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Pondering Penderecki

[whitespace] Krzysztof Penderecki Beyond Programmatic: Polish conductor Krzysztof Penderecki.

One of the world great modernists conducts the San Jose Symphony

By Scott MacClelland

SAN JOSE SYMPHONY trumpeter James Dooley is getting the compliment of a lifetime this weekend. Guest conductor Krysztof Penderecki, whom some consider the greatest living composer, is writing three new solo cadenzas for Dooley to play in the well-known Concerto in E-flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra, one of two works (the other is the Symphony no. 104 in D Major) by Haydn on this weekend's program.

Of obviously keener interest to the symphony, Penderecki (pronounced Pen-der-ETT-ski) will also conduct his own Symphony no. 4 (1989) and the work with which he sharply changed the course of Polish classical music in 1960, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, for 52 strings.

However, contrary to the San Jose Symphony's notes, neither of these works is in any way programmatic--in other words, subordinate to some visual imagery. As Penderecki explains it, "I was lucky that right after I wrote Threnody, one of three works using the 'sound mass' [long-held, all-pitch chords] idiom, it was recognized as original. After I heard it, I thought it might have some substance, and I added the dedication. Before I wrote it, I was working in the electronic studio. The sound of Threnody actually resembles electronic sounds."

Explaining his role here, Penderecki adds, "When [the San Jose Symphony] asked me do it--to fill out a short program--I said fine, but I need one hour more rehearsal time. These days, Threnody is not very much performed; it still is a hard piece."

The "sound mass" by itself, Penderecki soon realized, had exhausted its potential for further development. "I had said everything I could in this idiom," he explains. "I went back to study polyphony of the high Renaissance--Okeghem, Lasso, Palestrina--and to write for the choir."

That led, starting in the mid-1960s, to a series of sacred works, including the Stabat Mater, St. Luke Passion, Dies Irae (Auschwitz Oratorio), Utrenya and Magnificat. On an equally exalted theme, Penderecki wrote his first opera, The Devils of Loudon, in 1968-69. In these works, Penderecki used the sound mass, but also developed other special effects, including choral whispering, tone clusters, microtones (notes that fall between the usual notes of the scale) and indeterminate pitch.

"In the '70s I was again looking for something different," he continues, "and something new. That led to the first violin concerto, for Isaac Stern, and Paradise Lost for the Chicago Lyric Opera. Then I discovered the late 19th century, the symphonies of Bruckner, then Sibelius and Shostakovich. I wanted to continue this very important tradition that ended, really, with Shostakovich."

To date, the 65-year-old composer has written seven symphonies (two of which remain unfinished), several concertos, three operas and, more recently, a growing body of chamber music. The single-movement Symphony no. 4 was commissioned to mark the bicentennial of the French Revolution. The piece has been described as moving "from a jesting spirit to the repetitive sound of an automatic weapon," a characterization that makes Penderecki groan. "Oh, please," he says, "I've never composed any program music." In accepting the commission, Penderecki told the French Ministry of Culture that he would write them a symphony, "but it would be nothing about the revolution."

While his personal expressive style has moved between the radical and the conservative, Penderecki has certainly pressed his distinctive fingerprints into the soil of western classical music and boldly ventured where even his Polish contemporaries, Witold Lutoslawski and Henryk Gorecki, have feared to go.

One thing remains clear: Penderecki's music is intensely expressive. He manipulates melodies, harmonies and rhythms according to a unique vision and has, like all great artists, continually created new artistic challenges for himself.

The San Jose Symphony, conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki, performs Friday-Saturday (Feb. 5-6) at 8pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $17-$47. (408/288-2828)

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From the February 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro.

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