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Magdalena Stern-Baczewska Emerges from Behind Iron Curtain to World Acclaim
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Saturday, November 27, 2021
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, Magdalena Stern-Baczewska (ba-CHEV-ska) had no exposure to Western music, movies or other pop culture.

She spent much of her time practicing piano with her mother, a pianist; her sisters, who played viola and violin, and her father, a vocalist.

Her fastidious attention to piano paid off when she caught the ear of American pianist Jerome Rose who set her on a trajectory that would send her performing around the world.

The world-renowned pianist will perform a free concert for Sun Valley audiences at 6 tonight—Saturday, Nov. 27--at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Sun Valley Road.

“My mother-in law loves to hear me play the piano and the Wood River Jewish Community has been wonderful to sponsor the concert,” said Stern-Baczewska who, with her husband Dr. Jordan Stern, is  spending Thanksgiving with Jordan’s mother Monique Stern and his sister Claudia Stern.

The Poland in which Stern-Baczewska grew up was not one in which musicians were allowed to share their talents with the world. Stern-Baczewska’s parents were not allowed to perform outside the country—they couldn’t even keep their passports at home.

There were two TV channels, which aired Polish theater. Cartoons—the Russian equivalent of “Tom and Jerry”—ran 10 minutes a day. But, given her parents’ musical background, she was exposed to  orchestral and opera performances.

As a child, Stern-Baczewska could have gotten in trouble for playing a recording of The Beatles or viewing “A Hard’s Day Night.” When her country finally opened up to the West, she fell hard for Michael Jackson.

“All my classmates imitated his dance moves, and we’d mouth the syllables he sang without knowing what he was singing,” she said. “Not only did we finally hear the music of Michael Jackson, but the shelves in the stores filled up with ham and other things we’d never seen before. Family and friends who had defected sent us things like Nutella.”

Stern-Baczewska made her solo debut with the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra at age 12. She was 15 when Jerome Rose saw her play while he was offering masterclasses at the Chopin University of Music in Warsaw and invited her to come to America.

“It sounded like going to outer space. It was a great unknown but also a great adventure,” said Stern-Baczewska, who came at 17.  “It was my first plane trip ever, and New York was such a treasure trove of culture and arts and activity.”

Stern-Baczewska earned a bachelor and master degree at Mannes College of Music, studying under Rose. She got a doctorate degree at Manhattan School of Music.

With no limits on freedom of expression, she flourished, earning praise from ConcertoNet as “one of the most innovative, even radical classical keyboardists in the U.S.—Columbia University professor by day, musical sorceress by night.”

In 2014 she began performing in China with Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer Tan Dun, known for his orchestral theater, opera and motion picture scores and organic music exploring new realms of sound through such primal elements as paper and stone.

“That was the most amazing experience—5,000-seat concert halls,” she said. “Tan Dun grew up in the Cultural Revolution when western music was not allowed in China and he discovered Western music as an adult. He plays tribute to China with Eastern music performed through Western instruments, such as piano. One of his techniques is to fill bowls with water, amplify them with microphones and have percussion players manipulate them with cups and hands. It’s wonderful because it makes you realize the sounds that surround us.”

Stern-Baczewska has received acclaim for playing the music of Johannes Sebastian Bach back-to-back on piano and harpsichord—something that’s rarely done.

She and composer/rapper Gene Pritsker created a Baroque-hip hop remix called “Hip Hopsichord” for people not interested in classical music. And the two collaborated on a piece titled “What Matters,” written following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor

She also recorded a series of best-selling “Music for Dreams” albums after her husband, a physician specializing in sleep disorders, asked her to record music to help his patients sleep without pills.

“I chose pieces without big climatic points, which is difficult to find in Western music,” she said. “In the studio I imagined myself playing next to someone who was trying to sleep so I could play as smoothly as possible. I have performed some of the selections in concert. But only one or two because I don’t want my audiences to fall asleep!”

Being forced to stop performing in public during the pandemic was painful for Stern-Baczewska, even though her restricted childhood resembled the pandemic in some ways. She recorded a series of lectures titled “Enjoyment of Music” for all the different ages groups from children to seniors. She also made some YouTube videos she called Bach@Home.”

“My calendar went all white when the pandemic started, which was very painful. But it gave me a chance to explore other things. And I was lucky to be with my husband, who is my favorite person in the world.”

Tonight’s concert will feature Clara Schumann’s “Nocturne, op. 6, no. 2” and Fredreric Chopin’s “Nocturno  Posthumous,” “Nocturne in C minor,” “Fantaisie impromptu” and two Chopin waltzes.

“Chopin remains a national treasure for Poles—everybody lives and breathes Chopin and even the airport in Warsaw is named after him,” Stern-Baczewska said. “His pieces are like the style of Mozart. But people don’t realize how innovative he was. He was pushing the boundaries all the time, no longer to please the audience but to shake up the audience.”

Stern-Baczewska also plans to perform Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and  pieces by African-America composers Margaret Bonds and Florence Price.

“During the pandemic I began focusing on the music of composers of African heritage whose works have gone unknown,” she said. “The events of last May had a great impact on me and I realized there is so much truly great music left unknown because of racial discrimination. If not now, when would be a good time to highlight this music?!”


 

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