Burly, engaging, and wearing a plain National Philharmonic polo shirt, Maestro Piotr Gajewski, 59, has an everyday air that seems contradictory to the often-archaic nature of classical music. Maybe because Gajewski — certified to practice law in Maryland and Virginia and still active in two recreational soccer leagues — is anything but your ordinary conductor.
This year, the National Philharmonic — based at The Music Center at Strathmore in Rockville, Maryland — is dedicating its concert season to the great Leonard Bernstein in honor of the composer’s centennial. The next concert in the series will be held 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, and will feature music from Bernstein’s most famous works, including “Mass,” “Candide,” and “West Side Story.”
For Gajewski, co-founder, current music director, and principal conductor of the National Philharmonic, the concert series has been an opportunity to honor his former teacher, with whom he studied in the summer
Learning From the Best
Born behind the Iron Curtain in then-Soviet Poland, Gajewski immigrated to the United States at a young age and acquired a formal education in orchestral conducting. At age 24 he was selected for the highly competitive Leonard Bernstein Conducting Fellowship, which gave him an opportunity to study under the famous composer.
“Bernstein was one of the really established, famous conductors then, and he worked with three fellows, one of them was me,” Gajewski said. “We got to spend the summer studying and performing at Tanglewood [music festival] where he conducted half the concert and we conducted the other half. The whole experience was wonderful.”
"How was Bernstein?" Gajewski mused affectionately. "It’s what we’d refer to these days as 'completely without a filter.'"
The National Philharmonic kicked off the Bernstein tribute concert series on Sept. 29 in an innovative fashion. At the event, audience members were treated to a viewing of the 1954 film “On the Waterfront” — the only film scored by Bernstein — with the Philharmonic playing the soundtrack live.
For Gajewski, it was the first time attempting this popular genre. “It was a superb experience,” he said. “It’s a bit different because there’s technology that’s brought to bear on the coordination that needs to happen.”
Beyond Music: Math, Law, and Public Service
Gajewski shared that while music is his primary occupation in life, he has always found interests in other areas.
“When I went away to college, I was going to be a math and physics double major,” he recalled. “After doing a year and a half I decided I wanted to pursue music full time, so I transferred to a different school.”
All these different professions can be said to run through his veins; he comes from a musical family, where both of his grandparents were “good, but not professional” pianists, he said. His father, a Holocaust survivor, was a brilliant physicist, and Gajewski remembers the family living quite a comfortable life until Poland’s political crisis in 1968 resulted in persecution and purging of the small Jewish community that remained in the country.
“My father was a non-practicing Jew, but that obviously didn’t matter in the Holocaust,” he said. “And we probably would have stayed there [after 1968] if they didn’t push us out.”
While trans-Atlantic relocation is no easy feat, Gajewski said he and his family were privileged enough to have a soft landing in the United States, thanks to his father’s previous visits and connections to the country.
“Unlike so many other people, we were very lucky,” Gajewski said. “He had a lot of connections from his previous visits, and his first job was at MIT.”
In addition to conducting and becoming a certified lawyer, Gajewski also decided to test his chops in a different field — public service. Beginning in 2005, Gajewski was elected to two consecutive terms to serve on the city council of Rockville.
“It drove my wife nuts, she couldn’t stand it,” he recalled of his time in office. “People were constantly attacking me, accusing me of being corrupt, and building a coalition to defeat me or whatever. You really have to be thick-skinned.”
Nearing 60, Gajewski says he does not plan on pursuing as many passions in the future.
“At this point I’m focused on this [the National Philharmonic] now,” he said.
By Anis Modi
Anis Modi is a staff writer for Kol HaBirah.