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Ionarts at Large: Penderecki conducts Penderecki

Flanked by substantial choral forces to the left and right above the stage and another 33 singes in front of him, Krystof Penderecki took the stage at the Philharmonic Hall of the Gasteig on November 11th to the new sounds of Mikłai Zieleńsky, a Polish Renaissance composer born somewhere around 1550 who probably died some time after 1615, in a place also unknown. We only know that he existed at all, because he left an Offertorium (published in Venice in 1611), from which the 8 minute Magnificat, that Penderecki presented, was culled.

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Penderecki, 7 Gates of Jerusalem, Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra / Wit
Renaissance polyphony is a kind of music so rarely heard outside special-interest early music concerts that is a real tonic to ears otherwise offered orchestral fare from no earlier than the late classical period. The waiflike beauty of the music, and the full surround sound of the three choirs, far outweighed the occasionally forced, squeaky tones that some of the Philharmonic Chorus’ sopranos emitted. Something that was true in equal measure for the borderline new-age, pretty and simplistic, “Amen” op.34 of Gorecki, circling through the fifths on one word.

With three choirs, brass chorales from the wings, the lowest strings, and a large gong, the Seven Gates of Jerusalem open overwhelmingly: a combination of brute force, movie-music, religiosity, severity, and a dash of Aida. As would be a secret to no one who has witnessed the curious powers of musical coercion by works like Mahler’s 8th, Harvegal Brian’s “Gothic”, or a handful of Shostakovich symphonies (the 11th, for example), sheer power works. And it works here, too, organized around seven movements and dominant seven-note themes.

The Lauda, Jerusalem, Dominum makes use of two “Tubaphones”, a Penderecki development based on an New Zealand aborigines’ instrument that now looks like toppled anti-aircraft guns ready to massacre the first three rows of listeners with one salvo each. Several very long plastic tubes are played with felt-covered fly swatters – the result being ½ whack the mole, ½ Blue Man Group accessory. The six soloists are musical also-rans when compared to the importance of the choir, and while the latter just needed to be able to sing properly, and loudly, without sounding ugly (which they achieved), the singers distinguished themselves a bit more, most notably so the Finnish tenor Jorma Silvasti.

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