Who was Ignacy Jan Paderewski?
Was he a wild-haired rock star adored by audiences across the globe? A fiercely patriotic politician celebrated as the "George Washington of Poland"? A tireless philanthropist who raised millions in aid for war refugees? Or a world-weary traveler who found peace - and a cure for his arthritic hands -- in Paso Robles?
Paderewski's multi-faceted legacy is the focus of the Paderewski Festival, Thursday through Sunday in Paso Robles. The four-day celebration includes concerts, educational events and a film screening, all recognizing Paderewski's connection to the Central Coast.
"This man who changed not only our local history, but also world history, was just a lover of Paso Robles," said festival board member Joel Peterson, director of communications at Hope Family Wines in Paso Robles. "That someone of his character, of his standing in the world, would come back here (repeatedly) was really a testament to what we have here."
Born in 1860 in the village of Kurilovka in southern Poland, now the Ukraine, Paderewski made his professional debut in Paris at age 28. Soon he was headlining sold-out concerts across Europe, thrilling audiences with his striking appearance and magnetic stage presence.
"There were hordes of young women who rushed on stage and tried to snip at his auburn-colored hair," said the festival's artistic director, Marek Zebrowski, who heads the Polish Music Center at the University of Southern California. British painter Edward Burne-Jones once compared the pale-skinned performer with the wild mop of curls to an angel.
Paderewsi made his American debut in 1891 in New York City. His first tour of the United States and Canada, featuring more than 100 concerts over a four-month period, netted $100,000 - a princely sum in those days.
Paderewski would tour North America 20 times over the next four decades, often traveling in a private Pullman rail car equipped with sleeping quarters, a dining room, kitchen and piano. "The United States was the biggest and most ardent fan of Paderewski," said Zebrowski, while the pianist admired that country's democratic government. "America was for many Poles a destination as far as immigration. Paderewski wanted to create ... America in (Poland's) backyard."
According to Zebrowksi, author of the book "Paderewski in California," a January 1914 trip solidified Paderewski's bond with the Central Coast. Seeking relief for his painfully inflamed hands - the result of incessant practicing and performing - the pianist consulted his San Francisco friends, who sent him south to Paso Robles.
Over the next 25 years, the performer returned to the Central Coast frequently for month-long sojourns, staying at the El Paso Inn -- now the Paso Robles Inn -- and "taking the cure" at the local natural hot springs. He eventually purchased two large ranches in the area equaling nearly 3,000 acres: Rancho San Ignacio and Rancho Santa Helena, where he grew wine grapes, fruit orchards and almond trees. (Paderewski also purchased more than 2,600 acres in Santa Maria for the purposes of oil drilling exploration.)
In fact, festival board president Steve Cass, owner of Cass Winery in Paso Robles, credits Paderewski with popularizing zinfandel grapes in the area. "He was one of the first winemakers to make a zinfandel of world quality," Cass said, producing at nearby York Mountain Winery what the Los Angeles Times hailed as one of California's top 10 wines.
Paderewski's contributions to culture didn't end there. When World War I broke out, he traveled the world seeking support for Polish independence - using his celebrity status and well-placed connections to raise millions of dollars in aid for his home country through recitals and speaking engagements.
"He pioneered the artist being the spokesman for the oppressed," Zebrowski said, long before Bono and Willy Nelson.
Ever the patriot, Paderewski appeared as Poland's representative at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which restored Polish sovereignty after more than a century under Russian, Prussian and Austrian rule. The same year, he served as Poland's prime minister and minister of foreign affairs before taking on the role of Polish representative to the League of Nations.
Paderewski retired from politics in 1922, but the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland forced him back into the spotlight. "All this work ... that he did on the behalf of Poland was in ruins (but) he was undaunted," Zebrowski said of Paderewski, who died in 1941 in New York on yet another speaking tour. "He left quite a mark on this society."
Unfortunately, by the 1960s, Paderewski's accomplishments as a performer, composer, diplomat and humanitarian had all but been forgotten. "During communism, he became a persona non grata," Zebrowski said, due to his dedication to Polish liberty.
Then came the Paderewski Festival.
Joel Peterson's grandmother, Virginia Peterson, was among the local history buffs who founded the Paderewski Festival in 1991. Originally an offshoot of Paso Robles' Zinfandel Festival, the festival ran from 1993 to 2000 -- three years before the San Simeon earthquake destroyed its primary performance space, the Flamson Middle School auditorium.
Then in 2006, Zebrowski came to the area seeking a venue for a concert featuring British pianist Jonathan Plowright, dubbed the Paderewski Reprise by organizers. About 100 people attended his recital in the Cass Winery barrel room, including then-Paso Robles Mayor Frank Mecham.
"At the end of the concert, there was a lot of excitement," Cass recalled. Eager to keep that momentum going, he and Zebrowski teamed up with Peterson to form a board of directors and bring the Paderewski Festival back to life.
This year's festival kicks off Thursday at Vina Robles Winery in Paso Robles with a performance by Central Coast favorites Café Musique, known for their eclectic blend of classical, gypsy, swing and tango music. On Friday, Cass Winery presents a night of music and magic with Polish pianist Igor LipiÅ?ski.
Saturday's festivities include a screening of the 1937 film "Moonlight Sonata," which features Paderewski performing works by Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Ludwig van Beethoven as well as his own "Minuet in G," and the unveiling of a 790-pound bronze sculpture of Paderewski originally commissioned by local history buff Hy Blythe and created by Pacific Grove artist Jesse Corsaut. Other copies of the statue, which will stand in City Park in downtown Paso Robles, can be found on the grounds of USC, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and the Polish Embassy in Washington D.C., as well as Blythe's Paso Robles property.
Also on Saturday is a recital at the Paso Robles Inn Ballroom featuring the winners of the Paderewski Youth Piano Competition, open to residents of Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. Students ages 10 to 18 compete for cash prizes, the chance to perform at the Paderewski Festival and the opportunity to participate in a Polish-American cultural exchange program, launched in 2009.
Violinist Kinga Augustyn and pianist Efi Hackmey are slated to headline the festival's gala concert, also Saturday at the Paso Robles Inn Ballroom, performing an all-Polish program of music by Paderewski, Karol Szymanowski and Henryk Wieniawski.
The Paderewski Festival closes Sunday with a guest lecture by Zebrowki and a recital by three Polish exchange students at Halter Ranch Winery in Paso Robles.
Festival organizers said they're eager to share Paderewski's local legacy with the world.
"The Polish government is so excited about what we're doing," said Peterson, who accompanied Cass, Zebrowski and other Central Coast representatives on a 2008 trip to Paderewki's old stomping grounds. "They're so in love with the fact that we're promoting Polish culture in a small town in the middle of California."
Zebrowski agreed, adding, "Every diplomat I've brought to Paso Robles has been amazed that this small American town so cherishes the memory of its most famous part-time resident."