By Marek Żebrowski

Polish violinist Jerzy Milewski died in Curitiba, Brazil, on 23 June 2017. He was 70 years old. Born in Warsaw on 17 September 1946, Milewski succumbed to cancer after a very difficult, year-long fight. He is survived by his wife, Aleida, and two children, Christopher and Pamina.

It was the tone—his tone—deep and sweet, brilliant and beguiling, that swayed audiences all across the world. There was his technique too—after all Jerzy Milewski was a pupil of the legendary Irena Dubiska—and his playing, charmingly old school with elegant bowing to match, was clearly on par with the best virtuosos of the day. Then there was the family tradition. His paternal grandfather played cello in Warsaw Philharmonic. His father, Wiktor, played in cinema orchestras and with the Stefan Rachoń Orchestra in Warsaw, starting in the 1930s and continuing after the war. A few years after Jerzy was born, he joined his twin brother Roman as student in Warsaw’s Grammar Music School on Miodowa Street. Jerzy loved the sound of the violin, but his twin brother preferred to study piano. One of Jerzy’s first public concerts was a performance of the Vivaldi Violin Concerto with the Stefan Rachoń Orchestra as well as appearances and broadcasts with pianist Maciej Małecki, composer and pianist Jerzy Derfel, and a celebrated poet, film director and journalist, Agnieszka Osiecka.

After his father’s death in 1963, Jerzy became the sole breadwinner for the family, earning money by playing concerts as well as lending his musical talents for private parties and funerals. He also toured Europe and Asia with the famed Karol Teutsch Chamber Orchestra. During his studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, Jerzy met Aleida Schweitzer. Born in southern Brazil, Aleida came to study piano for one year with Jan Ekier in Poland. “She seemed to be always near my practice studio,” Jerzy recalled with a twinkle in his eye, “and I kept bumping into her every time I opened the door.” Her studies in Warsaw ended and she had to return to Brazil but Jerzy had one more year to get his diploma. Eager to join Aleida in Brazil, Jerzy applied for a passport, but the communist authorities refused his requests several times. He was also prevented from further touring with the Teutsch Orchestra and “failed” to qualify for the violin section opening at the Warsaw Philharmonic.

After three years of waiting, in June of 1971 Jerzy was finally able to leave Poland for Brazil. He married Aleida and, with the help of his father-in-law, an influential conservative politician from Santa Catarina State, got settled in his new homeland. He and Aleida eventually moved to Rio de Janeiro and continued to perform in a violin and piano duet. Some concerts were a challenge, since pianos in Brazil are rarely world-class. But Milewski was unperturbed—humidity and less-than-ideal venues never dimmed his unmatched sound and old world glamour. Warmed by his playing and gregarious personality, the invariably enthusiastic audiences gave Jerzy and Aleida a great reception everywhere they appeared.

In Rio de Janeiro Jerzy Milewski met several giants of Brazilian popular music: Chico Buarque, Vinicius De Moraes, Luiz Eça, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, among others. Thus began another of Jerzy’s adventures in music, “my doctorate, the continuation of my studies” as he once put it. He played with them and their ensembles. There was much touring of South America, lots of parties and drinking. “They loved to eat and perform, just like me,” Jerzy said, adding, “They also cured me of stage fright before concerts.” Eventually he would make over two dozen recordings with his South American friends, his circle expanding to include Djavan, Milton Nascimento, Paulinho da Viola, as well as more concerts, including appearances with the legendary Astor Piazzolla. After one such event, the after party at Rio’s exclusive Yacht Club ended with tablecloths and cutlery tossed into the Guanabara Bay. The huge bill that reached Milewski in Rio well after Piazzolla left town was, like many other hilarious stories, part of the great repository of tales Jerzy savored for sharing with his friends. Hospitable and unfailingly courteous, the doors to his spacious apartment in Rio’s quietly elegant Leme district were always open to musicians from across the globe. Jerzy presided happily over his large dining room table, laden with Polish and Brazilian specialties expertly prepared and displayed by Aleida. At the end of the evening, the beach-facing windows would be opened wide to the tropical night, filled with sensuous scents and sounds of the pounding surf coming from the beach right across Avenida Atlântica. The sun, when it finally began to climb across the sea after a night of celebrating, always reminded Jerzy of faraway Poland, continents away across the equator and under a different constellations of stars.

Another facet of Jerzy’s musical life was his outreach to young audiences. With Aleida he traveled far and wide, visiting many schools in poor and very poor neighborhoods, including some of the truly infamous Rio favelas. These concerts were as important to him as those in the biggest halls or festivals, like the “Música no Museu” series, where he and Aleida were often guest artists. His last visit to the U.S. came in April of 2011, when the Milewski Duo performed at several California venues, including a Paderewski Festival fundraiser in Paso Robles followed by a visit to the Polish Music Center in Los Angeles.

Ever a meticulous professional, Jerzy was always ready to open his violin case, pull out his instrument, give it a brief and loving look, tune it carefully, and place his hand on the strings. Like a magic wand, his bow, tracing graceful strokes across the strings, evoked thesoundhis sound—and with it a faint smile from the performer. Throughout his life Jerzy knew exactly where he could find that tone—always and under any condition. Once the music began his scores, extensively marked with fingering and bowing, were simply left behind. The music and the spirit soared.