Review: ISO plays "Sorrowful Symphony" 

click to enlarge ISO Concertmaster Zach de Pue
  • ISO Concertmaster Zach de Pue

At first blush, Polish composer Henryk Górecki's (1933-2010) third symphony, entitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," (1976) wouldn't seem to have much going for it. In connection with hearing it on a CD, critic Michael Steinberg observed, "[are people] really listening to this symphony? How many CD buyers discover that 54 minutes of very slow music with a little singing in a language they don't understand is more than they want?"

On Friday, the ISO's Krzysztof Urbański took 56 minutes with it. Soprano Shara Warden sang a Polish song within each of its three movements, each dealing with a mother's loss of her son in battle. With a full sized instrumental complement, excluding any percussion, only the strings could be heard -- plus they otherwise dominated the compositional fabric. Three flutes often accompanied Warden, but her voice was miked, the amplification drowning out the flutes. Using common chords throughout the symphony, Górecki (GorETSki) wrote a work endlessly slow, soft and repetitive.

Yet . . . yet . . . yet, the symphony found its way onto the top of the classical CD sales charts 15 years after it was written and was dubbed the most popular "contemporary classical" symphony written to date. It appears to appeal mostly to those who are inclined to reverie, to bonding with its thematically emotional content. For these people it evidently becomes hypnotic, mesmerizing, even sleep inducing, as Urbański indicated in talking before the work. For some, it may even produce a pleasant catatonia.

It is difficult to discern what percentage in the Circle Theatre audience of close to 1000 reacted strongly to those 56 minutes, with its less than frenetic applause. Needless to say, Urbański rather amazingly conducted it from memory, meaning he knew exactly how many times to repeat a chord sequence before easing into the next one. Warden's voice was well nigh perfect for conveying the inherent emotions, singing the verses in Polish, but with surtitles translating them for us on an upstage screen. Though her amplified voice did occasionally overdrive the sound system, drowning out everything else.

Urbański began the program with two other Polish works, first the contemporary tone poem Krzesany (1974) by the late Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013). To augment this piece, Urbański had 20 audience members wend their way to the upper back stage (no pre-arrangement here), to sound various percussion instruments on his cue. Largely modernist and dissonant, the music represents a "clap your heels" dance style from the Polish Highlanders. At the thundering climax, our "neophyte" percussionists ceased playing right on cue, for which our conductor praised them.

The best audience response came from the program's middle work, Karol Szymanowski's (1882-1937) Violin Concerto No. 1 (1916), with ISO concertmaster Zach de Pue as soloist. Taking a stylistic cue from earlier Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, Szymanowski initiated a world of "modernist" writing for a violin concerto, one in which de Pue contributed his usual masterful technique and well controlled tone. Feb. 28-March 1; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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Tom Aldridge

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