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John Harvard's Journal

Life in Counterpoint

Pianist Berenika Zakrzewski '04 enjoys touring and tutorials--and meets a lot of pianos.

November-December 2003

Few have ever faced the choice that Berenika Zakrzewski '04 had three years ago: Harvard or Juilliard? "It was exasperating," she says. "It wasn't choosing between a rock and a hard place, but two great places. Both are extremely competitive in admissions. I knew I wanted to be a concert pianist, so the natural path would be Juilliard—what else? Still, though lots of musicians don't take academics seriously, I do; like a lot of people at Harvard, I'm a bit of an overachiever. Now I look back on the decision and it seems tremendously easy."

Zakrzewski performing in March 2003 with the Rhode Island College Symphony Orchestra in Providence
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Less easy is leading a multifaceted life as a Harvard undergraduate while ramping up her career as a professional musician. This summer Zakrzewski (pronounced zak-SHEV-ski) toured the largest concert halls of South America. She has already played Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, soloed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and appeared widely on radio and television, including Bravo! and the BBC. In her native Poland, she has recorded Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Cracow's Sinfonietta Cracovia; in New York City she played at St. Paul's Church for the firefighters and relief workers of Ground Zero; and at Harvard's Sanders Theatre she serenaded the inauguration of President Lawrence H. Summers.

"I'm a passionate performer, excited, energetic," she says. "I play as if I'm part of the instrument. I don't give the kind of performance where you can sit back and relax. People are affected by the music." Indeed, her big sound and unrestrained virtuosity seem to cry out for large venues. Last year, at a senior common room dinner in Currier House (where she lived until transferring to Kirkland), she stunned an intimate audience with a powerful, fiery rendition of Chopin's Polonaise in F# Minor.

Each day she practices four to five hours on Kirkland House's Steinway and Bösendorfer pianos. Unlike rock musicians, concert pianists don't travel with a keyboard. "You don't choose your piano, you make the best of what you have," she says. "Unless you are super-duper famous, you get to meet a lot of pianos." Zakrzewski does own a nine-foot Baldwin Concert Grand SD-10, a gift from an anonymous patron of the arts when she was 13. That instrument is at home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. "When I go there, I say hello," she says.

"I never miss practice," she declares. "I'm a really disciplined person. You have to be very efficient when you have the amount of homework Harvard gives you—plus catching up with what you miss when you travel"—about a month during the academic year. "I not only practice a lot, but I get good grades."

Zakrzewski's piano teacher and mentor is Robinson professor of music Robert Levin '68, whose performance course attracts undergraduate virtuosos (see "Musician with a Mission," May-June 1995, page 32). "We also talk about things like the order of pieces in a recital," she says. A music concentrator, she has soaked up coursework on the physics of sound and on composing and conducting in postwar Europe, which featured a visit from Pierre Boulez. She also relished a required survey course on the history of Western music. "You approach a piece more deeply when you understand its background, and you can communicate more deeply to an audience," she explains. "I like being intellectually challenged and seeing my art in a larger context."

Studying government, literature, and history and hanging out with nonmusicians also excite her. (Her senior thesis will combine her interests in music and government.) Zakrzewski is no aloof, precious aesthete. She calls herself a "very, very social person" and belongs to the Hasty Pudding, the Signet Society, and the Bee, a female social club. She goes out dancing and listens to jazz, opera, and pop. "Yes, I like Madonna," she says. "But I wouldn't want to listen to her all the time—it's for fun." Fluency in Polish, English, and French has enlarged her wide and well-traveled orbit.

 

"Music was part of me from the start," Zakrzewski says. Her family recalls a two- or three-year-old Berenika singing Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" for an appreciative home audience. "I love performing," she explains. "I could have been an actress."

Born in Warsaw, Zakrzewski emigrated to Canada with her parents and two older sisters when she was a year old. Father Voyteck, a research scientist, plays piano and is "very musical," Zakrzewski says; mother Antonina, a scientific book editor in Poland, became a full-time mom and now helps Berenika with her career. Older sisters Dominika and Kinga both played piano seriously and were highly skilled, if not professional, musicians. At three years of age, little Berenika was already clamoring for piano lessons like her sisters, a challenging proposition given the preschooler's small hands. "With violin and cello, you can grow with your instrument," she observes. "But with piano you have to start with the monster."

Yet she did begin piano at four. She also took private violin lessons and played clarinet in the grade-school band, and her father tutored the three girls in extracurricular mathematics. "Weekends weren't ever free," she recalls. The busy childhood was light on athletics: "I wasn't allowed to play sports after a certain age," she says, "because I didn't want to risk hurting my hands."

At nine, Zakrzewski played as a soloist with the Sault Symphony Orchestra; at 11, she moved with her mother to Toronto for two years of study at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Next stop was New York City and the small, private Professional Children's School near Lincoln Center, whose student body includes many young performers. The school allows young artists the flexibility that their performance and travel schedules require; Zakrzewski, for example, played in Puerto Rico and with the Toronto Symphony while a student there. She also enrolled in Juilliard's Pre-College Division. "From school to Juilliard to practice rooms to home and homework—then the same thing the next day," she recalls. "Saturday was Pre-College day at Juilliard. We'd take theory, solfège, chorus—everyone at Juilliard is in the chorus—chamber music and a performance class. I went to art exhibits with my sister, a lot of concerts, and out dancing. I was really busy."

She is equally busy at Harvard, pursuing her future as a concert pianist while slaking her many intellectual thirsts. Concerts, practice, courses, dancing, clubs—plus her social life, which adds another harmonious note to the chord. "I like the people here," she says. "I have rower friends. Where at Juilliard could I find a person who rows?"

~Craig Lambert