Our period of lockdown presents the rare opportunity to speak in greater depth about music, and what motivates our artists to continue to grow as musicians. Once a fortnight, I’ll be speaking with a different artist, asking them about their past and attempting to look beyond lockdown.

The Zoom formalities over, Maciej tells me he’s isolated in Gdańsk, in harmony thus far, with his parents, three cats, and a dog. Given the sea of cancellations, Maciej is remarkably sanguine; if he does feel frustrated and despondent - and I find it impossible to believe none exists - he keeps it hidden. As a musician, I expect him to be quite used to solitude. It’s a rather unusual lifestyle of extremes: hours of practice alone, followed by intimate communication with other musicians and audiences. And for many, it is being on stage that serves as the most potent source of inspiration. I wonder where Maciej is turning to replace this outlet; three activities stick out: practice (of course), reading, and listening. In fact, Maciej doesn’t seem to be experiencing any lack of inspiration - “somehow, I get so many ideas right now” - and, though he misses playing and travelling, now there is suddenly “time to really study... and read pieces I’ve always wanted to read”. Naturally I probe and feel that odd fleeting happiness felt when you learn that someone has shared your enjoyment of a book; in this case the “really beautiful” war novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Maciej gives the impression of being an avid reader and goes on to list two other books on the go, both by the late conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who, Maciej effuses, had “great ideas, not only about performing music from the 17th and 18th centuries, but also more general thoughts about music... [which are] fascinating to read about it”. Harnoncourt, Maciej adds, really “opens your mind”.

This searching quality is one of the most compelling of Maciej’s playing, and was no doubt witnessed by the jury of the YCAT Public Finals this time last year: for Maciej, a “great experience”. The decision to apply was a late one, and I’m given the impression that the more prosaic - travel, arranging a pianist, booking rehearsal spaces in an unfamiliar city - occupied him more than concerns about performing on the Wigmore stage; of course, the outcome was a happy one.

Despite having met and spoken with Maciej many times over the past year, I know very little about his life before YCAT. I ask him to describe the early years at home, and an idyllic picture emerges. Both parents are pianists, his grandfather was a trumpeter, and his uncle a jazz pianist: as he puts it, “music was, simply, everywhere”. “All the friends of my parents were musicians”, which meant, “when I was four or five...that everyone played an instrument”. In this milieu Maciej “fell in love with the cello very quickly” and recalls “listening to old recordings by the great cellists - Rostropovich, Maisky, - all the time... it was like an obsession”. His parents were able to nurture this central interest without exhortations (that he can remember). This sense of the inevitable and “a certain easiness with learning the instrument” already belies Maciej’s dedication to his craft or, more bluntly, his years of graft.

A turning point took place when aged 13, Maciej began studying with the American cellist Michael Flaksman, a teacher at Mannheim University. This was the “first time leaving Poland to experience the real musicians’ world”, a “wonderful” time that “opened a new door for me as a player”. A still recognisable playing trait was nurtured by Flaksman, whose teaching “was much more about storytelling and what you are really trying to say in a piece”. Following this formative period, Maciej started lessons with Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt in Weimar, Berlin, then finally at Kronberg, for many the string academy par excellence (with a pleasing YCAT contingent). Kronberg might not boast the splendour of Vienna, nor cultural vibrance of Berlin, but it seems to be this relative quaintness that attracts Maciej - the special atmosphere created as cellists flock from around the world to perform and learn: “what I love about it is that it’s really peaceful and we are in this musical society”. Maciej, somewhat modestly, attributes a good deal of his musical development to these figures; he claims to have always had “great luck with teachers”, even right back to school. With pleasing cyclicity, Maciej now holds a teaching position at the Academy of Music in Gdansk and shares a class with his former teacher, Marcin Zdunik. One of the best aspects, he says, of teaching is returning to pieces studied long ago and approaching them with fresh eyes and ears.

The glittering successes of Kronberg students at international competitions prompts me to ask Maciej about his own experiences in this often mysterious world. A significant drop in animation accompanies the change of subject as he reveals an ambivalent perspective. It seems the inherent rivalry in these settings is, for him, a necessary evil, as there is something “weird” about placing “musicians in a hierarchy...it’s just not what music is about”. There are pragmatic considerations, however, as he accepts that “for many people it can be useful”, for example,“it can help you just to play more concerts”. Undeniably, “it makes you practise a lot” and expand repertoire, for “you have to be in really good shape to be able to play all these pieces at a very good level”. He mentions the wealth of talented and successful musicians that have never found much luck in competitions and emphasises his belief that “it’s really important what you do with the prize”, adding wryly, “of course you can win, but then in another year there is another competition, and people already forget the previous one”. “Anyway if the public will like you, then they’ll like you”.

One certainty is gruelling preparation, and I’m interested to learn about Maciej’s process of studying repertoire. Unsurprisingly, reading about the conditions in which the piece is conceived is one of Maciej’s priorities. Analysing the score is a key stage of the process to better understand the language of a composer, but he’s keen to stress the importance of understanding “the period in which the piece was written” and what the particular music “meant at that time, in that period”. Again, mentioning Harnoncourt, we touch upon the Early Music Movement and agree that attempts to recreate the exact sound of a particular period are flawed, if intriguing; and - as “there is no way to play it like it was played 200 years ago...it’s simply not possible” - the most interesting and primary aim for him is “to bring out what I love about the piece, and what it means right now”.

The notion of music being tied closely to place raises similar contradictions. Maciej’s natural position is one of fluidity:“to be honest, for me, music is this one big universe”. “Of course there can be distinctive qualities, but usually talking about these differences ends up being a political conversation or a conversation about culture”. An example is the idea that “someone who is Italian can play Chopin better than someone from Poland, it's a really individual thing, and it all really depends on the musician”; this leads him to “think that’s what makes music so great: for everyone it means something different”. “There is always something universal about music that I want to find, whatever I play”.

This pluralistic outlook is reflected further in Maciej’s listening tastes, and indeed more recently, his own compositions. Steve Reich and John Adams are major influences, as are folk (“whether in a folk band or a Mahler Symphony”) and jazz. His uncle might be proud to discover that jazz remains Maciej’s “ongoing obsession” and he “always loved the harmonic language...and also really being in the moment”. This preoccupation with multiple voices is perhaps related to his early love of the piano - “[I] always loved the sound of the piano, but even more I loved the fact that you can play the harmonies”. Much of his composition finds its origins in improvisation, “a great form of musical expression”. And the piano is essential now, as it was “as a kid improvising just playing the black notes on the piano”. Happily, for Maciej, the wide-eyed curiosity that wanes for many doesn’t appear to have done so.

A few weeks before lockdown, Maciej attended a Mentoring Weekend at Snape Maltings, a collaboration between the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme, YCAT, and the Royal Philharmonic Society. It was “special for me to be there and to experience this place” and “[I] learnt a lot - one thing that I started to do after it is to write a journal” which has “psychologically [been] really helpful”. During lockdown (a psychological challenge for most), an online presence has suddenly assumed much greater importance. I ask about one of the sessions, focused on presenting oneself online. Like competitions, Maciej suggests that he rationalises social media as a means to an end which has performed a useful function if it leads to playing to wider audiences.“Of course I want to get recognition for what I am doing but I want to get this recognition through music that I make not through myself... this is for me a huge difference”. He acknowledges this “might sound a bit idealistic...but I think it’s just much more interesting and deeper for me” and quickly follows with “we all know how hard it is to be a musician”, yet “there aren’t too many people who can say that they really do what they love.”

We end on an optimistic note. He’s excited by future projects, not least the prospect of recording a CD of French works, exploring compositional influences: tracing connections to tell stories. Exciting, too, is the prospect of recording his own compositions, which could provide the “opportunity to show that I can also do some other things...and go into different zones”. Maciej’s talk of the “infinite possibilities” and a constant search “for something new” evokes for me Mahler’s famous line that “a symphony must be like the world, it must contain everything”. I leave him to return to the Berliner Philharmonie, albeit digitally; clearly the same great joy in listening and playing that inspired a budding young cellist endures. 

Sean Dunn