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Monday, May 14, 2012

The (Polish) Joke's on Me

Hard to imagine that in our mild-mannered environment a classical-music review should draw considerable ire, yet that’s what I managed to provoke in 1986 when composer-conductor Krzystof Penderecki appeared at Proctors with Yo-Yo Ma and the Cracow Philharmonic. But it wasn’t my musical opinions that set people off. It was the sentence, “Krzystof Penderecki writes music that can sound as impenetrable (to an American) as his name.” Schenectady’s Polish-American community took terrible umbrage at what they took to be a swipe. As I explained to a group spokesman, I was merely observing that Americans have a tough time grappling with the spelling and pronunciation of foreign names where the consonants and vowels behave differently, and who among his association hasn’t suffered consequent spelling errors? The music, of course, was a non-issue to my critics, none of whom attended the concert. I should note that I’ve become a much bigger fan of Penderecki’s work in the intervening years.


Krzystof Penderecki
HOW DO YOU KEEP a concert of classical music contemporary while respecting centuries-old traditions?

The Cracow Philharmonic had the nice idea of touring with a distinguished composer at the helm, bringing in a renowned soloist and offering a mixture of 20th-century works for its performance at Proctor’s Sunday evening. The idea was nice; the result was disappointing.

Krzystof Penderecki writes music that can sound as impenetrable (to an American) as his name. His experiments with orchestration – particularly in the use of semitones and tone clusters – have challenged tradition and earned him great respect in the avant-garde music world. But his most significant exposure to a mass audience probably was in Stanley Kubrick’s use of his music for some of the eerier sequences in the movie “The Shining.”

Penderecki conducted two of his own works to open Sunday's concert. The first, a short work for chamber orchestra and 12 ocarinas, is titled “The Awakening of Jacob.” Second was his Cello Concerto No. 2, written in 1982 and here performed by Yo-Yo Ma.

You can’t take Tchaikovsky ears to a concert like this. There are no pleasant melodies to hang onto. The harmonies are dense and discordant. You are therefore required to approach the music with a benevolence that the music itself does not provoke.

Jacob’s awakening, as noted in Genesis, was both literal and spiritual. To find the Lord in Penderecki’s music is an ambitious prospect. It isn’t a Strauss-like tone poem that offers a story. So, while listening, I found myself in contemplation of another kind.

What is the appeal of this piece? That was my question. Over 1,600 people were in attendance, a good crowd for a Proctor’s classical concert.

To listen to such a work without continuously judging it is difficult. As long as I kept those judgments at bay, I was impressed by the shifts of mood and the novel sounds the orchestra exhibited. But such contemplation would then be interrupted by a '”who cares?” as my mind snapped shut.

One prerequisite to the deep appreciation of such a work is familiarity, the chance to assimilate the varied aspects of the piece. Good, sturdy songs and symphonies benefit from that and that ultimately becomes the “test of time.”

That will be a significant test for the Cello Concerto No 2, a work that wishes to put the tradition of virtuoso soloist into a modern-day score. The biggest challenge is to come to terms with the fact that a cello is a lyrical instrument that appreciates any chance to sing. Penderecki doesn’t write sweet cello tunes. In their place was a complex melodic study based on a system of intervals.

So satisfaction must be gained instead from the other elements: rhythmic and harmonic, in particular, that were offered to the soloist in an impressively virtuosic setting.

Ma, who has a delightful stage presence, gave a terrific performance. To be able to hear the piece a few times more would allow a better chance either to penetrate its mysteries or to see right through it. A first-time reaction is more of a reflection of your own state of mind at the time.

One of the technical problems hampering the concert was a poor showing by the orchestra. lt was much more noticeable in the Symphony No. 6 by Shostakovich that concluded the program. The strings were sloppy in their attacks, horn players were stepping on their notes, and there didn’t seem to be an effective rapport between the players and Penderecki.

His reputation suggests that he is a better conductor than this concert demonstrated. The Shostakovich symphony combines all of the composer’s characteristics in a delightful work to which time’s test should be kind. It also was an effective complement to Penderecki’s own writing, which displays the influence of the Russian’s orchestrational style. But this performance was a mediocre display of the piece. It sounded good, but it should have sounded much better.

As an isolated event, this concert may not have provided the best exposure to new music in general and the three programmed works in particular. But it is important not to judge the validity of new music on the basis of only a performance or two. The next orchestra that comes to town may have something equally valid to say.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, Jan. 21, 1986

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