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Krzysztof Penderecki Concert
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:40 pm - Krzysztof Penderecki Concert

On October 11th I attended a Krzysztof Penderecki Concert of several of his chamber works at Miller Hall. Not only did I learn to spell Krzysztof Penderecki in Polish, though I am liable to forget how to do it soon enough; as usual the whole production was done with a style and generosity typical of the very professional Miller folks. The audience seemed to be oldsters and music students; I did hear quite a bit of German in the lobby.
Since the Miller performers seem mostly to come out of the Columbia musical school one gets a level of performance that is always competent, sometimes persuasive, never at the level of our world class virtuosi. For this reason among others the Miller season often quite properly presents music one canít hear in concert anywhere else. Its stalwarts always give an account of the fare that is fair to its intent, in its service loyally as a knight to a liege.
One must admire the Miller people for the range of their programming, the commodious an professional way they present music, the very affordable price of these recondite concerts. They had an element to uptown musical life that is at once unique and an adornment to New York cultural existence.
This concert by those who oddly call themselves the Walden Chamber Players included the very skilled even jaunty Alan R. Kay on clarinet bringing a varied range of subtle tones to his contribution. Alexander Velinson was unobtrusively masterful in his negotiations of the stormy and formidable craft Penderecki asks for in his violin parts. He traveled the fearsome rapids of its high harmonics as if he were playing one note in first position.
Susannah Chapman on bass also played some treacherous high notes that made her low interments sound like a violin; she achieved this with seeming ease and impeccability. Christof Huebner on viola gave quite a virtuoso ride to the his parts, especially the Cadenza per viola solo, without taking any of the music into a showy flamboyance that would have undermined its sacred to ultra-sacred quality.
Eric Ruske, who amused the Miller folk two weeks ago with a sterling performance of the Peter Leiberson Horn Concerto gave his treacherous instrument a smoothness or bark with remarkable urbane facility.
Jonathan Bass on piano was very accurate telling in the Webernesque Miniatures for Violin and Piano, very pungent in the sometimes folksy Sextet for Clarinet, Horn, String Trio and Piano afterwards. One can only commend the Walden group for their sympathy with and focused involvement with this very difficult and recondite music.
Occasionally Penderecki asks the musicians to play two instruments. I noticed while peeking at the music from the first row that the players together were doing at least one work, the Clarinet Quartet, from full score; there were no written out parts. It shows how little this music is taken up in the West.
Even when dissonant, his clashes of tone often are minor seconds or minor ninths, a salt to an implied consonance; the feeling of the texture is always tonal with sometimes some extreme degree of space in the vertical placement of the voices. The constant use of extended pedal points gives the listener the fleeing of leaden centers from which one moves from cautious if centrifugally with a crippled will; one is heavily tethered. The incessant canopic devices seem to look back into the deep past of music though the canons are free and fragmented, often donít go anywhere, are more appearance than reality.
There is very little complex polyphony or ensemble playing in this chamber music one has the feeling that the instrumentalists are isolated figures, one of whom is the one to concentrate on at the moment. This makes the music rather linear. The effect in the emotional language is one of extreme loneliness in the midst of a group one normally thinks of as a theatre of casual unbuttoned adhesion.
There is always in his writing a remarkable attention to timbre and color of pure sound; it suggests he has an exquisite response to noise itself. A violinist growing up in a musical family Penderecki string writing in particular is adorned with all the virtuosity of these instruments in techniques that are go back to Paganini as well as many he has invented himself.
Yet everything one hears of this musician is in the service of his very ferocious personal language that speaks to the nub of the spirit of his listeners if they might not always like or feel entirely comfortable with the sheer lacerated consciousness like a flayed animal much less the more obvious anguish of what they are hearing.
The extraordinary use of sheer sound may remind one of Stockhausen or Cage if only in the way that Penderecki explores in an intrepid analytical way important as the rest of the craft of the music itself what sonics are possible with whatever diverse ferocious he calls his stalwart soldiers to bring into a hall.
Penderecki certainly didnít disappoint us with lack of such ingenuity tonight. His clarinets played two clarinets, one I presume in A, not E Flat, since they looked virtually the same. His cellist also played the double bass. His French horn player walked off the stage in the second movement of one piece to play horn calls from afar as if he were a far off hunter in a forest in a Verdi or Wagner opera.
Even his use of the piano was weird; the treated it almost like a tuned set of drums; he had a lithoidal Henry Coil bit with the pianistís fingers plummeting deep into the strings like a surgeon offering a major jejunal removal as an amusement.
Thereís often some such visual element in Pendereckiís music which arms the listener with the visceral alacrity of theatre without music. For somebody with deliberately narrow palette in emotional offering Penderecki finds more subtlety in the minute nuances of despair than most composers do in their more passionately broad direct materials.


Rather amusingly Penderecki, the musical spokesman for a country most shabbily treated for centuries by all its neighbors, not merely Germany, seems to me the principal living architect of the kind of hoch kunst the German culture specializes in to protect us all from the vulgar incursions of the worldís untermenschen.
Many Germans these days not that they are bankers and pacifists like to check out how the survivors in countries their cleansing armies once dispatched are doing. Military invasion and genocide has become in our trivial age the first bargaining position in the tourist industry. Often the German cultural machine has been the patrons and champions of anyone who has outlasted their Third Reich seasons of less than civility.
Insiders say thereís nothing better for Jewish musicians nowadays than to make people happy in Germany; hoch und junge Deutchevolk canít get enough of Jews. They even hire Gypsies when they can't find Jews to entertain them with klezmer music. It shows that you just have to wait some people out to see their best side.
Tonight Penderecki gave us one or two heavyfooted kazatskis ala Prokeffief; they were merely short intermezzi between his central paradoxical intent to speak for a spiritual bankruptcy that might be Polish, European or the woe of life itself from bacteria up. He is the last great composer who speaks in the language of the hoch heldenleben notion of individual Byronism which according to our pundits had died out from its own vulgar excesses about a century ago.
We all know such cabbage-scented trivia expired with the supposed dimension of concert halls by futuristic masterpieces worthy of that once new machine age. Penderecki is popular as he is even among the sonic cognoscenti because beneath his surface dissonances and other fashionable modernities he writes in the spirit of Berliozí Harold In Italy. He is the voice of the solitary human spirit living in a melancholic European nightmare as much as Byron was. Like Byron he creates high Art such as many Germans love or admire in the service of a planetary humanism to which we can all in our vulgarity resonate.
The Miller notes gave one some interesting technical explanations of Pendereckiís music, admirable in its description of how the composer uses shafting tonal centers around certain Pythagorean notes to produce his musical language. I think Penderecki as a humanist politician in the manner of Beethoven or Verdi draws the audience to his music as they go to hear other such composers, supposedly dated or wedded like necrophiliacs on a tear to extinct aesthetics that always had less interest in high Art than being enjoyed in volume like a courtesan.
In this deep sense Penderecki for all his high craft comes down politically like Beethoven and Verdi on the side of common humanity against the haute philsophie and decisive acts of any master race to be the natural autocrats of the world for which Europe is famous. As a Pole and human being Penderecki doesnít feel anybody has the estate to stifle and kill anyone in the benign natural inequality of Creation God has bestowed upon us. Advocate and politician for the species as aa whole as Couperin and Rameau were, as Mozart was in his time in his opera and Masonic music, Penderecki does it inn the same way Byron and Berlioz did: he is not a nationalist or even really a spokesmen for any institutional religion but a champion of the diverse and individual voice.
This intent can or should be separated from Pendereckiís music anymore than we can do so with Mozartís operas, Beethoven or Verdi; treating his musical achievement as if it is some arid etude in the use of sonics is not at all what he is about.
Most of us are more familiar with the big choral works of Penderecki like the St. Luke Passion, Dies Irae, Anaklasis, and so on, the sensational compositions that gave him world wide fame; a few more of us might know his wonderful violin and cello concerti. The rest of his oeuvre includes a few symphonies, a small gaggle of operas, one based on Alduous Huxleyís The Devils At Loudon, another on Miltonís Paradise Lost, a third a setting of Gerhardt Hauptmannís The Black Mask, have escaped the ken of most of us.
His chamber works are almost never played here. There are various reasons for this neglect in the United States. Most of his big works require forces and rehearsal time our efficient musical evangel donít care to invest in anything. His concerti arenít show pieces; they revel in slow and meditative passages with little variety, set stolidly in the minor keys, often offering lugubrious movements over static pedal points our culture would regard as a pathology easily remedied by watching daytime game shows on television and a double dose of Prozack. His chamber music are more virtuosically flamboyant and ingenious, should have a place in the repertoire; they sometimes require an emotional range a shallow virtuoso may not have.
Perhaps there is a certain set presumption of romantic woe and turmoil in a country whose greatest genius was the melancholic Chopin. Yet one can't say Penderecki is at a remove in his dour view of existence from other Polish genius in the arts of his age such as Andrei Wajda. The tradition Penderecki had been brought up in, the Russian, clearly has touched him in the persona in the equally dyspeptic Shostakovitch. Yet Penderecki outdoes Shostakovitch in the narrow intensity of his nacral meditations and robotics motoric intermezzi.
Penderecki characteristic looking-at-a skull emotional style isnít for everybody; it doesnít ever have a perkiness and hunger for infant pleasure that Americans savor more easily than dunly packaged woe. After all ,we are the country that foaled and nurtured Ted Lewis. We are a nation of bibulous public optimists; we donít often or ever gather in a public place to put on sackcloth and ashes like the citizens of Ninevah. We donít feel as if we have anything or anybody to mourn. We just threw our losses an expensive catered funeral or clear out the trash to the landfill before it stinks and go on in our communal Alzheimer world, smiling.
Yet Penderecki reminds us in his very anguished music how other places have had a different history. He was born in 1933, spent his childhood in the German occupation of Poland that killed about a third of its population, his youth endured a subsequent Russian Man Who Came To Dinner visit, stifling if much less efficiently murderous. He lived into his middle age in a realm run in an autocratic and vicious way by the traditional enemies of his community.
The Germans had slaughtered everybody around him when he was a child with impunity; the Polish army had met the German tanks on their borders in 1938 with a cavalry on horseback. The Russians were materialistic atheists fighting a holy war against both Polish nationalism and the idea of spiritual life itself. It is the mercy of an involute God that there are some enemies of religion that give a good name to spiritual institutions these clubhouse juggernauts cannot attain from the laudation of their friends or their pious view of themselves. All this terror and ordinary pain formed Pendereckiís musical language.
We have trouble as Americans understanding such a doleful and hopeless history and normatively odious present. We are by our very departure from Europe exempt from both the life and the music that might come for such common disasters as the self-acclaimed cradle of civilization has commonly brought its locals. Pendereckiís music is not likely to have much favor among us beyond the part of the United States that is in effect a skein of pockets of European provincial.
His talent, bravery and singular melodic gifts often, in Beethovenís phraseĒ go from the heart to the heartĒ. Unlike Beethoven, Penderecki has never tidied to be lighthearted, amusing, witty or touched with a crazy pantheistic joy. His music is serious and august as reading a vole by a dour hermit residing among the gravestones in a cemetery.
Certainly one should feel such severe isolation if one grew up in a culture whose leaders couldnít protect its citizen from massacres and military occupation during most of oneís lifetime. The Stalinist mistrust of and injury to oneís neighbor that was a feature of Communist life everywhere no doubt also is an formative source of the passions of this music.
Yet it took Penderecki to transform a craft, which at bottom is neutral as the snows of Pluto, into a personal language to describe the moonscape of these great nightmare vistas. At most one instrument runs a melody line while another provides a pedal point like an iron chain about or below the tentatively soaring melody. Penderecki has in his music more ways to convey despair that Heinz has varieties of catsup.


We donít often or at all acknowledge generally that we have been in the middle of a global struggle abroad in one form or another on Earth over the past two hundred and fifty years. One side attempts to maintain its kings, priests, imperial religions, colonialism under one name or another along with its various justifications, racist, elitist, technological, for dominating the world.
The other side, the once slaves and victims of massacres of this first group are usually radical in the means they take from both the seductions and the armed forces of the first legion. Each of us has a personal history that mirrors this conflict. Had not Europe been as destructive and contemptuous to its own children as it was for many centuries the whole history of the country I live in as well as the New Wold would have been different.
In many a European country a third to a half of the population left everything behind them to come to America and start a new life with nothing but what they could carry. It turned out to be very salubrious decision. Almost every member of the audience in Miller Hall in 2003 had relatives that had stayed in Europe as did the Pendereckis and were killed by European business as usual. How many Pendereckis were killed around him a the composer went though his life is to most of us unimaginable. There is a good deal of European agitprop still out of doors in our own cultural centers; it has the baleful effect of siphoning off the cleverest and most intelligent of these children of former slaves and pariahs who have escaped Europe to live again as self-invented Europeans if sorrily provincial ones. Some of these European humanist from the hinterlands take social and political positions that are apparently at a remove from the general history of great genocides in war and stifling autocracies in peace for which Europe is famous; these seeming apennines merely blur the nature of their deep allegiances.
Very often such Old World provincials seem to oppose the corporate world though of course they live off it like princes, because the corporate realms are vulgar and ignorant ill-mannered engines that push a porcine philistine materialism not worthy of a European slave state or a European massacre.
Iím not making a case against this people or for the populists as the good guys here; Iím defined the very specific reality in which a composer offered some great politically persuasive music in the character of vigils, sermons and prophetic utterances while others listened to it. European and American history is different, in fact one has rebelled and departed from the other.
Concerts or any cultural attention to European Artists, even those of genius and great achievement who have taken a different route to the same end like Penderecki, is in some sense a call to the attention of Americans to Europe as if we are part of a common past and destiny. We arenít. One of the reason that Americans are as enamored with the new as they are is that in some primal way they remember the past with rue and repugnance.
One might wonder what large resonances Pendereckiís music attempts to have on listeners sitting in a concert hall in the peaceful and amiably porcine United States. One might as well ponder why some of us particularly around colleges and large eastern cities in this country, are wedded in a legitimate but imaginary way to a history on the other side of the planet that has nothing to do with us presently. In fact is the very insufferably and doleful history from which most of his in the United States have consciously and deliberately escaped.
Probably about half the population to the United States would not be with us now had they stayed to kill or be killed in Europe. Had Pendereckiís family emigrated to one of the large polish communities in the United States he almost certainly would not have written the kind of music, with all his genius, he has nor would it have the tirelessly doleful sound we had heard at Miller Hall tonight.
Some of our elitists and Old World provincials might say waggishly he would have written television jingles for Preparation F. Itís possible. Some of our populists might say he would have been better off doing so. These real and imaginary alternatives to relate this concert to a large movement in history, a long and sometimes invisible planetary holy war we all are immersed in but only fitfully acknowledge.
All of us have been brought up on one side of the battle or the other. I myself was on both sides, raised and formally eructated to believe that I lived to slake my spiritual thirsts in a few oases of the Old World faithful in a philistine lad; I was also as a street person and long time hitchhiker very familiar with the roguish and republican sentiments that animated the national vision of the United States beyond its isolated legitimate collegiums.
In those days the movies one saw Ronald Coleman dealing with the surly and hotheaded Hottentots with decisiveness and a sword if need be as well as fairness and equity when they were reasonable; Hollywood was somehow working for Whitehall.
One heard indirectly that the English gentry were the master race, colonialism English style had brought civilization to the naked savages hooting through the jungles, the French were better chefs, lovers and philosophers than the English and Americans, Germans were invincibly formidable technicians with iron intellects who could casually turn out machines to heal or kill as efficiently and offhandedly as Americans could make peanut butter.
This religious awe of powerful Americans of Europe didnít include Poles, Italians, Irish, Spanish, or any noysome East European muzhiks; it was a cult confined like our emigration laws to the imaginary lords of Northern Europe unless they were Kelts. Asians? Blacks? Fugget it.
Yet one could hear all over the heartland of American and on every city street quite a different view of Europe and America traditions. They all shared George Washingtonís feeling that we were better off detaching ourselves from ďscurvy alliancesĒ with any of them. Many of our American institutions that took up self-invented European provincial status might have done in those netted by them; more importantly politically they isolated everybody not in their arachnid aegis from access to all the good of having am memory and education itself, not merely the virtues of the West.
The news that Europe had effectively had destroyed itself in the 1940s as both as a spiritual realm and a colonial power got to America very late; some havenít heard it yet. There were too many cultural institutions in America that simply could not accept that Europe had nothing more to give itself much less its hinterlands in the way of Art, politics or thought even when Europe itself in its emptiness after it had killed a hundred million of its own. Europe knew it first; it took up galloping Americanization by the 60s.
The European provincial cult was sill alive and well among many of the rubes in the audience. They didnít see Penderecki as one who in the way of a recluse was as well escaping from Europe. To them Penderecki was one more European master preaching the old faith to the philistines.
If Penderecki has finally lived a fecund European life as a professor, on the evidence does better Art in America and thinks more intelligently as well socializing at the bottom than one does elsewhere. It may not be the virtues of organized crime that promotes such optimal situations for American consciousness; it could be rather that the alterative niches in high places here in a republican country of European escapees are utterly venomous to the spirit.
To undermine oneís sanity by claiming one is in another place than where one is, has another history than the legacy one actually has, cannot be healthy for the soul mich less give one a secure pulpit from which to preach even the value of scrapple.
On a certain level attending a concert like this is an invitation into an inviable war zone to watch a ghostly battle from an imaginary tank with near impunity. Our American colleges in the past half century have moved aerie from the naked evangelical stand they had taken for European elitism and imperial Christianity; they have slid instead to an equally European notion, Marxism, only superficially a departure from the traditional European fare from of its thick gratinee of atheistical materialism. In this cult to be porcine is not merely a virtue; it has the grandeur of a pious banality.
Obviously Penderecki isnít a 19th century bourgeois prophet writing for sometimes dyspeptic, sometimes sated burghers or Parisian jades. Heís hardly a gourmand nor is he an epicurean. Yet it isnít merely that romantic music hasnít died, the middle class, neither epicene nor stuffed with churls havenít disappeared either, Marx to the contrary.
Marxism as Penderecki experienced it over decades, as weíve been touched by it ourselves, is a traditional European juggernaut like its ancient duchies and faith systems working to control and rule colonies of men and provinces with autocracies whose apparently benign egalitarian and reductive character merely sheathes the old king and priest magic vaudeville in the guise of commissar and ideological theoretician, guises the European mentality hopes will make tyranny and its hope for comfort if not redemption palatable to its more affluent and obese rubes.
New World thinking goes another way. It basically wants to be left alone. As the Jacksonian energies of the country now take issue with the Old World on much of the planet, the largest and most quiet revolution on Earth these days is the continued emigration of millions of aliens like our ancestors from European and Asian tyrannies of the old sort here.
The other revolution is very Americanization of Europe in which where the populace has a titular respectable estate on a vague United States republican model in the very maws of the old empires, England, France and Germany, once the most active leviathans on the planet for colonial peace, order, always against private life and freedom.
One can't avoid if one has any sense of history at all contemplating such large matters when listening to a master like Penderecki who has lived though the worst of the European follies and slaughters. His music is among other things a cri de coeur of the Old World that is bankrupt from both the king and priest syndrome and Marxism. His music is resonant with a European history as Beethovenís and Verdi in their time had called for republican revolutions in Europe.
A message from one of the geniuses among our current cousins in this bloody and bankrupt Old World, it is no wonder that Penderecki has been involved as he has been with themes of terrible loss and woe, why his choral and theatre music speakers to us with a more precise language than do many of his chamber works.
There is a peculiar quality of silence sometimes in Pendereckiís writing in these works, moments in which nothing is heard. Yet the music prior to it has been filled with a despair almost beyond utterance. It suggests the kind of bankruptcy that has taken away the principal case for European systems of inequality in the past half century. Inequality as a system is supposed to nurture excellence as well as common slavery and genocide.
We havenít had much excellence from Europe in a long, long time. Inequality is also as well prone for the same Euclidean reasons to take up seasonal massacre out of pique at the florid diversity of Cation and its prodigal productions of what appear to the nearsighted to be untermenschen as a means to create standards that elevate the few and tolerably affluent to their optimal spiritual condition.
Europe hasnít entertained us with a world war lately either. Its rather republican and democratic response to its past in the end has been the same as Americanís memory of that same seemingly eternal disaster. When one goes to Europe one can see in a thousand ways that the hope of the common people if not their princes and aristoi is that their countries will be much more like the relatively integrally peaceful and limited if hardly perfect governments of their cousins in America.
Given this newly republican European history, essentially a chapter in an eternal struggle between states and individuals, Pendereckiís very personal musical language for all its surface dissonance and attention to pure noise is at heart romantic quintessential early 19th century European utterance. His choral music in the spirit of Berliozí equally sensational Requiem with a different veneer like his chamber music on this night looks both outward and inward of a timeless and institutionless monk of a dead cult who peers out of a hermitage into the Dark Ages of eternity at a landscape of blood and sorrow.


Since we have in the 21st century a repertoire in the concert hall nearly all from the 19th century, as strange a phenomenon as if the 19th center had listened mostly to Josquin and Monteverdi, composers like Aaron Jay Kernis who have chosen to write in a romantic idiom our concert audience wants to hear, I would like to offer a very speculative explanation of why romantic music has not died.
Romantic music was a harvest of the Industrial Revolution: a time generally when the state and the individual seemed to go in separate directions very publicly. Both Communism and fascism were its anodynes for those who valued order. The poor and enslaved have never been happy with their rich masters, the rich themselves have not been notably enamored with mortality, their cheating stewards or the special frustrations of ruling the uncouth.
Yet in the 19th century to the present those among us who are not Esterhazys have had a place in volume if we buy a cheap ticket in which to celebrate our ordinary political vertigo
Romantic music was a bully theatre for the a broad middle class who paid the toll to hear sonic mirrors of their uneasy, a huge legion who were as opposed to states and power as their ancestors to feudal princes who not only lived off them but sometimes flogged them; the 19th century for the first time in extant history had an arena in which to celebrate their dissents from largely still regal and haughty monarchies as fetes of Byronic rebelliousness. When the fetes had words as did opera one might like Verdi have to flee at times from these lords to avoid arrest.
We can be certain that no matter what plans our politicians have, the populace will always be with us. A composer can either make his language out of the received musical manners of one group or the other. There are no more Esterhazys; the nobility is too busy at adultery or dedicating post offices and orchid shows to patronize the Arts as did the late Archduke Rudolph. Both the message and music of Penderecki is not all that untranslatable to American terms. His music resembles at times the Western movies of Clint Eastwood.
The cowboy who has escaped worlds that have been indifferent or worse to take up a life of lonely freedom on the prairie are not alien to the route that Penderecki has traveled.
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