I’m sitting across from Mateusz Wolski in his bumblebee yellow Lotus Elise, seconds before he takes the first of five runs at a recent Autosports Northwest autocross race at the Deer Park Airport.
I’ve gotten in the car despite the fact that Wolski prefaced the ride by saying “It’s going to feel like you’re in a washing machine,” and the helmet I’m borrowing is a size or two too big (Sorry, mom and dad).
But Wolski showed me how to adjust the seat belt so it doesn’t give any slack when I move and how to grip the bottom of my seat for even more stability.
“I’m ready,” I say.
With that, Wolski pulls up to the starting line. A course attendant scans a bar code on his car so his time is recorded by the computer, then we wait.
When he gets the signal, we’re off. Wolski weaves through a series of cones toward the far end of the track, where he then executes a 360-degree turn around a cone.
From there, he navigates through a tighter series of cones – left, right, left, right – with my helmet shaking all the way.
Wolski jumps on the gas as we hit the final straightaway, and only when he starts to brake do I realize I’ve been holding my breath.
Wolski’s best time, 36.7 seconds, made him the fastest driver of the day.
He also walked away with the fastest raw time and fastest PAX time, a system of handicapping cars based on their make, model, year and level of modification, of the day, bringing the collection of Autosports Northwest magnets, aka trophies, on his fridge to 40.
Wolski hasn’t gotten out to the track as much as he’d like this season, thanks to the demands of having a toddler at home.
His day job as concertmaster and first violinist of the Spokane Symphony also has something to do with it.
Though at first glance music and racing might not have much in common, if you spend enough time with Wolski, you’ll see just how much they inform each other and in turn, the person he is.
Wolski, a self-proclaimed gearhead, was born and raised in Poland, where the car options left a lot to be desired.
“It was like Ford Model T time,” he said. “ ‘You can have any car you want as long as it’s black.’ ”
In 2011, Wolski went to the Spokane Raceway to see the historic car races.
While there, a friend asked Wolski if he had heard of autocross, a sport in which drivers race on a defined course, competing against the clock rather than other drivers.
Wolski read up on the sport and decided to give it a shot. Thinking back on his first race, Wolski said he made every mistake a beginner could make including getting lost on the course and hitting cones while driving his Honda S 2000.
It wasn’t until he took a ride with a more experienced driver that he really got bit by the autocross bug.
“I was like ‘Are you kidding me?… If this is possible, I got to figure out if I can do this,’ ” he said.
That determination served Wolski well when he was learning to play the violin, too.
As a child, Wolski liked to sing and “bang on the piano, with the loud pedal on if I could reach it,” he said.
Like all Polish school children, when he was 7, he was invited to audition for music school.
At the audition, Wolski played music games and clapped and sang rhythms. Instructors also checked his sense of pitch and how quickly he processed what he called rudimentary information.
They then determined, through criteria Wolski is not entirely sure of, that he should play the violin.
Wolski had his heart set on the piano but started attending the after-school music program nonetheless.
After six years, Wolski went to a school with a combined music curriculum after a violinist who rented a room from Wolski’s grandmother recommended the young musician take lessons with a friend who taught there.
Wolski eventually enrolled in a high school that also had a combined music curriculum.
“It was some of the greatest memories for me,” Wolski said. “When I still look at this, I don’t know why, but it was absolutely beautiful innocence of young, sensitive minds.”
While a student at the Fryderyk Chopin Music Academy, Wolski met up with elementary school friends who went to another high school.
In high school, those friends started the Elsner Quartet, which was named after the school, itself named after composer Józef Elsner, who taught piano to a young Frédéric Chopin.
“They were the hot ensemble that everybody talks about,” Wolski said. “It probably did cross my mind ‘What would’ve happened if I went to the same high school? Would I right now be part of it?’ ”
He didn’t have to wait too long to find out as after his second year at the conservatory, the quartet lost a member to inner-band turmoil and asked Wolski to join them in order to accept full-ride scholarships to the Manhattan School of Music.
The offer came with a catch though. The quartet was short a viola player and wanted Wolski to switch instruments.
Wolski said if he wasn’t already in another ensemble, he would’ve taken up the viola. But because he felt loyal to the musicians he was performing with, it wasn’t such an easy decision.
“I was like ‘You have to put me in a situation where I cannot say no. And if you put me in that situation, then I will deal with the consequences,’ ” he said.
One of the ensemble’s violin players switched to viola so Wolski could join as a violinist, and the quartet landed in New York in 1996.
At the time, Wolski had a rudimentary grasp on the English language and was placed in an intensive language course at Columbia University.
In this class, the students watched three-minute chunks of the Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy film “Before Sunrise.” They then read through the script, learning vocabulary and grammar along the way.
Wolski also went to matinees to further immerse himself in the language. By the end of the semester, he was proficient enough in English to take classes at the Manhattan School of Music.
Similarly, Wolski has become a self-taught mechanic, going from doing no work on the Honda to, since getting the Lotus about five years ago, swapping the transmission and rebuilding the engine.
“It’s in his DNA …,” said his wife, Dawn Wolski, general director of Opera Coeur d’Alene. “That’s just how his brain works.”
At the Manhattan School of Music, the updated Elsner Quartet was as popular as the original, and the quartet toured while in school. The Royal Academy of Music in London even offered the musicians scholarships to its master’s program.
But before graduation, history repeated itself.
Personality clashes, different goals and a lack of communication led the quartet to disband.
Adapting his plans to fit his new situation, Wolski auditioned for and was admitted into the solo performance program for his master’s degree at the Manhattan School. In the second year of his master’s, Wolski auditioned for and was accepted into the orchestral performance program.
He also tried out for the New York Philharmonic. Though he didn’t get the job, he made it to the final round, which was enough for him to be added to the list of substitute musicians in 2001.
While completing a year of professional study and performing with the New York Philharmonic, the Wolskis married and moved to Baltimore.
After five years of subbing for the New York Philharmonic, Wolski realized that, as incredible as the experience was, performing as a substitute was not the job for him.
“It’s like we’ve talked about at the race. When I’m responsible for more, it pushes me to a different orbit of my own personal performance,” he said.
He then took a five-month break from the violin.
After he helped a former Philharmonic personnel manager move for her new role as orchestra manager for the Baltimore Symphony, she asked Wolski if he was interested in being a sub.
Wolski realized he missed performing and took the job. A fellow substitute then asked Wolski to cover for him as principal second violinist of the Annapolis Symphony.
“I went into a smaller orchestra but into a leadership position, and I had a ball,” Wolski said.
It’s no surprise that Wolski, who learns best by sharing information with others, took so well to this position or to teaching, both on and off the course.
“You’ll see him doing a course walk and we’ll have a lot of new people and I’ll see Mateusz there helping some brand new guy,” Peter Hans Lattman, current president of Autosports Northwest (www.asnw.org), said.
I get a taste of Wolski’s propensity to teach during the autocross race.
While monitoring cones, Wolski tells me about turbochargers and superchargers, the pros and cons of each and the differences between street tires and racing tires.
“Sorry,” he said. “You’re going to learn more about cars than you ever wanted to know.”
Wolski also teaches young violinists through private lessons.
Between bites of mini cheesecakes after a recent Chamber Soireé performance, Wolski tells me that he tries to make a difference in each musician’s journey and will recommend them to other teachers as he sees them progressing, much like the violinist who rented a room from his grandmother did for him.
This Chamber Soireé performance is my first time seeing him in concert.
I can’t help but focus on his hands as he plays, his fingers gliding up and down the fingerboard like ice skaters on a frozen pond.
Seeing how fast Wolski’s right hand jumped from the steering wheel to the gear shift and back during the autocross race made me feel like the race was both over in a split second and much longer than the 30-odd seconds it took for us to reach the finish line.
On one hand, the race felt swift because, well, we were going fast.
On the other hand, my mind couldn’t comprehend how Wolski managed to do so much in such a small amount of time.
He tells me that, while driving, he thinks five car lengths ahead, anticipating what’s to come and doing what he can now to successfully navigate those challenges when he reaches them.
He does the same thing when he performs, thinking ahead to key points in each piece he plays.
“I also find that artistically, if you have it all in mind that it’s three minutes into the piece or five minutes into the piece and you know it’s coming, you play differently,” he said. “You build the wave of momentum on a much grander scale rather than just the line of music that I can see at the moment.”
Wolski said, though he wants to lose himself in a piece, if he loses himself completely, he could lose control of his playing abilities.
But if a musician thinks too much about execution, the audience can tell that their heart is not in it.
“This would be like I’m going to go through the course like a granny,” he said. “What’s the point? Are we racing or are we just putt-putting around?”
Back in Baltimore, Wolski eventually auditioned for and was named concertmaster of the Annapolis Symphony, a position he held for about two years before Spokane Symphony music director Eckart Preu came calling.
Preu was familiar with the Elsner Quartet but had never worked with Wolski in a concertmaster capacity.
Preu was interested in Wolski because he knew, if he had a good chamber musician in the concertmaster position, he would have a good technical player and someone with good communication, listening and personality skills.
“Not to diminish any other players, but it is the most important position within the orchestra because he’s a direct link and the translating tool, basically, for the conductor,” Preu said.
Wolski successfully completed the audition and became concertmaster in 2007, succeeding Kelly Farris.
Reflecting on his time with the symphony, Wolski considers the variety of music he’s played during his annual concertos – Beethoven, Korngold, Scheherazade, “Heldenleben” – a highlight.
Looking ahead, he hopes to use his position as concertmaster to change the conversation about classical music.
Wolski is working on a series called “The M Show: Music, Mayhem and Mystery” (Jan. 19-20, Washington Cracker Co. building, May 24-25, location to be announced), during which he will combine his passion for music and an interest in doing the unexpected to break barriers between the audience and those on stage.
Using live performances and pre-recorded videos, Wolski hopes to make these concerts feel like a late-night show while also showing the importance of an entity like the Spokane Symphony.
“For a lot of those people, the concept of going to the symphony show on the surface, it’s a preposterous idea,” he said. “But if I can get some of those people to come to ‘The M Show’ and see what we do and how we do it and develop relationships…, maybe they come and hear us in something more serious that we do and see if they can fall in love with that.”
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