Monday, November 12, 2018

Los Angeles Celebrates 100 Years of Poland's Regained Independence with Music (Vol. 9, No. 11)

How else to celebrate freedom and independence of a country that suffered so much in the past 200 years of its history, than  with vibrant classical music that uplifts the spirit and heals the heart?  That's what we did and continue to do in Los Angeles this year, when 100 Years of Poland's Regained Independence has become the focus of  six concerts (on October 14, 20, 27, November 5 and 10), three of them presented here and three in the next installment of this blog. 


We already discussed the 2018 Paderewski Lecture at USC Thornton School of Music, organized by the USC Polish Music Center, and given by USC Professor of Musicology Lisa Cooper Vest, with several wonderful performances of Polish music of the past century by USC musicians and ensembles. The event took place on October 14, 2018. We heard performances by the USC chorus: Karol Szymanowski's selected Piesni Kurpiowskie, as fresh as when they were written in the 1929; and Ignacy Jan Paderewski's  Hey, White Eagle! of 1917, a rousing anthem for Polish troops in an enthusiastic interpretation by young students, and a Trojan-focused translation by Marek Zebrowski who rendered, "Hej, na boj" - literally, "hey, to battle" into a USC catch phrase "Fight on!" 

Ludomir Rozycki is the most unjustly forgotten Polish composer of the interwar era and his exuberant Krakowiak from the ballet Pan Twardowski was masterfully arranged for a chamber ensemble by Marek Zebrowski and beautifully interpreted by USC String Quartet (Bradley Bascon, Leonard Chong, Jenny Sung, Allan Hon), with Sergio Coehlo clarinet, and pianist So-Mang Jeagal. This magical piece was full of life and exuberance - of a dance and joie de vivre. Delightful. Equally enchanting was the following set of Cinq Melodies written in 1927 by Aleksander Tansman, a Polish Jewish composer who made his home in Paris, and survived the war in California (1941-46). He is also among the most unjustly neglected, prolific, and talented composers of music written to bring joy to its performers and audiences.  The honey-hued, clear soprano of Stephanie Jones, shone and dazzled in the witty, wistful, or melancholy songs, with the colorful and supportive accompaniment of So-Mang Jeagal that transformed these songs into sparkling gems of music. 

After years of studying avant-garde composers of the 20th century, having published the first English language monograph on Jozef Koffler - a 12 tone experimentalist and Holocaust victim of the most tragic and moving story imaginable, I must say that I was disappointed with his cantata Die Liebe (Love) based on New Testament letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, "love is patient, love is kind" - even more so that I expected to love it. Somehow, 12-tone music has not aged well. All experimental and innovative in its heyday, this music is written against nature - the nature of sounds that requires resonance of harmonies, not dissonance of angular leaps and bounds or weird chordal juxtapositions, and the nature of performance that requires that music flows an dances with meters and rhythms and is not strangled in some straight jacket of formula-based, calculated patters. True, Koffler's Cantata deserves to be played, because it aged a lot better than Schoenberg's works, and definitely stratospheric-ally better than music by lots of Schoenberg's followers who shall not be named here as being tone-death and emotionally crippled. You could feel not love, but pity for the poor young musicians so focused on every single note, so intent on rendering each nuance of the difficult score. 

Grazyna Bacewicz's String Quartet No. 1 from 1938 did not fare much better to my ears; as it shows quite clearly the straight-jacket of neoclassical dissonance that constrained her innate musicality. She was a virtuoso violinist and a concert pianist and she knew the classical repertoire well. But at this point in time, in order to be appreciated as a composer, and a woman at that, she had to cover up her talent, and distort her wonderful ideas under thick layers of discordant, harsh chords, evaded cadences, illogical melodic leaps, and fragmented rhythms that made this music avant-garde then, and unlikeable now. Luckily for listeners, Bacewicz also wrote lots of music that is far more delightful to hear, even if still dissonant and aggressive. My favorite is her String Quartet No. 4, with some of the most sublime music composed in Poland during the long 20th century.  Nonetheless, her complicated, dense, and dramatic harmonies were exceedingly well played by the USC string quartet, who revealed remarkable talents, rich sonorities, and virtuosity in every part. These musicians will go places! 

Indeed, to me, this concert was a revelation that I did not expect. I had spent more than 20 years of my academic career on studying and promoting contemporary avant-garde music precisely like the pieces by Koffler and Bacewicz on the USC Polish Music Center's program. So I was quite surprised by my visceral, negative emotional reaction to this music now. No, no, no - my ears, and body said. We do not want to hear that. So there. What next? 

The Paderewski Lecture Recitals were established in 2002 with the purpose of promoting the most avant-garde contemporary composers from Poland, every year someone new. It was to honor Paderewski who received a honorary doctorate from USC in 1923 and to promote 20th century Polish music that was the main mission of the USC Polish Music Center until then. Founded in 1985 by Dr. and Mrs. Wilk and with enormous support from Polish composers who donated their original manuscripts to jumpstart the collection (Lutoslawski, Bacewicz, Bruzdowicz, Ptaszynska, Skrowaczewski, and over 30 others), the Center focused on bringing these composers to the forefront. But apart from the first two events in 2002 (Zygmunt Krauze plus dancers from Krakusy), and 2003 (Joanna Bruzdowicz and films by Agnes Varga), the Paderewski Lecture-Recitals have never been well attended, with the hall typically filled in half or even one-third. So maybe we should be done with this neoclassical, sonoristic, 12-tone, and dissonant mess? Maybe the Paderewski lectures should feature more listener-friendly music that appears to the heart and soul?  There are so many great composers, so worthy of our attention... 

Photo by Lucyna Przasnyski


A different type of celebration took place on October 20, 2018 at a private mansion in Beverly Hills. We heard the incomparable mezzosoprano Katarzyna Sadej (you have to hear her to believe it! What a voice, one in a century!) with Basia Bochenek, piano, in a recital of Polish songs, entitled "100 Years of Poland in Music" and organized by the Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club.  I posted my remarks about the program of Polish patriotic and popular songs that together formed a whirlwind tour of Polish history on this blog already. Now it is time to focus on the performance. The concert started with Paderewski's Hej, Orle Bialy! / Hey, White Eagle! - a call to arms directed to Polish emigres in America and Canada, inciting them to the war effort, to go fight in Europe and eventually free Poland. Eventually, their numbers reached closed to 90,000, but many died and never returned home to America. 

The call to "fight on" is tragic in its essence, it demands the sacrifice of life, of one's own trauma, injury, and death, the infamy of killing. Sadej filled her rendition of this call to bravery with a premonition of the suffering that would inevitably follow. War is a disaster and her interpretation of the patriotic anthem, inspired and profound, enriched the song with layers of meaning. This was also the first time that this particular audience could hear her magnificent voice;  rich, saturated, resonance, with perfect intonation, it resonated through the hall, through everyone, so much so that the listeners became totally immobile. Some had tears in their eyes. 

Photo by Lucyna Przasnyski

The sorrow and loss of war continued to be mourned in Dzis do ciebie przyjsc nie moge / I Cannot Come to You Tonight,  a more explicit way in a melancholy plaint of the underground Home Army soldier, regretting that he could not visit his sweetheart, for he had to go to battle. The 1943 song written by a Home Army soldier remained popular through the post-war period. Sadej filled it with longing, gentle melancholy, and quiet resignation; revealing an expressive side to her musical talent. The tears that appeared in the eyes of her listeners were a testimony to her skill; through her superb musicality and expressiveness she touched her audience deeply.  The next WWII anthem, Red Poppies on Monte Cassino, from 1944, was written by a soldier in the Second Polish Corps fighting alongside the Brits under general Wladyslaw Anders, and, after a huge loss of life, finally conquering the fortress that the Benedictine monastery had become, filled with German soldiers. Here, Sadej aptly preserved the military character of the battle song. 

The second part of her program included a diverse set of popular songs written by Witold Lutoslawski and published under a pseudonym of Derwid; light-hearted, sentimental or amusing, these songs portrayed the "mask-wearing" in-authenticity of life in a country that pretended to be free, but was not. The Polish People's Republic was a satellite of the Soviet empire; filled with double-speak, lies, and propaganda. The cheerful and easy-going tangos and foxtrots of Derwid were an "optimistic" mask created to distract and momentarily amuse; and to turn the attention away from the deeply uncomfortable facts of lack of sovereignty and absurd socio-political system.  Sadej suffused these songs with life, yet rendered them in a somewhat "campy" style, filled with irony and humor.  Lovely, as they were - and being a part of a CD recording project, so exceedingly well performed - I was not convinced that these songs do have the lasting value and significance even remotely comparable with the previous three patriotic anthems... 

Photo by Lucyna Przasnyski

As an opera singer, Sadej knows how to please her public with a performance that's stage worthy, as she proved in the last two items on her program. Jerzy Petersburski tango, That Last Sunday / To ostatnia niedziela is a dramatic farewell of a suicidal jilted lover: in the original a man, here - a woman singing to one man she selected from the audience, with great comic force. A pure delight, musical confection made of a melancholy confession of futile love. The Sevillana (Près des remparts de Séville) from Berlioz's Carmen needed a prop of one red rose that Sadej played with while walking through the rows of her listeners who obediently allowed themselves to be seduced by her mesmerizing voice and charm.  Of course, the strong support of Basia Bochenek made all this playacting and performing possible and we are deeply grateful for her fruitful collaboration with Sadej, the opera star. 

Katarzyna Sadej and Barbara Bochenek - photo by L. Przasnyski
Photo by Mary Kubal


The third Los Angeles concert to celebrate 100 Years of Poland's Regained Independence took place on November 5, 2018 at the Colburn School of Music in downtown Los Angeles It was organized by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in collaboration with the Polish Music Center at the University of Southern California, with financial support from the Polish National Foundation and Polish Investment and Trade Agency, and with organizational support of the Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club. 

The program included works by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Fryderyk Chopin (mazurkas) and Beethoven's sublime sonata Op. 110.  This was a star studded evening, with Poland's Senator Anna Maria Anders, Secretary of State for International Dialogue who flew in for one night! Also present were many celebrities, including Wojciech Kocyan, pianist, Katarzyna Sadej, mezzosoprano, Kasia Smiechowicz and Marek Probosz aktors, Marcin Gortat from the Clippers, and many representatives of Polish American organizations from San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Francisco.

Born in Singapore in 1994, Kate Liu began to study piano at the age of four and moved with her family to the Chicago area when she was eight. She continued her studies at the Music Institute of Chicago and graduated from the New Trier High School in 2012. Currently she is studying at Curtis Institute of Music. Winner of the First Prize at the 2010 New York International Piano Competition in New York City and at the 2015 Chopin Competition in Daegu, South Korea, Katie Liu was also a prizewinner at the 2010 Thomas & Evon Cooper International Competition in Oberlin, 2011 Hilton Head International Piano Competition for Young Artists in Hilton Head, 2012 Eastman Young Artist International, and 2014 Montreal International Musical Competition. In 2015 Kate Liu was the Third Prize winner at the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw and the recipient of the Polish Radio Special Prize for her performance of Chopin’s Mazurkas. Widely popular with the Polish public, Kate Liu received the highest number of votes cast by listeners of the Second Program of the Polish Radio, and won the “My Chopin” contest. In the opinion of listeners, she was the best pianist of the 2015 Chopin Competition.

Photo by Mary Kubal

She chose the program for the evening and made sure that the music flowed impeccably from one mood, one work to the next. Ignacy Jan Paderewski's Melodie op. 16, no. 2 is tranquil and romantic, filled with delicate arabesques in the memorable melody sustained by rich harmonies  beautifully interpreted by Kate Liu. From the first moment, this performance was pure magic, serene and nostalgic, the music dazzled and shone even in the most tranquil piano pianissimo all the way through brilliant forte. Already in the first piece, there were moments when the audience waited with baited breath for the next note, the hall completely still and silent, except for the fluid gestures of Ms. Liu.

The set of three mazurkas op. 59 by Fryderyk Chopin (no. 1 in A minor, no. 2 in A-flat Major, and no. 3 in F-sharp minor) from mid 1840s revealed Ms. Liu's superb musicality and the reason why she received a special prize for the performance of Chopin's Mazurkas at the 2015 Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  The first mazurka composed in 1845 has long been considered one of the gems of world music; its well-contoured melancholy mazurka theme grows dramatically to a climax, and returns like an echo, or a long lost memory at the end.  Famous Polish pianist Ludwik Bronarski thought that this mazurka contains some of ‘the most beautiful sounds that it is possible to produce from the piano." 

The second mazurka, in A-flat Major was composed upon a request by composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and dedicated to his wife Cecile. A typical dance form, ABA, with trio in the middle and a coda, according to Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, this mazurka bears the characters of a dramatic ballade and a proud mazur, repeating its "soaring phrases again and again." A favorite of Artur Rubinstein, and many other pianists, under the fingers of Ms. Liu this mazurka rose to the patriotic heights so suitable for the occasion. Her range of colors was unsurpassed, her ability to move from noble pride to wistfulness - deeply touching every heart. Again, in the ending of this mazurka, the audience was entirely still and silent, waiting for the next note. While her fortes are never forced or impatient, but rather saturated, and filled with the richness and vitality of spirit, the pianos and pianissimos are out of this world. I did not know that the piano could sound like that...

The third mazurka from op. 59 in F-sharp minor, with some brightness of F-sharp Major highlighting certain moments, was described by Prof. Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski  as  "the whirl of a Mazurian dance from the very first bars, with its sweeping, unconstrained gestures, its verve, élan, exuberance, and also, more importantly, the occasional suppressing of that vigour and momentum, in order to yield up music that is tender, subtle, delicate..." It has the character of the fastest dance from the mazurka family, the oberek; but the dance is interrupted for moments of contemplation, resulting in music that's purely sublime.  As Tomaszewski writes: "in the F sharp minor Mazurka, moments given over entirely to the element of dance entwine with moments in which the Terpsichorean narrative is halted, be it only for an instant, to allow for contemplation and reflection, or a wonderment leading to ecstatic delight." Again, Kate Liu was able to take her audience on an inspired, sublime journey, from the whirlwind of dance, a symbol of earthly delights, into the serenity of a joyous spirit resting among the stars. Again, the richness of emotions and colors surprised and delighted the listeners; from folksy drones in the left hand, and twirling oberek motion in the melody, to thoughtful reflection, sometimes peaceful, sometimes touched with a hint of sorrow.  Alternating, from dance turns, to serenity - all in all a masterpiece of music making. 

Photo by Lucyna Przasnyski

The most substantial work on Ms. Liu's program was Beethoven's late sonata Op. 110 in A-flat Major, composed in 1821, in three movements, united by themes and structures, and connected to Missa Solemnis in certain aspects of the final movement with is astounding polyphony - two fugues! The appearance of this work by a German composer active mostly in Vienna, the capital of Austria (both enemies of Poland who took the country apart in 1795) in a concert celebrating Polish independence was surprising to some. It was the pianist's choice, sanctioned by the USC Polish Music Center whose director, Marek Zebrowski, worked with the pianist on the selection of music for her California programs. 

Beethoven was the favorite composer of Ignacy Jan Paderewski who played almost all of his sonatas, and sometimes programmed two in one concert. That's one, "Polish" connection. Another reason for this celebratory choice is musical and links Beethoven to Chopin, both geniuses of European music, lifting it to the universal level of all humanity. At the end of all strife lies forgiveness - when sovereign, perfectly happy and loving individuals, in sovereign, perfectly organized nation-states can co-exist without war, conflict, strife, without attacking or disparaging each other. This new world of peace and prosperity ("live long and prosper"!!!) for the whole planet is a dream for the most visionary Poles; a dream that includes fully independent and sovereign Poland, a country in charge of its fate, enjoying its abundance of gifts. 

Photo by Lucyna Przasnyski

The concert ended after one encore, Chopin's Prelude in D-flat Major, Op. 28. No. 15, the famous "Raindrop Prelude" - nicknamed so due to repetitions of one note in the middle section that was associated with the tapping of a raindrop on the windowsill. This prelude as many other Chopin's works gave rise to numerous fanciful interpretations, and was the most popular work to write about in Chopin with Cherries anthology. Ms. Liu transformed it into a poem of an entirely different kind - delicate, peaceful, and sublime, with echoes of past trauma, it transported the listeners into the exalted realms of pure spiritual joy - one does sound very old-fashioned when trying to describe the serene sweetness, interrupted by insistent heartbeat of pain, and returning to tranquility of the most inward, or ascended quality. I have never heard this Prelude played in this way; completely free of sentimentality, banality, or outward pathos. Very, very, very well done! 

Photo by Marek Zebrowski

Photo by Iga Supernak

Minister Anna Maria Anders Costa, Secretary of State of the Republic of Poland who attended the concert and made a speech about the price of victory ended it with this call to happiness, call to pride over all that Poland has been and has become, all the shared gifts and talents. As if in response to Minister Anders's speech, Kate Liu created a musical experience filled with joy, sublime inspiration, and intense musical delight for which all listeners had to be grateful. 

Photo by Iga Supernak. L to R. Maja Trochimczyk, Kate Liu, Consul Jaroslaw Lasinski

The fourth Polish-themed concert, on October 27, 2018 by Wojciech Kocyan at Loyola Marymount University presented a whole program of Polish composers, from Maria Szymanowska to Grazyna Bacewicz, with Fryderyk Chopin and Ignacy Jan Paderewski in-between.

The fifth concert, on November 2, 2018. took listeners to two years in the post-war period - 1953 when Stalin died and the folk-inspired socialist realism was a binding doctrine in all arts in Eastern bloc countries, and 1991, two years after the fall of the oppressive system. This concert, sponsored by the Wende Museum of the Cold War in Culver City featured the music of Bacewicz, Weinberg, and Gorecki.

Finally, the sixth concert to celebrate 100 Years of Poland's Regained Independence took place on November 10, 2018 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in downtown Los Angeles where after a solemn Mass for the Homeland an organ recital by Prof.Jan Bokszczanin of Poland concluded classical music celebrations of independence day in Los Angeles. 

On Sunday, November 11, 2018, during religious and patriotic celebrations at local churches in L.A. and O.C. children sung Polish songs, recited poetry, danced folk dances, and acted in plays all to teach and commemorate Polish history and culture. A classic sing-along of patriotic songs, of a kind practiced through the long 19th century in Polish homes and mansions, took place at the Polish Center in Yorba Linda; with songbooks of soldier's songs from a century of fight for independence distributed among the audience. 

We will discuss these concerts in the next installment of this blog. 

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