Highlandtown man satisfying passion for conducting


Paul Jan Zdunek's grandmother in Highlandtown doesn't understand too much of this orchestra conducting business.

She says to him: "What do you need to get up there for? They're playing the instruments. They don't even look at you."

But Mr. Zdunek, who in a few weeks will leave South Conkling Street for graduate studies in conducting at the Cleveland Institute of Music, knows enough about the art to give his grandmother and anyone else an adequate answer.

"A lot of what a conductor does goes on in rehearsal. What people see in concert is the final touch," said the 25-year-old graduate of the Peabody Conservatory. "The conductor is the main source of artistic expression and technique, and he's up there to remind the players. When you have 80 to 120 people playing, each one with their own part, not everyone can hear what's going on.

"One person ties that all together -- the conductor," he said.

He can explain what a conductor does, but he doesn't yet know how a musician becomes a conductor who does it well. Some days he can't even figure out why he wants to be one.

"It's scary," Mr. Zdunek said Saturday before playing the organ at a wedding in Irvington. "The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know."

No one on either side of his family plays an instrument, no one encouraged him to take lessons when he was a toddler, and he never even heard classical music until he was 12.

His father is an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service. His mother is a property manager for Crown Central Petroleum Corp.

And a lot of the guys he grew up with around Patterson Park wound up playing in heavy metal bands, dropping out of school, getting into trouble or simply leading lives that don't move to a soundtrack by Brahms.

He can't stand the Beatles and he loathes Elvis, although he does have a black velvet poster of the King.

"I hate popular music," said Mr. Zdunek, whose great-grandparents came to Baltimore from Poland at the turn of the century. "From the time I was born until I was 12 or 13, I was a Highlandtown boy, but from 13 to 25 I've grown accustomed to the finer things in life."

So just how does an East Baltimore kid grow up with a passion to conduct symphony orchestras?

Mr. Zdunek's path to the podium began in the boys' choir at Sacred Heart of Jesus Roman Catholic Church. "I was an altar boy and started singing in the choir when I was in the fifth grade," he said. "That got me started, and by my early teens, teachers and counselors were taking me to the symphony because I was interested."

It all fell together with an eight-track tape player on the balcony of an Ocean City motel when he was 13.

"I had this tape of Bach's greatest hits with a G minor fugue on it -- they call it 'The Little Fugue' -- and I played it over and over," he said. "I was down Ocean City on vacation that summer, listening to it on the balcony by myself, and this time, instead of just hearing the surface melody, I heard the inside of it, the inner voices, and I was fascinated."

It was one of those handful of times in life, he said, when a person is vulnerable to change.

The moment on the balcony led to piano lessons the next year, but at age 14, young Zdunek was already a decade behind his peers who were students of serious music.

Although adequate at piano and organ, which allows him to make money playing at churches on weekends, he committed himself to the study of composition and conducting after graduating from Calvert Hall High School.

"I wanted a big career," he said. "I didn't want to be just another pianist in the world.

"I feel like I'm playing the orchestra, that the orchestra is my instrument," he said. "You get an electrical charge that runs from the musicians through me and out to the audience. It's overwhelming."

This fall Mr. Zdunek will be one of three students in the graduate conducting program at the Cleveland institute, a course with a tuition of $11,500 a year. He won a $7,000 scholarship during his audition -- in which he and two others were selected from eight applicants -- and will borrow for the rest.

He leaves for Cleveland, and a house he rented over the telephone, on Aug. 22.

Although he expects great things of himself, Mr. Zdunek doesn't expect success just to be waiting for him.

And whatever he might accomplish in the world, a special part of Baltimore will always be home.

Asked what a symphonic composition inspired by life in Highlandtown might sound like, he said: "It would have to have a big Polish oompah band in the middle. . . . "

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