In the summer of the year 2000, I was twenty four and teaching English in Hannover, Germany. I was just about to be married to my beautiful Slovak wife Katarina. Being fluent in five languages, we thought she would easily get work in the Slovak pavilion at the World’s Fair in Hannover called Expo 2000. Stymied by local politics, she didn’t get the opportunity. However, she encouraged me to go anyway since I had always wanted to live in Germany. At the end of that summer, we left Europe to live in New York City.
Alone in a cold, strange city, I attended many of the cultural events that were performed in connection with Expo 2000. One such event was a concert including a premiere by Henryk Gorecki who was wildly popular at the time, by classical music standards. His Symphony No. 3 (1976) was a beautiful reproach to the loathsome communist regime in Poland. A 1990 recording featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw was a huge hit. It broke into the top ten of album sales in the UK, and did amazingly well in the United States as well.
I went to the church where the concert was to be given without a ticket and with my caveman German. This was a sold-out affair with diplomats and high society types packing the small church. After an awkward exchange, the slightly annoyed door man pointed me to the choir loft where there were a few students and others crammed together. I perched myself on a small wooden stool to watch the concert. The following is my review written the day after. I have resisted any attempts to “improve upon” my first impressions of more than twenty years ago.
Tonight, I had what I thought would be the pleasure of hearing a Henryk Gorecki piece live at the Gartenkirche here in Hannover. Little did I know the disappointment I would have with the concert. Surely there is a maxim about a drummer ruining a concert. If it does exist, it would be proven tonight. Not just one percussion player, but two did their best to ruin what turned out to be a mediocre piece by Gorecki.
It was the world premiere of Salve, sidus polonorum and it was a work that was all repetition and massive sounds and no… music. Mr. Gorecki was a seemingly good-natured man with a crew cut. He seemed pleased with the performance repeatedly giving thumbs-up, “v” for victories, and hands clasped high above his head in triumph. He was being generous to the choir. The oldest member of the National Warsaw Philharmonic Choir looked to be about 57 and I think I saw a girl of about twelve singing, too. In the earlier pieces they attempted, they were out of tune. The pitch was constantly sagging. Not that the choir had much to sing for the evening.
The first two pieces by Grzegorz Gorezycki seemed to be chosen because he was a Baroque composer with a name similar to the venerable Mr. Gorecki. A more musical Magnificat followed the first two pieces, but it never really caught fire. The acoustics in the church seemed to prevent any variation in sound no matter how the surprisingly poor choir was arranged. The choir was at full strength only for the Gorecki pieces. The visual effect was a massive block of people, and the aural effect was equally as massive. I tried to consider the effort made by this master composer, who created stirring string quartets and an elegiac symphony, to work with a huge block of sound like a master sculptor with a huge mass of stone. Unfortunately, instead of the piece going somewhere or overpowering the senses with sound, it merely sounded as though a typical church piece was sung by a choir of over a hundred. The next piece was closer to the style of the composer I am used to, but it, too, was lacking.
Even if every piece up to the finale was a disappointment, or only interesting to see what the composer experimented with in the past, the premiere of Salve, sidus polonorum should have made up for the rest. The piece began with three tolls from the tubular bells which acted as a motif. Unfortunately, the incapable director (had to have been a communist) cued every bell strike, so the communicative effort was distracting. The director would cue/ “bong, two, three, four”, cue/ “bong, two, three, four”, cue/ “bong, two, three, four”, and then turn to cue the choir. None of this was in a particular rhythm. The second, inevitable three lonely tolls were slower than the three that opened the effort. If I am ever to write a piece for choir and percussion, I will never feature tubular bells. The two players who struggled with those poor instruments weren’t skilled enough to pull out the best sound. The second bell player had an exposed “and of four” anticipation which sounded ridiculous. The first movement was marred by this disjunct, off-beat playing.
The real shock was the gong (or is it the tam-tam?) player in the second and third movements. He was striking the gongs with abandon without ever warming them up first. The sound resembled a child striking a large kitchen pot. I thought back to the oppressive atmosphere created in Harrison Birtwhistles Epilogue- “Full Fathom Five” using the gong, and I cringed at the striking of this gong and the poor musical ideas represented.
This piece has a pall of being performed only at the premiere because a) it involves an organ for three minutes and b) it requires a huge choir. The Polish choir seems to be the ideal choir. The basses are heavy like the Russians, but a shade lighter, so the sound of the ensemble isn’t bottom heavy. For the most part the music produced by the choir was the most interesting of the evening with thick textures bubbling with inner voices and Gorecki harmonies.