Poland got off to a rough start in the twentieth century, what with back-to-back Nazi and Soviet invasion and control, but with the founding of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1956, Polish musicians and composers rapidly began making up for lost time. The early years of the festival helped launch Witold Lutosławski, Henryk Górecki, and Krysztof Penderecki to international prominence, and it’s still going strong to this day, providing an annual showcase of new voices in the contemporary Polish music scene. The LA Phil’s Green Umbrella concert on Tuesday 19 January at Walt Disney Concert Hall allowed us to sample some fruits of this prodigious tree.
Opening with the US Première Krzysztof Meyer’s intricate Musique scintillante (2007), the concert got off to a dazzling start. For those primed to expect a wash of dense microtonal sonorities by the program notes’ repeated references to earlier Polish works that deploy them to great effect (think Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima), this opening foray would come of something of a shock, with its bright, almost frothy musical lines that frequently coalesce into striking unisons. As soon as they come clearly into view, however, a sharp shock dashes them to pieces, and something new starts growing in turn. In this way, the work moves easily thru dances and hymns, including a plaintive interlude for trumpet, here played movingly by Stéphane Beaulac. Eventually this energy dissipates into a series of ever diminishing chords, bringing the piece a close with a playful wink after some exactingly conducted measures of rest.
Leaving aside the thunderous opening tom-tom strike, Paweł Mykietyn’s 3 for 13 (1995, here receiving its West Coast Première) opens more or less where the Meyer left off, with sparse, quiet flecks of sound dotting an otherwise vacant canvas. This is music that makes Anton Webern sound unbearably dense, but it never loses its cohesion. The entire work is based on a four-voice fugue Mykietyn wrote in the style of JS Bach, though the subject is never stated outright, let alone the entire fugue itself — in this opening section, it has been blasted into pointillistic smithereens. Slowly, these atomized flickers begin to collide, and suddenly functional tonality snaps into focus as the entire ensemble comes to rest on a blazing diminished seventh chord. The unconventional resolution is deliberately obliterated by an eruption from the tam-tam, leaving the central section’s beginning shrouded in decaying echoes. If the first section kept the fugue fragments clipped short, this new section suggests that it did so because they simply can’t withstand being played for longer: There are contiguous lines here, but they are stretched and warped, with constant string glissandi destabilizing everything. An upbeat final section ensues, with bright, pulsing minimalist rhythms and short sequences that run wildly beyond any tonal norms, shooting off towards infinity like a glider in Conway’s Game of Life. The material is recognizably the same as the first two sections, suggesting a rewinding video tape, and by the end it begins to wear a bit thin, as though Mykietyn had squeezed everything out of his fugue with several minutes left on the clock. But recognizing this, the tom-tom — which serves as a kind of master of ceremonies thruout the piece — begins to interrupt the proceedings at ever shorter intervals, the orchestra flicking between two different textures like TV channels with each stroke. When it becomes clear that there would only be two choices, and not particularly inspiring choices at that, the tom-tom bursts out in a frenzy of frustration, ending the piece with a percussive roar.
As the stagehands re-arranged the chairs before the next piece, I wished that Veronika Krausas had stepped onto the stage to give the rest of her pre-performance talk, which had been cut short by a malfunctioning fire alarm in the Disney Hall complex. It would have been nice to have something to hold the audience’s attention for the transition; as it was, several listeners in my section left the hall during the changeover, never to return. But when Krzysztof Penderecki’s second sinfonietta, transcribed for clarinet and strings from a 1993 chamber work, got under way, the focus was firmly back on stage. The first movement serves as something of a prelude, with distant, isolated fragments hanging frigid in mysterious stillness. Scored primarily for the unaccompanied soloist, the few string interjections do little to add warmth or movement. The second movement inverts this arrangement, with rapid string lines — many in unisons and octaves — dominating the texture. A scherzo in feeling if not form, the music hints at Stravinsky while living in a world of surprising diatonicism. The next two movements follow without pause as the piece gradually unwinds from a high point near the start of the second movement. As it does so, it becomes increasingly lyrical, though never truly melodic. At times, the strings call to mind Shostakovich’s slow movements, though the music lacks the Russian composer’s unexpected modal inflections. A stratospheric violin solo returns the piece to the fragmentary, inert mist of the first movement. Something of note has passed before us, the music seems to say, but it is gone from view now, and all we have are swirls of fog fading into night.
Next, after the intermission, was the World Première of Agata Zubel’s Chapter 13, a setting of a chapter from The Little Prince in which the title character encounters a Businessman who spends all his days counting stars because he thinks he owns them. Zubel herself sang the soprano part, doing triple duty as the Narrator, Businessman, and Little Prince, sometimes adopting different stances and positions on stage to clarify which she was embodying at any given moment. Those who attended the performances of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland in the Phil’s last season would be on familiar territory here, tho Zubel seems less interested than Chin in textural transparency and timbral purity, instead using densely interwoven polyphonic lines to build up a homogenous mass of sound. Unfortunately, while the effect was certainly memorable, it did little to serve the text. Antoine de Saint-Euxpéry’s words are certainly cutting, but they are witty and whimsical too, and Zubel’s setting largely misses these qualities, flattening the parable into something drab and one-dimensional. The stasis of the music is perhaps fitting for the non-urgency of the story, but it seems short on the poignant simplicity that has made the source text so beloved.
Despite serving as the (freely acknowledged) model for 3 for 13, Paweł Szymański’s quasi una sinfonietta (1990), which received its West Coast Première after another interminable set change, offered a great deal that hadn’t been covered earlier in the program. A composer who is fond of “playing games with tradition”, Szymański gestures at older styles of making music without fully embracing them. After a long, unmeasured piano trill, the piece begins with a lilting dance in the strings, punctuated by a woodblock that never quite lands in the same place two times in a row. There are many shifts away from and back to this texture, resulting in a sense of gradual even evolution despite the many disjunctions visible on a smaller scale. As the program notes suggest, Beethoven lurks just under the surface of much of this music, though never quite as expected. Motor rhythms outrun the feeble melodies above them, and at one point the entire ensemble breaks into what can only be described as a Viennese tango. Also in line with Beethoven, the opening section ends with obsessively repeated chords, though here taken beyond the realm of tonic affirmation and into patent absurdity. The stream of chords is interrupted, at first comedically by the cowbell and then disastrously by the tam-tam (accompanied by full-arm piano clusters), paving the way for a quieter central section full of klangfarbenmelodie handoffs. There are repeated attempts at getting a chorale going, but the music has great difficulty settling into it, and the result is rather like watching someone try to build a house with lumber supplied by Salvador Dalí. Unexpectedly, the whole thing snaps into focus in a strangely affecting passage of aching beauty. But a motoric minor third launches the helter-skelter finale, with jagged arcing lines interrupted by brief pillars of irregular, unexpected silence. The music is pointillistic, but deeply engaging all the same. In one of the clearest gestures echoed by the Mykietyn, the work ends with the music flipping between manic string vamps at each stroke of a tom-tom. But here, instead of erupting in petulant frustration, the music simply winds down like a broken toy, the strings slowing and sliding down freely into silence with an exhausted slump.
Needless to say, none of this is particularly easy to perform, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under the baton of Łucasz Borowicz. Whether executing tricky interlocking rhythms with exacting precision or melding disparate sounds into longer single lines, the players performed with graceful aplomb. It’s easy (and perhaps accurate) to compare the music on this program to mechanical devices, but more than some intricate machine, the ensemble felt like an organic unit, a natural conglomeration of different timbres that nevertheless cohered into a seamless whole. Special commendation must go to Burt Hara, who covered the demanding solo clarinet part in the Penderecki with remarkable grace and agility. On the whole, an excellent evening of music, and an intriguing glimpse at recent trends in one of Europe’s compositional powerhouses.