From the Artistic Director's desk

Laura KaminskyWhy I love Penderecki's music

by Laura Kaminsky, Artistic Director

Oct. 18, 2013

I had the great experience of working with Poland’s pre-eminent composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, during the year I lived in there as director of the European Mozart Academy outside of Warsaw in Mala Wies. He had agreed to come to the Academy to work with the talented body of post-graduate students who lived together in a small palace dating from 1798.

On the morning of his visit, students were nervous, especially those who were going to perform for him.  His car pulled up in front of the palace and we went out to greet him and his elegant wife, Elzbieta.  There was a chill in the air so I asked if they wanted a coffee or tea before we began.  He opted instead for a shot of vodka.  We all went inside to the grand salon where shots were poured and downed quickly so that the rehearsal could begin.  The first piece was an early work for clarinet, and the maestro did not have a score, and claimed not to remember the piece very well. As soon as the clarinetist finished, Penderecki stood up, walked over to him and said, “that was very good, but there were a few wrong notes, and a few tempo changes I would like you to try." We were all in awe that he was able to bring the piece back to the forefront of his memory, without the printed music, and make specific comments so easily. 

After two other works were presented and critiqued, we adjourned for a luncheon – and more vodka. For all of us, it was a day we will never forget, to have been in the presence of such a great artist, and to have been given the gift of receiving a meaningful and productive coaching session.

On October 25th Symphony Space, in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute and WQXR-Q2, presents an evening with Poland’s pre-eminent composer, Krzysztof Penderecki. I am over-the-moon ecstatic that this concert is taking place, as a part of our in the SALON series. [Read more and get tickets here.]

When the Polish Cultural Institute approached Symphony Space about partnering on this concert, I couldn’t have been more excited. A chance to bring some of his fantastic chamber music to New York City, and a chance for him to once again be involved in the concert, was too rich to pass up.  He is here in NY for an appearance with the New York Philharmonic, so that Symphony Space is able to present his small scale works, and to engage him in conversation about his music, is truly remarkable. 

I am aware that many people are familiar with Penderecki’s music – but not necessarily from the concert stage.  His music has been used in a number of iconic films, including The Exorcist, The Shining, Wild at Heart, Shutter Island, and Fearless, among others.  The question is: why have so many prominent filmmakers turned to this music?

Because it is powerful and evocative music, rich with emotional meaning, and, while it is essentially of our time, it is somehow timeless.  This is a distinguishing mark of Penderecki’s approach to composing. He writes:

I have spent decades searching for and discovering new sounds. At the same time, I have closely studied the forms, styles and harmonies of past eras. I have continued to adhere to both principles … my current creative output is a synthesis.

What I love about Penderecki’s music is the sense that it is rooted in history, yet that it is also connected emotionally and intellectually to current societal concerns. For Penderecki, it is imperative to respond to issues that impact the world at large; he has written a body of powerful and personal music that reflects how he was personally affected. Several important and well-known works were written in remembrance of catastrophes in the 20th century. Threnody is dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and Resurrection, a piano concerto, was composed as a reaction to the 9/11 terror attacks. His Lacrimosa is dedicated to Lech Walesa.  Other dedications are to the Polish victims of Auschwitz and the Warsaw uprising of 1944.

As for the program at Symphony Space, I need to point out the Quartet for Clarinet and Strings, which is one of the pieces that we played for him in Mala Wies, and which is, to my mind- and ear-one of the great chamber works of the late 20th century. The first entrance of the clarinet, arriving unexpectedly after a restless, frantic, scurrying string section is nothing short of breath-taking. The first time I heard it, it pierced through me with its intensity. It is definitely music to keep you on the edge of your seat.  But the Sextette is also fantastic and shouldn’t be missed. (This is not to say that the rest of the program, and the conversation with Penderecki won’t all be great!)

Hope to see you there!

Musically yours,


Symphony Space presents Krzysztof Penderecki on Friday, Oct. 25, at 7:30pm. Tickets and more info here.