Shara Worden was hard at work practicing her Polish when I called on Saturday afternoon. And not just mainstream, this-is-how-they-talk-now-in-Warsaw Polish. She's learning to pronounce the three texts included in Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 (also called the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), which she'll sing with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this weekend.
One is a 15th-century Christian lament of Mary. Another is a prayer that was inscribed on a wall of a Gestapo cell by a Polish prisoner in 1944. The third is a folk song whose lyrics were most likely written during the Silesian Uprisings of 1919-1921, when Poles tried to break free of German rule to join a new Polish republic.
Worden was working with the help of ISO music director Krzysztof Urbanski and his wife, Joanna, both Polish-born, who called her up via Skype earlier last week and slowly read out the lyrics for her. And now she's rehearsing using a recording of that video call.
It wouldn't be the easiest piece to prepare for even if there weren't language issues. As Worden put it, "It's taken a lot to get me to practice it, for the reason that to dig into the subject of war is not the most pleasant of experiences. It's not a walk in the park to say, I'm going to put myself in the place of someone who's lost a son in war. I have a son myself, so it's been a challenge to maintain a certain amount of emotional distance in it. It's a piece where you can kind of lose control of yourself if you put yourself so much in that place."
Gorecki's (pronounced Gor-es-ki) Symphony No. 3 was composed in 1977 when the Polish composer was moving away from harder-edged, mid-century modernism and toward a more tonal sound. It remained in the semi-obscurity where most new classical music languishes until a 1992 recording featuring go-to new music vocalist Dawn Upshaw became a surprise hit, both on radio and in terms of record sales. Gorecki lived long enough to enjoy the success, though he couldn't quite explain it, venturing, "Somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something, somewhere had been lost to them."
Worden, who often performs in an art rock setting as My Brightest Diamond, first connected with Gorecki's work on the weekend of his death in 2010: "There was a video going around of this piece, and they had put all these human atrocities — terrible videos of violence, doing horrible things to each other — to this music. I watched this whole thing and just wept. Right after that I wrote 'Be Brave.' "
"Be Brave," released on her 2011 album, All Things Will Unwind, established, as Worden explained, "a particular friendship" to Gorecki's piece that led her to agree to perform it with the ISO. It's an unusual venture; because Worden typically plays in a singer-songwriter setting or works with fellow living composers, it will be "only the second piece by dead people" she's performed "in a really, really, really long time." She studied opera in college, but she said, "I made a decision in my mid-20s that I wasn't going to pursue a career in opera and that what makes me tick as a person is actually being a songwriter."
If Worden's stepping outside her comfort zone, so is Urbanski, who said this performance of Gorecki's Symphony No. 3 will be "a crazy experiment." He met me with a copy of the score, clad in customary black T-shirt and jeans, on a Monday afternoon in the bare-boned musician's lounge at Hilbert Circle Theatre.
"The piece is obviously written for a soprano, so it's probably never been written by someone who doesn't primarily do opera," Urbanski said. "I've performed this piece several times with very good singers, but the only problem that, for instance, there's one passage in the first movement where you need to sing really loud to just manage to be overpowered by the orchestra. And you lose a little of this intimate quality that this very deep and very sorrowful text requires. That's why I always dreamed of performing this deep music with a voice that can be perceived by the audience with no effort."
The four performer Hesperus group returned to close out this year's Indianapolis Early Music Festival accompanying the first "Zorro" film ever made.
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