with her own finger adaptations. That alone underscores her inner strength and determination. One is struck by the seemingly superhuman memory, down to the minutiae of a particularly delicious meal. I decided to ask her husband, Harry Oesterle. Well, it seems that Janina kept a detailed diary for years. Mystery solved! A few minor quibbles — for the sake of completeness, I would have loved a chronology of her performances, with dates and place names. An index at the end and a discography (live and studio, including broadcasts) would have been terrific, but I imagine the size of the book would become unmanageable. I love the many marvellous photos, but captions underneath each would be nice.

The epilogue gives the reader a glimpse of her current life, near Augsburg, in idyllic Bavaria, plus a few other updates, such as her receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Governor General of Canada. At 70, Fialkowska is not resting on her laurels. She was scheduled to concertize, but the pandemic put an end to that. As I write this, she is scheduled to go on a recital tour in the US and Canada in February, Omicron permitting. She has a great eye for talent, mentoring promising pianists, including the fabulous Warsaw Chopin Competition winner Bruce Liu, whom Fialkowska first singled out for praise at the Rubinstein Competition a few years earlier. Clearly, there are many more notes to be played by Fialkowska, and the future remains to be written.

A from-the-heart, feel-good memoir, highly recommended for all piano lovers.


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Joseph So
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