Composer Penderecki strikes sparks with Grant Park Orchestra

July 16, 2011

by Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review

The Grant Park Music Festival programs a wide variety of music, yet, even for this venturesome series, it’s an infrequent experience to hear one of the world’s most celebrated composers conducting his own music.

This weekend’s concerts are offering that rare opportunity with Krzysztof Penderecki directing the Grant Park Orchestra in his Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Three Cellos and Beethoven’s Eroica symphony Friday night at the Pritzker Pavilion.

The Polish composer’s unorthodox concerto takes outward inspiration from the Baroque as its title indicates, with a roughly equal balance between the large orchestra and spotlighted solo passages by the three cellists.

Yet, while not quite a full-fledged Romantic concerto — or triple concerto — Penderecki’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 is clearly a work of the 21st century. His musical style has grown more Romantic and there are passages for the three cellists that are among Penderecki’s most lyrical inspirations.

Yet there is also some of the rugged astringency of his earlier avant-garde works, like the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima and Fluorescences. Cast in six unbroken sections, the concerto alternates between ruminative solo writing for the soloists and dark, aggressive outbursts from the orchestra, including a malign militaristic march.  In response, the music for the soloists grows faster and more complex, and the cellists’ lines become intermeshed against the roiling symphonic backdrop. After a series of violent climaxes, the music slows down again and the cellists’ introspective music closes the work with an affecting, hard-won solace.

Charles Dutoit led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the local premiere of the Concerto Grosso No. 1 last March. That account may have had more whipcrack symphonic virtuosity, but the performance under the composer’s direction Friday night made a stronger overall case for this music. While the orchestral outbursts had the requisite power, Penderecki led a more mellow and searching performance that revealed the Concerto Grosso as a richer, more tragic piece, drawing responsive playing from the orchestra.

The performance was aided enormously by a first-class trio of soloists in Kira Kraftzoff, Julie Albers, and Amit Peled. Fine as the CSO members were last March, these superb cellists proved a cohesive, less cautious team, technically gleaming and more freely expressive in their rhapsodic solo passages.

One expected Penderecki to make an authoritative statement in his own music. But the surprise of the evening was the terrific account of Beethoven’s Eroica that the Polish conductor and the Grant Park players served up after intermission.

Penderecki didn’t do anything revisionist or particularly outre interpretively. This was just strong, purposeful, and incisive Beethoven of great understanding and integrity. The 77-year-old composer proved an energetic podium figure, bringing a bracing sense of drama and momentum to the opening movement, with the ensuing funeral march atmospheric and eloquent, a brief yet jarring loss of ensemble apart.

The Scherzo was notably vigorous, with fine nimble horns in the trio. The finale delivered the requisite payoff Friday night, proceeding with cumulative strength and power in each succeeding variation to the blazing coda. A long and enthusiastic ovation followed the performance.

Penderecki is not only one of our most consistently compelling composers but showed himself a greatly gifted conductor as well. Is it possible to have him back next summer to lead the belated Chicago premiere of his Polish Requiem?