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."
A perfect fit
And so when Urbanski heard Worden performing Sarah Kirkland Snider's song cycle Penelope last year with the ISO (conducted by Edwin Outwater as part of the orchestra's partnership with Brooklyn new music organization New Amsterdam), he thought, "She would be a perfect fit for this piece."
All the better that she's classically trained, I put it to Urbanski. "Of course, she's very skilled in singing," he said. "She has a beautiful voice with a very wide scale and great control — and she can make it very intimate. Nothing against opera singers, but I'm hoping her voice will sometimes sound like a whisper."
It's that kind of intimacy that could help Urbanski achieve one of his goals for the piece: "Because the piece is so different, some people might literally fall asleep during a performance. But there is another possibility, and I'll do everything possible to make it happen, and that's that people will be hypnotized. There are very few notes, very minimalistic, with groups of chords being played for almost ten minutes."
Urbanski gestured here to the score, which is indeed often barren of notes, a nearly clean white sheet in contrast to the ink-splattered messiness of a fast-paced Romantic behemoth. He continued: "There's a reason the music is so simple: It's to focus so much more closely on the text of the symphony. This is a three-movement symphony, and it's basically a prayer on a grave of a child. It's about a special kind of emotion, an emotion that most of us will never experience. Losing a child is the greatest tragedy that could ever happen to a human being, and this is what differentiates humans from other animal species."
Worden echoed Urbanski's interpretation: "If you just take it on a textural, surface level, it's very easy to listen to and very calming. The music is simple in a way; it's all sort of heartstrings."
Urbanski said he considered translating the Polish texts and having Worden sing them in English, but he decided against it, noting that the third text is in a peasant dialect that doesn't bear much resemblance to present-day Polish. "But we found a solution in using supertitles, which I think will make the connection between the listeners and the performance much stronger.
Gorecki will close out the concert, with Urbanski conducting two other 20th-century works by Polish composers on the first half: Wojciech Kilar's Krzesany and Karol Symanowski's Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra, with ISO concertmaster Zach de Pue as soloist. All three are based on the folklore of the Polish mountains, according to Urbanski, but are quite different from each other in terms of style and content.
The program recently changed, Urbanski said: "We were supposed to present a world premiere performance of Pastorale and Capriccio by Wojciech Kilar, which we commissioned from him two years ago. Unfortunately, he died several weeks ago, so in tribute to him, we've changed the piece to probably his greatest piece, a symphonic poem called Krzesany. He called me several months ago and said he had brain cancer and was fighting for his life, so he would not be able to complete the commissioned piece."
All about tempo
Urbanski and de Pue performed the Symanowski Concerto — an early modernist work written in 1916 and first performed in 1922 — with the Trondheim Symfoniorkester earlier this month. Urbanski is chief conductor of that Norway-based orchestra; he's also principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony, in addition to his responsibilities in Indianapolis.
"I won't say it was unsuccessful, but we'll try some things differently," Urbanski said of the Symanowski performances. "I listened to recordings, and I simply need to improve; this is what happens when you listen to your own concerts, where you're not very happy with some small details. Zach and I have a very different take on the traditional view of playing Symanowski."
Urbanski went on to criticize a tradition that includes brazen reinterpretations of the tempos written in the score — taking a passage five times slower than the previous passage, for instance, when the score only calls for a slightly slower tempo. That part of the conversation was likely for specialists only, but it got us to this key observation: "The biggest task of the conductor is to find the right tempo; it's the most important thing in terms of interpretation. I'm always trying to get the best from the piece I'm doing; that's my job. I'm not trying to put myself in there. The point is to serve the composer and serve the score the best I can. I think the composer is usually right; they know what they wanted to write. Some composers were crazy; some composers were deaf, like Beethoven, and his tempi were sometimes impossible."
"But other composers, 20th-century composers, are different," Urbanski continued, deep into explaining his craft. "Playing [20th-century Polish composer Witold] Lutoslawski, for instance: Have you ever seen a metronome [marking] of 71 [beats per minute]. On a metronome, there isn't even a reading for 71; it's either 68 or 72; it goes in four beats per minute. I spent an enormous amount of time to make myself conduct in 71; I made it my personal goal. Of course, no one would notice it, so why are you wasting so much time? But every morning, I woke up, I turned on my iPhone app where you can set the tempo, and I set it to 71 and practiced." He taps here on the table at a tempo that might well have been 71; this reporter wouldn't know the difference.
Did he get the tempo right in concert? "Not all the time, but my goal is to do it as best as possible. But if the composer is crazy enough to put it in 71 — and Lutoslawski was so particular about these things, so brilliant — then my task is to present it the way it's written. And now I agree with this decision to make it 71. It sounds silly, but this is the way I want to work."