Columbia faculty certainly have a diverse range of backgrounds, but Magdalena Stern-Baczewska, new director of musical performance, might just take the cake.
Stern-Baczewska has had an illustrious career as a professional pianist and harpsichordist, whose performances and recordings have been described by the Washington Post as "eloquent and technically flawless." In addition to her well-received 2008 album "A Tribute to Glenn Gould," she has also released three albums in collaboration with BlueSleep, a medical team specializing in the treatment of sleep disorders, and remains artistic director at BlueSleep Music. Spectator sat down with Stern-Baczewska to discuss her past achievements and her future at Columbia.
Noah Jackson: You're renowned as a pianist and harpsichordist. Piano isn't the most atypical starter instrument, but how did you get into harpsichord?
Magdalena Stern-Baczewska: It is thanks to the college I went to, the Mannes College, where I took a class just out of curiosity, "Harpsichord for Pianists." I just loved the different world of sound and the touch, which was so delicate, and the aesthetics of the musics, the entire etiquette of the period. The sound is so very different from playing the piano, which is much more physical. Of course a whole different set of repertoires opened up for me and I started making harpsichord a bigger part of my life.
NJ: How did that translate into a career as a professional musician?
MSB: I met a whole different group of people who had the same interests as I did. And even though piano is a great instrument for chamber music, the harpsichord made it even easier to put concerts together. The nature of the music playing, the basso continuo, which means I only had a bassline written out with a bunch of numbers which tells me how to realize the chords, was a very exciting challenge. I learned to do it quickly enough that I was able to put concerts together very fast, and that turned out to be addictive in a way. I went to a couple of workshops as well. I'm still learning. I returned recently from Vancouver, where I was for two weeks pursuing a deeper understanding of the skills I needed.
NJ: This season you performed Polish keyboard music from the time of Copernicus to Kosciuszko. What do you think is unique about Polish music of that period? Do you feel that indigenous Polish music is overlooked or ignored?
MSB: There is, of course, Chopin, who is terribly important for the piano, so I shouldn't say that it is overlooked. Polish early music for the keyboard was something that even I was completely new to. What is interesting is the combination of the Italianate style with the Polish folk melodies. The time in Europe was really dominated by Italian fashion and Italian culture. We also had an Italian queen who introduced the Poles to tomatoes. So the music, the art, the architecture was very much Italianate, so it's an adorable combination.
NJ: How exactly did you interact with the medical team at BlueSleep?
MSB: There was actually a study that was done through BlueSleep measuring the sleep onset, the time that it takes one to fall asleep. It was a very simple study: we just equipped the subject with a CD of music and for two weeks the subjects were sleeping one night with the music and one night without. I forget the exact ages but they ranged from children to adults. It turned out that the sleep onset was cut in half with our music.
NJ: You also worked for Yamaha Artist Services. What was it like being in that very corporate side of the music industry?
MSB: It's very different. I realized how much it takes to make a career as a pianist, trying to help these young musicians to surface or take opportunities to study with the great professors, organizing master classes for them. I really enjoyed this and I think the feeling was mutual, because being a pianist I understood how it feels to be a beginning pianist in New York.
NJ: After such a distinguished career, why Columbia?
MSB: After Yamaha—I left the company because a teaching opportunity arose—I really felt my heart was in the classroom. For four years I was teaching and performing only. The opportunity here arose and it was just wonderful to work with such brilliant minds and have them experience music, keeping in mind that music seems to become less important in people's lives. Having had the chance to work with these students, I wanted to do it every day.
NJ: What do you hope to achieve as director of music performance at Columbia?
MSB: I hope that people from all over the University can join us as performers or audience members so that future generations of world leaders and great people keep music in their minds as something important and lasting.
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