Conductor, composer, pianist, founder of the Polish Chamber Orchestra.
Maksymiuk was born on 9th April 1936 in Grodno. He studied composition under the guidance of Piotr Perkowski (diploma in 1962), piano under Jerzy Lefeld (diploma in 1964), and conducting in Bogusław Madey’s class (diploma in 1969) at the State Higher School of Music in Warsaw.
He has won many music competitions, among others the Ignacy Jan Paderewski National Piano Competition in Bydgoszcz (1961, first prize), the National Improvisation Competition in Katowice (1962, 1st prize), the Artur Malawski Composition Competition in Kraków, and the Grzegorz Fitelberg Composition Competition in Katowice.
In 1970-1972, he worked as a conductor at the Wielki Theatre in Warsaw, where he produced the premiere performances of The Little Prince by Zbigniew Bargielski, Juliet and Romeo by Bernadetta Matuszczak, and Polish Ballets to Witold Lutosławski, Zbigniew Turski, and Krzysztof Penderecki’s music, as well as his own piece Metafraza (Metaphrase, trans. MG; 1971). In 1972, he became the head of an ensemble selected from the musicians of the Warsaw Chamber Opera. They had performed together since 1973 under the name of the Polish Chamber Orchestra and gained international fame. In 1984, the ensemble was transformed into the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra. In 1973, he began working with the Polish Radio Great Symphony Orchestra, with which he went on tour to Austria, and in 1974 and 1976 to the United States, among others. Between 1975 and 1977, he was the first conductor and artistic director of the orchestra.
The success of his first tour with the Polish Chamber Orchestra in 1977, especially the concerts they gave in England, resulted in a recording contract with EMI and numerous performances with British orchestras, among others the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Maksymiuk has also performed as a guest with such orchestras as the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the Calgary Symphony Orchestra, the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
In 1979, he performed with the Polish Chamber Orchestra at the Carnegie Hall in New York, and in 1981 they toured Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Germany together. From 1983 to 1993, he headed the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow, which also gave concerts in Poland – in Kraków, Wrocław, Bydgoszcz, and Warsaw, and performed twice at the Warsaw Autumn Festival: in 1985 (works of Iannis Xenakis, Igor Stravinsky, and Zbigniew Penherski) and in 1987 (compositions by Augustyn Bloch, Witold Lutosławski, and Arvo Pärt). In 1990, he made his debut at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London and started collaborating with the English National Opera, preparing the premieres of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1991) and Johann Strauss’s The Revenge of the Bat (1993). His work in Great Britain was highly acclaimed by critics. It brought him an honorary doctorate from Strathclyde University in Glasgow (1990) and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s honorary title of Conductor Laureate (1993).
Jerzy Maksymiuk is a remarkable promoter of contemporary music. He was one of the founders of the Polish Society for Contemporary Music. For many years he was a member of the Repertoire Commission at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. Many works have been created for the Polish Chamber Orchestra on his initiative. He won two Orpheus Music Critics’ Awards from the Association for Polish Music Artists (SPAM). He gave the world premieres of approximately 200 contemporary works in various countries. The Elgar Society awarded him with a prestigious gold medal for popularising Edward Elgar’s music.
He has recorded about 100 albums for prestigious labels, including EMI, Hyperion, and Naxos, receiving such awards as the Wiener Floeten Uhr for his interpretations of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s pieces (1982), two Gramophone Awards for James Macmillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie (Best Concerto of the Year, 1992) and Nikolai Medtner’s Piano Concerto II and III (1995). In Poland, he has won a number of the Fryderyk Awards, granted by the Polish Society of the Phonographic Industry for his albums Utwory Henryka Mikołaja Góreckiego (Henryk Mikołaj Górecki Pieces, trans. MG) recorded with Sinfonia Varsovia, Janusz Olejniczak, and Adam Kruszewski (BeArTon, 2003), Witold Lutosławski with Sinfonia Varsovia, Janusz Olejniczak, and Olga Pasiecznik (BeArTon, 2004), Karłowicz with Sinfonia Varsovia and Agata Szymczewska (BeArTon, 2009). In 2011, the Polish Society of the Phonographic Industry honoured him with the Golden Fryderyk.
Jerzy Maksymiuk made his debut as a film music composer while still a student. He has written the music for about 200 documentaries and feature films, including The Hourglass Sanatorium directed by Wojciech Has. His latest achievement in this field was the soundtrack of the silent film Mania: The Story of a Cigarette Girl with the participation of Pola Negri. The music was performed live in 2012 in London, Madrid, Paris, Kiev, Berlin, and Warsaw.
For his artistic activity, Maksymiuk has been honoured with many important awards, such as the Prime Minister’s Award for creating works for children and youth (1971), Award of the Chairman of the Radio and Television Committee (1976), Award of the Minister of Foreign Affairs (1979), the Commander’s Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order (1998), the Gold Gloria Artis Medal (2005), Diamond Baton of the Polish Radio (2006), SuperWiktor Award (2007), Honorary Pearl of Polish Economy in culture category, awarded by the editorial team of Polish Market magazine (2013), and the Złote Berło award of the Foundation for Polish Culture (2014). In 2016, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, the conductor was awarded the Polonia Minor award and the Medal of the 70th anniversary of the Kraków Philharmonic. He is an Honorary Citizen of the City of Białystok. In 2017, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Białystok.
Maksymiuk’s career is primarily connected with the Polish Chamber Orchestra, which Maksymiuk has led since its formation in 1972. He led this ensemble of twenty-four string instrumentalists to the peaks of perfect performance and gave it a unique artistic individuality. Maksymiuk’s methods of working with the orchestra became legendary. He was a very demanding boss and forced every musician to constantly perform at the highest possible level. He unscrupulously replaced the members of the orchestra who did not meet his expectations. The rehearsals were endless. However, when the band started performing in public, it became a sensation. Maksymiuk proposed a new quality of style and sound. He paid special attention to articulation, which made the orchestra’s sound radically refreshed, giving it extraordinary mobility, transparency, and plasticity. He individualised the sound of the orchestra: each instrument was important and had its own role to play. He broke with the traditional phrasing developed in the Romantic era and revolutionised the musical dynamics. And above all, he shocked everyone with fast tempos, pushing them to the limits of what they could perform.
The Polish Chamber Orchestra was a standard string orchestra, with its musicians playing ordinary instruments, but Maksymiuk’s new aesthetics aimed at a so-called ‘authentic’ performance, intending to recreate the original performing styles of different epochs. Today, this is a widespread and important aspect of music, but at that time – at the beginning of the 1970s – attempts were still made to refer to the authentic performance of early music. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the direction of Neville Marriner was extremely successful in that field. The ensemble was analogous to the Polish Chamber Orchestra and it became a model for Maksymiuk. In 1973, the Polish Chamber Orchestra’s concert at the National Philharmonic made the ensemble famous nationwide. Their performance of Adam Jarzębski’s 17th-century composition Tamburetta was a particular revelation. The interpretations of Mozart’s works were unusual and highly controversial at the time. Vivaldi’s music quickly became the specialty of the orchestra led by Maksymiuk. The Polish Chamber Orchestra soon gained international fame. Leading European label EMI started releasing a series of their records, consisting of European repertoire from various eras – works of Vivaldi with The Four Seasons at the forefront, Mozart and Rossini, as well as works by Polish composers: Jarzębski, Janiewicz, Baird, and Górecki. Neville Marriner himself complimented Maksymiuk and his orchestra. In 1979, the Polish Chamber Orchestra performed at the famous Carnegie Hall in New York.
In 1983, Jerzy Maksymiuk became the head of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow. A year later, the Polish Chamber Orchestra grew and changed its name to Sinfonia Varsovia, and Yehudi Menuhin became its head. Maksymiuk performed with the ensemble only occasionally. During an interview for Studio magazine, when asked why he abandoned his band, he answered:
It was impossible to work so hard anymore. Anyway, when you’ve been with the same people for too long, something bad starts to happen. Besides, the chamber repertoire is limited. People constantly asked for Tchaikovsky and Dvorak’s serenades, Britten’s Variations, and Bartók’s Divertimento. We played these pieces very well, I felt that every note was really mine, but for how long can you do the same? Now I am a symphonist, not a chamber musician.
In 2018, the premiere of Tomasz Drozdowicz’s film Maksymiuk: Concerto for Two took place. The creation of the film took four years. Camera accompanied Maksymiuk during rehearsals and concerts, it has also recorded the everyday life of the composer and his wife, Ewa, who became the key protagonist of the film. Concerto for Two won the audience award at the International Warsaw Film Festival in 2018, it was also presented at the international documentary films festival FIPADOC in Biarritz. Its cinema premiere took place in the spring of 2019.