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Making a Difference: A Conversation with Edmund Lewandowski


The Magazine for Serious Record Collectors
March/April 1999 . Volume 22, Number 4

There's a good chance that you've never heard of Ignacy Feliks Dobrzynski -- or that, if you have, you've merely read somewhere that he was a fellow student of Chopin's in Jozef Elsner's composition classes at the Warsaw Conservatory or that, as the New-Grove puts it, "his piano music shows clearly the influence" of his more famous compatriot. In-fact, the influence probably went both ways, as is evident from Dobrzynski's absorbing Piano-Concerto in Ab, written several years before Chopin's similar, and much more familiar, Concerto in F Minor. You can now hear that prescient work on an illuminating CD released by the-Polish label Selene (9405.21). Less than a decade old, Selene has an understandable commitment to Chopin, including some striking performances by Polish pianists who are not yet well known in the United States; but their steadily growing catalog is also studded with revelatory CDs, often including premiere recordings, of repertoire by other, less familiar Polish composers: the complete piano music (two- and four-hand) by Moniuszko; the robust violin sonata by Jozef Wieniawski (Henryk's younger brother); the more-or-less complete piano music by Paderewski (a four disc set performed by Karol Radziwonowicz and coproduced with Chant du-Monde; see 15:6); a substantial collection of piano music by the talented, but short-lived, Liszt- pupil Juliusz Zerebski in performances by Jerzy Sterczynski that are even more persuasive than-those on the complementary collection by Rachel Franklin (see 18:2); songs by Karlowicz and-Moniuszko...

Selene is being distributed by Bayside, but its presence in the United-States is due to the efforts of the California-based Poland Import Export, a company - created a few years back by Edmund Lewandowski. Unlike most people interviewed in Fanfare, Lewandowski is not a musician. In fact, he holds a master's degree in mechanical engineering with a specialty in optics and has worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and in Silicon Valley (he's the owner of two technical patents dealing with semiconductors). How he got into the business of importing classical CDs is a fascinating story.

Born in a small city about 120 miles northwest of Warsaw, Lewandowski lived in Warsaw for about a decade until he emigrated to Austria for political reasons. "I had a choice: either to be in jail in then-communist Poland or to be free outside, so I chose freedom. I escaped from Poland with my wife, Marie. After we had been granted political asylum and had lived in a refugee camp in Austria for six months, we decided that we would like to emigrate somewhere else. There were different opportunities, and one of them was the United States. We picked the United States because everyone wants to go to the United States, and if we have a chance, why not take it?"

At first, the choice did not look like the right one: "When we came to the United States, we came to Detroit, a neighborhood that was really strange to us." The culture shock was so great that they nearly went back to Austria. But before returning, they decided to "see what different states look like and how different places look like in the United States. We saved a little bit of money and we bought tickets for Greyhound." His wife's sister lives in the Bay area, so that's where they headed. They found San Francisco congenial, so "we started our life here." While Lewandowski was working at Stanford, his wife passed the exams for foreign medical graduates, and, after a brief residency in Ohio, they returned to San Francisco where she set up a practice as a family physician.

At this point, with his wife providing financial stability for the family, Lewandowski asked himself the tough question: "After a while, I was kind of thinking, what am I accomplishing in my life? What am I doing? I came to the conclusion that I am one of many. My job as a mechanical engineer can be done by somebody else. I wanted to do something unique. I wanted to do something I could be proud of, something that probably nobody else would have a chance to do." Fortunately, he had the enthusiastic support of his wife, so he was free to consider activities that didn't necessarily bring in any income. "That's how I started to think about Poland Import Export. I originally thought it would be a business that would promote anything Polish, as far as products go, in the United States. That was the main concept when I created the company. I was starting to look for a product. I like popular music a lot, so when I went to Poland to search for things, I bought a number of CDs and I brought them to the United States. Many people said to me, 'You bought them, but we would like to have such music also.' So I said, 'Well, why don't I import it?' Once I got into music CDs, I never really expanded to any other area. "My philosophy is that if I get one person interested in a given CD, I basically bring more than one, hoping that there will be others interested in this particular title. That way, I am building up stock of CDs. I have more than a thousand titles of popular music." But Lewandowski's primary concern now is "pioneering the spread of Polish classical music in the United States." Indeed, although he sells popular music by mail order, he is "hoping to get out of this particular avenue because it slows me down as far as marketing classical music. I really would like to make a difference as far as Polish classical music availability and knowledge of Polish music in the United States."

Key to his project has been Selene, a label he first heard about when he was at a major "national fair in Poland of different musical labels, an equivalent of MIDEM in Western Europe. I searched for the company, where it is and who created it, and who worked there and things like that. I discovered that the Selene company is run by two musicians. Everything is done the way another label wouldn't do it. They are not after money, they are after documenting music by Polish composers and performers. I thought, 'Well, this music is not known in the United States at all.' Besides Chopin and maybe some CDs of Penderecki, Szymanowski, and Gorecki, there was really nothing to speak of in terms of Polish music in American record stores. Also, I discovered that Poland had very good artists who performed other music than Polish composers." So he decided to get exclusive rights to import Selene CDs to the United States. "Ever since, I have been trying to spread the word about Selene in the United States."

Why has Polish culture - in particular, Polish music - been so poorly represented in the United States? Lewandowski cites three main reasons, all stemming from Polish history. "First, Poland did not exist as a country from 1795 until 1918. For 123 years, it was illegal to claim to be Polish. Polish people had to obey, depending on where they lived, German, Russian, or Austrian rulers." Second, more recently, while Poland was behind the Iron Curtain, trade with the United States was constrained. Third, during the communist period, "the only label in Poland was Polskie Nagrania, which was a state label. They pretty much did whatever they wanted, and everything was directed from the Politburo, from the Party headquarters: what they put out, what they didn't. Many of the works were not really promoted. In addition, under the communists, people really didn't have incentive to work hard, because they had jobs no matter what, because it was one of the principles of the system, and whether people worked hard or worked lousy, they were rewarded the same. So why bother?"

Things are different now: "The people now have their own private enterprises, they are stretching themselves, and the results are showing." Lewandowski figures that there are currently somewhere around 50 labels in Poland. Some of them are the size of Selene, some are much bigger. And although Polskie Nagrania still exists (in fact, Poland Import Export imports many of its CDs as well), it has been considerably reduced in scale: "It lost all its huge buildings in Warsaw. They moved to another part of Warsaw where they were forced into maybe 10 or 12 rooms. They had several huge buildings before, they had recording studios, they had all the processing equipment that requires a lot of people. And right now because of all those dynamic, small labels [not to mention competition from the Polish branches of Sony, EMI, and Polygram] there is big competition for Polskie Nagrania. That's why Polskie Nagrania as a state business was not really able to stay alive the way they used to be." What exactly does Poland Import Export do? "I bring the CDs from Poland. I negotiate the prices and everything, and I arrange by phone and faxes with people in Poland how to ship it and exactly what titles and whatever, and they ship it here. I pay for the CDs, I pay for shipping, which is really costly because everything comes by air. It arrives in San Francisco, then I have to process it, because Selene does not have a bar code. I have to give it to a local company which does the bar coding and shrink wrap; and after this processing, the CDs are ready for the distributor, Bayside."

On the whole, Lewandowski tries not to sell Selene CDs to individuals. But because the company is listed in Schwann Opus, and because he has just set up a Web site (, many people do get in touch with him. "I explain to them that I can sell directly, but because my company is not set up to sell that way, I really have to charge a lot more for a CD than a store would. I think that's the only fair thing to do. Because if I sell directly, I will handle lots of orders myself, and I don't want to develop this company into a 10-person operation. I like it as it is"-which is, for the most part, a one-person business.

Lewandowski is particularly excited about two new projects from Selene. First is a world premiere disc of "unknown yet beautiful" music by Karol Lipinski ( 1790-1861 ), music that has been rarely performed because it poses such difficulty for interpreters. Second is Selene's new historical series, "The Great Polish Chopin Tradition." So far, this includes a disc of recordings by Alexander Michalowski (some recorded as early as 1905), as well as four CDs of performances by Raoul Koczalski, each filled out with new recordings of Koczalski's own compositions by such modern performers as Andrzey Tatarski and Jerzy Sterczynski. (Selene has also published a substantial book about Koczalski, although until they find a translator it's available in Polish only.) "Koczalski was a student of Mikuli, and Mikuli's teacher was Chopin himself. Mikuli was known for being very persistent in executing Chopin's compositions, and passed down to Koczalski this exact way of interpreting Chopin. Koczalski was really adamant about executing the music the way Chopin was playing it."

All in all, the availability of Selene in the United States shows that this mechanical engineer has, in fact, succeeded in his desire to make a difference, to do something unique. But Lewandowski insists on sharing the credit. "I want to reiterate," he insisted at the end of the interview, "that I am grateful to my wife, Marie, who is making all of this possible." Given the high quality of the Selene discs that I've heard so far, we all have reason to share his gratitude.


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