A few years ago Kornel Wolak decided to let the flip of a coin decide whether or not he would stay in Toronto.
Standing on some rocks by the shore of Lake Ontario in Etobicoke, the celebrated clarinetist made his decision — heads he stays, tails he goes.
“I threw the coin up, it hit my palm, then it bounced and fell in between two huge rocks on the shore,” he said, calling the whole scenario a romantic approach to fortunetelling. “I got down on my knees and I’m trying to find the coin because I can kind of see it, then I thought ‘No, no, wait a minute — it doesn’t matter what side it fell on, it’s going to be what I decide from now on’.
“So I decided whatever opportunities are coming my way, I’m going to take advantage of them,” he added. “And it turns out they led me toward being in Canada.”
Now making his home only steps away from High Park, he says he can’t imagine living anywhere else. Born and raised in Wloclawek, Poland, Wolak left his homeland to study in Indiana. He came to Toronto in 2005 after receiving a scholarship from the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Though his studies took him halfway across the planet, his performances have allowed him to travel the world over. From August through November, Wolak was in Europe, Brazil, Regina, Ecuador and played in and around Toronto.
He’s played everything from packed concert halls for 500, to small shows of 60, like one he did in Truro, Nova Scotia just before speaking to the Town Crier. Though he enjoys playing all of the shows, he noticed something about the performances he does in smaller communities.
“When we went to these concert halls where we had 400 people, I didn’t sell half the CDs I sold here,” he said. “So I can see there is this need, this thirst for culture in these small communities. The appreciation of the concert was so sincere.”
On the tour through the East Coast, Wolak had the opportunity to stop in at some schools as well to talk with music classes.
“The school shows are usually about making the students understand that music is a means of expressing oneself and that it is a language,” he said. “One uses music to express certain feelings and learning how to play an instrument is like acquiring tools for how to express those feelings in the most efficient way.”
Wolak says he enjoys how children don’t just take interest in the successes of his career and the places he’s traveled to because of it, but that they want to know how he got there.
“They really appreciate it when it’s personalized when they have access to my story, when they learn how I started, what were my obstacles, when they learn about some of my failures,” he said. “They are really interested in the behind the scenes way to where I am now.”
And it was in his childhood where he found the clarinet. Born into a musical family — his father was a trumpet player and his mother a viola player — Wolak started with the piano until he began learning the clarinet at age 13.
“I’ve been playing music all my life really,” he said “Before I knew the alphabet, I knew the names of all the instruments and all the notes.”
With his start in Poland, Wolak later ventured to Prague, Paris and New York all to hone his craft, before coming to High Park — a place he says he’s in no hurry to move from.
“It’s got its own feel to the place, it doesn’t feel like a metropolitan city, but it’s within a 15-minute subway ride from downtown,” Wolak said. “It’s very convenient, beautiful little stores, boutiques, coffee shops and of course the park.”
But don’t forget about the coin he flipped a few years ago. How did that land, anyway?
“I make a point not to go and find out,” Wolak said. “Not to put any doubts in my mind in case it landed on the other side.”
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