This following interview written by the classical music critic Mary Kunz Goldman was published in the Buffalo News on May 8, 2011.
As a pianist on the cusp of his career, Igor Lipinski holds a special card in his hands. His performances are magical. Literally.
Lipinski, 24, not only has talent, he has it in spades. And hearts, clubs and diamonds. Let him explain: “The last movement of the Bach Toccata in E Minor is a fugue. I play the piece — it’s three minutes long, a fast, energetic, wonderful, exciting piece. Then I explain it,” he says. Ah, the method to his magic. Lipinski continues: “I explain how the main subject consists of 64 notes, huge complexity. And I tell them in order to keep memory fresh, pianists must discipline themselves to keep track of all these things at once.” Presto! A deck of cards appears. A volunteer shuffles the deck and for 15 seconds — counted down by metronome — Lipinski studies the cards. When time is up, he starts playing the fugue, while calling out every card, in order, as the volunteer holds them up for all to see. Lipinski laughs, describing the trick. “I call it, ‘Fantasy on the Mind of a Virtuoso.'” Music and magic have always been bedfellows — strange bedfellows, but bedfellows all the same. Liszt and Paganini, great virtuosi of the 19th century, were sometimes seen as sorcerers. The mysterious art of hypnosis inspired Rachmaninoff to write his Second Piano Concerto. Mike Jones, the virtuosic jazz pianist from South Buffalo, has built a career in Las Vegas playing for hip, tell-almost-all magicians Penn and Teller. Lipinski, a Penn and Teller fan, has also performed with them. He has met Jones, and admires him. “I think he’s marvelous,” Lipinski says. Robert Merlin Davis, a Buffalo jazz pianist who moonlights entertaining as a wizard, often sees musicians at magic conventions. The two arts, he muses, are kin. “Ideally, in both magic and music, the technique should serve the expression of moving somebody,” he says. But in at least one way, Lipinski has made history. With a big poof! Rochester’s Eastman School of Music has created, under the heading of Musical Arts, a dual degree in music and magic — just for him. “I must say, humbly, that this is the first time in the U.S. — as far as I know — that anyone majored in both music and magic at a college-level institution,” Lipinski says. An intense Google search suggests he is right. Mary Ann Rokitka, a Polish Cultural Foundation board member who helped arrange the concert, raves about his act. “The way he does it, it’s really mystical,” Rokitka says. “It’s sort of transcendental.”
From boyhood to Buffalo
Were time travel possible, Lipinski would head for Paris in the 1860s. “On one street you might find Franz Liszt playing one of his innovative piano pieces,” he says. “On the other side you would see Robert-Houdin [from whom Harry Houdini took his name], the father of modern magic.” But because he has not yet cracked the secrets of time travel, Lipinski has found his destiny in a less likely location. Buffalo. Seven years ago, with long, wavy hair tumbling over his shoulders, he starred at UB in “Paderewski’s Children,” a play by UB professor Kazimierz Braun in which Paderewski was played by a marionette. In 2008, he performed a concerto by Paderewski with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director JoAnn Falletta. Buffalo was the reason Lipinski left his small town in Poland and came to America. It was a move he never saw coming. As a boy, he was mesmerized by both music and magic. “My great-grandfather was not a magician per se, but he would perform. He would come to our house and entertain the children, including me,” he says in his atmospheric Polish accent. “Now I am not lying. A year before he died, he brought a small accordion to my house. We didn’t have an instrument. I must have been 5 or so. I always say he brought music and magic into my life.” He pauses. “I got a book of card magic from his house when he passed away. I was obsessed with magic. I would practice 12 hours a day. When I look at it now, this is the way to go about everything. The passion.” At 12, Lipinski became the youngest magician in Poland’s magicians association. That same year, he won a piano prize that included a stay at a chateau once owned by Paderewski.
‘Hi, my name is Igor’
When he was 17, fate stepped in. “I was in a class in Tarnow, my hometown,” he says. “It’s a small town. The music high school is across the street from a theater. One of my friends came to me and said, ‘Igor, there is a theater director from America directing a play. He is looking for a pianist for a play about Paderewski.’ I’m like ‘Whoa.’ I already had the Paderewski connections. And I had the haircut.” Lipinski crossed the street and introduced himself to the American — who, it turned out, was Kazimierz Braun. “I told him, ‘Hi, my name is Igor. I’m a pianist,'” Lipinski says. Soon he was in Buffalo. And the wheel of fortune turned again. Between rehearsals, friends took him to visit the Eastman School, where Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki was giving a master class. Lipinski met Douglas Humpherys, who became his teacher. “Buffalo started my American connection,” Lipinski marvels. “I had never thought about coming to America.” Lipinski’s performances in Buffalo have won acclaim. His dreamy playing of Chopin in “Paderewski’s Children” earned praise in The Buffalo News. When he played Paderewski with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, News critic emeritus Herman Trotter called him “marvelously assured.” Today’s performance will feature the music of another Igor — Stravinsky — as well as the fevered creations of Dmitri Shostakovich, Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla and the mystical 19th century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. “The audience will want an encore,” Lipinski promises. “I’ll have something up my sleeve.” And what happens after that? What do the cards hold for Lipinski’s future? With his college days drawing to a close, he is ready to make his mark in music and magic. “I’m on an F-1 student visa,” he says. “I’ve applied for a year’s extension that will enable me to stay in the United States. I’ll be self-employed in the arts. It will be a wonderful time of exploration. “I want to see what real life looks like, the real world.”