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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Concert Review: Penderecki Conducts Penderecki

The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki brought the Yale Philharmonic Orchestra to Carnegie Hall on Friday evening as part of the orchestra's Yale in New York series. The award-winning composer led the orchestra in a program of four of his own works.

Krzysztof Penderecki conducts a rehearsal of the Threnody.

The evening opened with the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Written in 1960 for large string orchestra, this work uses "tone clusters" (whole sets of notes played together to create powerful blocks of dissonance) and unusual playing techniques to create a harsh sonic landscape that evokes the horrors of nuclear war. The players pluck, scrape, and strike the bellies of their instruments. The knocks, yowls and screeches that result create a terrifying sound: the sound of total annihilation.

Violinist Syoko Aki joined the orchestra for the Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra, a one-movement concerto that pits the skittering, panicked sound of the soloist against great slabs of brass and strings in the orchestra. Sonically, it is as if a conventional violin concerto was being played through the broken shards of a mirror. Penderecki uses brass, harmonium, piano, and even a musical saw to provide contrast to the fleet-fingered arpeggios and statement of the main theme, which in turn evokes Polish folk-songs.

Penderecki came to Yale to teach music in the 1970s. Works written in that period showed the composer gradually rejecting atonality and serialism in favor of a "neo-classical" approach to music. The thoughtful construction and fearless experimentation is still present, but the fear and oppression are gone, leading to sunnier textures that may be easier for the listener.

Written in 2008, the Horn Concerto (Winterreise) is a good introduction to this tonal approach. Soloist William Purvis coped admirably with the challenges written for his instrument. He played in call-and-response with a trio of echoing horns as the orchestra twisted and whirled through a kaleidoscope of sound including Mahlerian waltz-parody and marvelous string textures.

The concert concluded with the one-movement Fourth Symphony. Conceived as an Adagio, this slow, thoughful work laid out a glittering sonic carpet for the listener, punctuated with mighty statements from the onstage brass and three trumpeters positioned in the balcony. Penderecki propelled the work forward, leading the band into a frenzied attempt at a fugue, interrupted by the mocking brass. Finally, a second, full statement of the fugue theme led to the orchestra slowly fading out, instrument by instrument to end the composition with a powerful statement of silence. The silence was broken by the acclaim for composer and orchestra.
Photo © 2010 Yale Philharmonic Orchestra.
Photo by Vincent Oneppo, courtesy Aleba Gartner Associates

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.