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The Rambler :: blog

Monday, September 27, 2004

Warsaw Part II 

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Part I here
c11.30 am
23 Sept 04
Krasinski Gardens

The park is heavily wooded. Warsaw is heavily wooded: as those citizens surviving at the end of the war cleared the rubble and stored their dead - in preparation for proper burial at a later, more propitious date - they also planted hundreds of thousands of trees to help accelarate their city's renewal. None of the guidebooks tell you about the trees. So many of the wide avenues have large trees down both sides. As the leaves turn to their autumn colours, the effect is magical - everywhere is beautiful.

I've sorted out my tickets and programme book for the festival. Apparently there was some misunderstanding and my hotel reservation was not made, but that is sorted now. They'd also run out of press passes, so I had to buy my tickets in the end, but for the princely sum of £28 (155 zl) I have entry to 7 concerts and an opera, so I'm not complaining. I also have a fat, 400-page concert book for just £3.50 (20 zl).

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Ah, that programme book. When I started reading it, I immediately imagined Kyle Gann's reaction (see here and later posts; in related news, see also these others), and it wasn't favourable - neither was mine. Warsaw Autumn, you see, has been a tremendously successful exercise in promotion. It is also a proud and valuable part of the new music calendar, and has given a huge boost to the careers of many now-prominent composers. But there are all sorts of reasons why it looms larger in the consciousness than many other new music festivals. These have to do with Cold War politics, Western European feelings about the East, Polish national sensibilities, a sudden explosion of creativity at the end of the 1950s, etc etc etc. But it has to be admitted that the Festival is also run by an extremely efficient publicity machine. As I've said before, the international press were covering the event from the very start - and not the music-specialist press. The New York Times had a piece on the preparations for the event before the first one had even begun, and the London Times reviewer sent in several reports from the early years of the festival. By it's nature it was (is less so now) an event that attracted huge international interest, and it's organisers were quick to work with this. Warsaw Autumn reviews are now a more-or-less annual fixture somewhere within the journal literature these days.

Such a wealth of commentary, as well as the music itself, makes the festival an attractive subject for academic work, and at least one Ph.D. that I know of has focused entirely on the aims of the early festival years; it also looms large in my own thesis, although I'm not yet sure how large. Reviewers and academics. Professional listeners, if you will. If nothing else, the Warsaw Autumn programme book is a Godsend to them (I'll be mining the complete 47-year index of composers and works performed for some time to come). For every work, the composer is given a biography, and the work has a short programme note - usually supplied by the composer themselves, although in the unusual, more interesting cases it is by a third party writer. The biography consists, in practically every case, of exactly the sort of thing Gann despairs of: a roll call of institutions and awards received, then a selected works-list with no indication as to how that list was chosen (are these recommended further listening? The composer's favourite works? Or just an even, chronological spread?). After the first, I skipped every one. Even more sadly, the notes on the work itself were often even more bare. Here, in full, is what was supplied for Pawel Szymanski's work Compartment 2, Car 7:

Compartment 2, Car 7 was written as a commission of the Alonzo King's Lines Ballet in San Francisco. Tonight's performance is the work's Polish premiere.


If your concert promoters are prepared to print a 400-page book, space isn't at a premium, so why were so many notes like this? I don't mean to single out Szymanski for particular accusation in this respect - and I did enjoy his piece - but I've picked on him here for reasons that become clear in a few moments. In the end, two things were made abundantly clear. Firstly, that it is not just New York Uptown composers who present this sort of useless information to their audiences; and secondly that it is not useless at all. In fact, it is very useful indeed to those professional listeners I mentioned before, whom one is supposed to assume can pick up every salient detail of a piece on a first listen (rarely true - and anyway, who'd ever refuse the help?). In reviewing and academic work I'll be referring to this thing many many times over I'm sure; but in the concert hall itself, it was all too often completely useless. The temptation, then, is to imagine this - an avowed item of promotional material after all - as written for that professional audience. Even, that the profile and commentary that their subsequent writings on the festival would generate are of more value than the ears and eyes in the concert hall at that moment. I obviously can't really back up such a thesis with more than a hunch, but even if I could, Warsaw Autumn would hardly be alone in this respect. So, back to the story ...

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Rynek Nowego MiastoWhile looking for the monument to the Warsaw Uprising, I happened onto the Rynek Nowego Miasto (New Town Market Square): completely deserted, and, with churches on two corners very beautiful. Warsaw is often a private, hushed city (less so on Saturday, as I discovered). It seems as though people have learnt to speak in whispers, and they haven't lost the habit. Last night all the restaurants had only one or two tables in use, and all were near-silent. I had to double check with one waitress that I had actually found the restaurant after all. The women in the Warsaw Autumn box office were a little more lively, and I charmed all three with my maly Polski.

Memorial to the Heroes of the Warsaw UprisingWhen you find the monument itself, you wonder how you missed it. It creeps up on you around a corner on Ulica Dluga, but then appears to dominate the side of two whole blocks, in a zig-zag. Memorial to the Heroes of the Warsaw UprisingThe two bronze sculptures are surrounded on two sides by turquoise pillars, each with mottos in Latin and Polish on them, and each topped with the PW anchor. On three of the sides of the zig-zag the pillars enclose the modern buildings of the high court: the pillars on these three sides are the same, but are topped with stylized scales of justice that echo the lines of the PW symbol. Thus, the monument itself may only occupy one small square, but it is made very clear that the law court building is its continuation. In Warsaw past oppression and heroism and present justice are one.
Memorial to the Heroes of the Warsaw Uprising

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c 2pm
Hotel room

I came back via the gorgeous baroque Saxon Gardens (Ogród Saski) I returned to the record shop opposite the grand theatre on Ulica Moliera (I'd tried dropping in earlier in the day, but they didn't open until 11. This is a very commendable attitude to business, which I applaud!). For classical CDs and scores, this is the place. I couldn't find any scores I desperately wanted, although they did have a fine, cheap selection of PWM. I didn't leave without any CDs though, and for about £30 I got a couple of Penderecki disks (original recordings of St Luke and Utrenja, plus some odds and sods), and three assorted collections of modern Polish. Lutoslawski is very prominent on the racks here - a composer of similar international stature and musical complexity to Birtwistle, yet can you imagine any but the most specialised shop in the UK stocking a dozen different Birtwistle CDs? Yet that was the minimum standard for Lutoslawski in every record shop I visited here; even the Borders-style megastores had racks for contemporary Polish composers.

I had lunch in a cheap caff on Krakowskie Przedmiescie. The first concert of my festival starts in a couple of hours. From the ever-helpful Book (in practical terms, at least), I've worked out where PWM's offices are, and I'm going to pay them a visit to see if I can pick up any scores that I do actually want.

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PWM was shut. I gathered from the security guard (they share a building with a bank) that they stop working at 3pm. Again, I take my hat off to Poland's new-found idle work ethic. Any chance you could use some of your new-found EU influence to spread the word this far West? Cheers.

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4.30pm
Mazovian Centre of Culture and Art
12 Ulica Elektoralna

View from the corner of ElektoralnaFive pieces here, all by Polish composers. The oldest dates from 2000; three are world premières. There is something of a scrum for seats, 15 minutes before the scheduled start. I must remember to get to concerts like this earlier - it's already packed. This is a small hall, but they've had to put out another 40-50 seats, and still it's not enough: people are standing and sitting in the aisles, behind pillars even. The audience is evenly split, and includes all ages, from early teens up. I've only heard Polish voices so far, and I don't recognise anyone, except for one gentleman who I regularly see on the London concert circuit and who I've always assumed must be press.

The concert begins with a première - Magdalena Dlugosz's Zakopane Liryki, which is not a new work at all, but this is a new version of it for sax, rather than clarinet, and electronics.

My first impression is that this is a little like Stockhausen's Spiral if it had been commissioned by ECM. Not in itself a bad thing necessarily, but here it doesn't quite come off I feel. In her programme notes (some of the more effective ones) Dlugosz talks of unifying the two layers of music - the live instrument and the computer sound layers. However, the soundtrack is composed from clarinet sound sources, with the piece's original incarnation in mind, and here the aural discrepancy between saxophone and clarinet meant that more often than not the sax was isolated. The most effective part for me was at the very end when the saxophonist simply vocalised, and then whispered - here the source sounds matched those on the soundtrack more closely, but otherwise it seemed pretty shapeless, and I was puzzled as to why the new version had been written in the first place.

Pawel Lukaszewski's String Quartet no.2 of 2000 was the earliest work on the programme, and the most recognisable slice of Polakiana. Like Górecki's Harpsichord concerto, it is written in a homophonic, not-against-note style. Of the three short movements, the outer two were rhythmical, folk-ish, melodies, the middle a string of rotating chords that brought to mind Messiaen in the way tight dissonance would open out into bright neo-tonality. The whole was written with consciously limited means, and it had the immediacy and solidity one associates with recent Polish music.

Pawel Mykietyn's Ladnienie (Becoming Fine) was another new work - brand new this time - written for baritone, microtonally tuned harpsichord, and string quartet, and setting a poem by Marcin Swietlicki. The baritone, Jerzy Artysz, who was in the mind of the composer when writing the piece, performed superbly well. The part was extremely isolated - often completely solo - and featured a lot of slow-motion articulation of the poem's Polish text. This brought out, and played upon the sibilant sonorities and harmonic nasality of the language, but also inspired sniggers in many of the student audience around me. In fact, most of the audience was pretty uncomfortable with this piece. Many of the instrumental sections were in a pointillist style, and the musicians weren't completely confident with their music, so these weren't entirely successful. The more sustained passages, particularly making use of the microtonal harpsichord, were more effective, and the bitter irony of the poem ("A fine place. / The sun is smitten. / Glistening ashes / fall onto the earth. / The night is glistening. / Yours is a fine place . / Beasts rule here. / Beasts rule here.") was brought out. However, despite Artysz's best efforts, for the most part the piece sounded bare, rather than desolate.

First up after the interval was Szymanski's aforementioned Compartment 2, Car 7, which was the first piece so far to really give the players license to play to their fullest - until now, they'd all looked a little uncertain and withdrawn. The piece began with strident hurdy-gurdy-like drones and shifting harmonies; these were interspersed with angular flourishes, and a descending arpeggio on bowed vibraphone. About a third of the way into the piece the mood abruptly shifted to a kind of subdued minimalism, the interlocking strings and vibraphone forming the accompaniment to an imaginary Baroque aria. With such an open-ended and episodic structure - and with a title that called to mind all the trains of Agatha Christie and Steve Reich - one felt urgently that there was a programme behind all this that we were not being let in on. So, point to point, the work was well written, attractive, interesting. However, it appeared to make little sense structurally - the sections were presumably interrelated, but the weight of the piece was all in the final minimalist arpeggiation that made up at least 2/3rds of its length, so by the end the opening drones and rhythmic vigour seemed ill-fitted. Without any assistance from the composer, this is all I can conclude from hearing it.

The final piece on the programme was by the youngest composer on the bill. Wojciech Ziemowit Zych is 27, and the same age as me, so I was already prepared to receive his new work, Kaspar Hauser's Friends generously. Granted, it is a little rough around the edges, and will almost certainly never become a repertoire piece, but it was probably the most completely accomplished piece on the programme. In six short, aphoristic movements, each with a cryptic dedication to a different individual, it immediately recalled Kurtág. It occupied a tougher sound world than much Kurtág, but again like his music was never short on ideas or wit, including at one point a passage of distorted perfect cadences. Curiously, the shy, shaven-headed Zych even had a look of Kurtág about him. He has a teaching post in Kraków (at his age, bah!), and the piece was a commission from German radio; I expect to hear more of this chap in the future.

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I think that's about enough for the time being. For those that want, Part III is here.


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