Polish connection: Lutosławski performed in Cairo

Szymon Klima on clarinet, Joachim Mencel on piano and Adam Kowalewski on double bass and bass guitar (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Szymon Klima on clarinet, Joachim Mencel on piano and Adam Kowalewski on double bass and bass guitar (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Polish musicians performed a selection of composer/conductor Witold Lutosławski’s works at the Cairo Opera House on Wednesday 6 February.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

“The only honest thing for the artist is to express himself, to bring something in which one really believes. To follow the tastes of other people, to try to please them — it’s a false direction. If I had to follow someone else, I think I would deceive myself, and also them, as I would present to them something that I do not believe myself.”

 So said Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) in an interview.

This year marks a number of important anniversaries in the classical music scene. Germans celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), Italians the birth of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

Poland has its own reason for celebrating: the centenary of the birth of Witold Lutosławski.

In December 2012, based on an initiative of Bogdan Zdrojewski, the Polish Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Sejm – the lower house of the Polish parliament – announced 2013 as the Year of Lutosławski: “On the centenary of Witold Lutosławski’s birth, the Sejm of the Republic of Poland is making the decision to honour one of the most outstanding artistic creators of our times, who has permanently inscribed himself in the history of 20th-century music in Poland and in the world,” the resolution states.

Many Polish orchestras, smaller ensembles, and singers have mobilised to add their share to the Year of Lutosławski. Though special focus was placed on 25 January, Lutoslawski’s birthday, followed by a week of intensive concerts celebrating the composer, 2013 will still provide many concerts and cultural activities commemorating him.

Not only in Poland but also internationally, Lutoslawski is remembered through concerts, events, lectures and publications.

A number of international orchestras have already invited audiences to listen to compositions by Lutoslawski.

Among them is the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an orchestra that was closely associated with the composer, especially in the last decade of his life, performing many of his works. The Third Symphony had its West Coast premiere with the Philharmonic in 1984; while in 1993, a year before his death, Lutosławski conducted the world premiere of his Fourth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Based on an initiative by the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Cairo, Egypt witnessed the first celebration of Lutosławski’s centenary on 6 February with a programme themed “Lutosławski Retuned”.

A Polish trio – Szymon Klima on clarinet, Joachim Mencel on piano and Adam Kowalewski on double bass and bass guitar – performed Lutosławski’s Dance Preludes and other compositions at the Cairo Opera House’s small hall.

But before we look into this fascinating concert where Lutosławski’s music was immersed in a jazzed up fantasy, let us use this opportunity and introduce the composer.

***

Born in 1913 in Warsaw, Witold Lutosławski is among the most important Polish composers, often placed alongside Frederic Chopin and Karol Szymanowski; he is definitely the leading icon of modern Polish music.

Lutosławski studied piano, violin and composition. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1937 and debuted with Symphonic Variation in 1939.

His plans to continue his education in France were interrupted by the war, military mobilisation and imprisonment by the Germans (from which he escaped).

No doubt the German occupation of Poland disrupted musical life; it was forbidden to play Chopin, for instance, or express any national accents.

Lutosławski continued to compose while researching his own unique musical language, and secretly experimenting with Polish themes, finding in music his world of order against the insanity of the war years.

It was after 1945 that Lutoslawski tried to put his musical career back on track, finding support from the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (known to many as the protagonist of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist), the head of the music department in Polish radio.

Faced by Stalin’s regime and new hardships, Szpilman suggested to Lutosławski that he should compose music for radio and songs under a pseudonym.

That was when Lutosławski started composing “functional music”, as he called it, for film, radio and theatre. Many of his songs from this time had lyrics from Polish poetry and were performed by well-known Polish singers.

Although his compositions had a light character, they all drew on folkloric themes with interesting chromatic settings. Though this period might have seemed wasted in the composer’s life, Lutosławski was in fact experimenting; some critics consider this time to be an important pillar of further artistic development.

The death of Stalin in 1953 brought about a relaxation of the cultural totalitarianism gripping the Soviet Union and the communist bloc.

In 1956, the Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music was launched, providing a platform for the composers to present their works and exchange experiences with counterparts from Europe and America.

Lutosławski’s modern scores started attracting attention, and within a few years he had become known around the world. His Musique Funebre in memoriam Bela Bartók (Funeral Music for Strings, 1958), an important 12-tone work, was among the significant breakthroughs that placed him on the international scene.

Lutosławski started developing his own unique aleatoric technique – rather fashionable in the 1950s – where composer provides general guidelines and sets controlled parameters while some elements of the detail are left to chance.

This was first demonstrated in his Jeux Venitiens (1961). In this and other ways Lutosławski proposes a profound study of the sensuality of sound.

In one interview, he is known to have said, “We all knew that music of the 1950s reduced the performer to a little wheel in a machine. I wanted to restore the pleasure of making music.”

Among his important compositions are Concerto for Orchestra (1954); Symphony no 3 (1963), considered by Simon Rattle to be Lutoslawski’s masterpiece, for which he received Grawemeyer Prize from the University of Louisville (Kentucky); Lancuch III for Orchestra; Chantefleurs et Chantefables  (1990), a series of poetic miniatures that carry musical subtlety while creating a unique ambience and building emotions.

Unlike many avant-garde artists, Lutosławski did not abandon traditional music forms such as symphony, concertos or song cycles. With those and many other works he reaches the hearts of listeners through his mastery of the craft, while the modernity expressed in his works is not based on acrobatic solutions or incomprehensible to regular ears.

As a person, Lutosławski is remembered very warmly for his humility and care for others. Even when he started receiving international commissions, he gave a lot to young Polish musicians, among whom many studied abroad.

At the same time, his modesty was noticed by audiences and colleagues. Lutosławski is known to have said, “Not to be modest (for the composer) is ridiculous.”

In his notes to Lutosławski on Music, a book by Zbigniew Skowron, Howard Luke describes Lutoslawski in this way: “Generous in his praise of others and gentle with his criticisms, self-effacing, undogmatic, he appeared the most gentlemanly of composers in an era of unbridled rebellion and revolution in art music. I often wondered how such a decorous personality could produce vigorously innovative works?”

***

Though at times surprising, Lutosławski never fails to reach the listener and incite in him an interest in his music. It becomes even more interesting when musicians start testing the material that the composer provided.

The Polish trio that performed Lutosławski’s works at the Cairo Opera House on 6 February took his compositions to a new level, blending them with jazz. Who else would have approved of such highly artistic experiments if not Lutosławski himself?

“Dance Preludes”, completed in 1954, were originally composed for clarinet and piano. One year later the composer reworked them for clarinet, harp, piano, percussion and strings.

As if this was not enough, the third version of the Dances saw the light in 1959, as the work was re-written for a Czech Nonet (woodwind quintet, violin, viola, cello and double bass). The history of the piece invites further interpretation and re-working. Five movements of the Dances draw on folkloric material, songs from northern Poland.

Arranged by Szymon Klima and Joachim Mencel, the composition took a jazzed-up character with Klima on clarinet, Mencel on piano and Adam Kowalewski on bass guitar.

Their jazz arrangements give a new flavour to Lutosławski’s composition, not to mention that they proved appealing to a wider audience. Putting it in the context of musical integrity and the amount of freedom Lutosławski was keen on maintaining, the arrangement is not only a showcase of the arranger’s creativity but also touches on the timeless experimentation that the composer pursued himself.

The selected songs that followed gave an equal dose of jazzy creativity, while playfully testing the original material. In songs, while Klima and Mencel continued on clarinet and piano, Kowalewski switched to the double bass.

The performance not only proved to be musically captivating but also underscored the great skill of all the performers. Their musical interaction and collaboration was remarkable while projecting ease to the audience, a quality especially noticeable with such extrovert musicians.

From the razor sharp precision to the flamboyant sensuality, the trio brought the aesthetic essence of Lutosławski’s works and set them in new frameworks.

One notices instantly a great amount of joy that the trio experiences in the process of music making as they render the material at hand attractive to the audience, without compromising the important values carried by the music.

For the Polish trio, this was the first occasion on which they performed Lutosławski’s “Dance Preludes” and selected songs in the context of fusing classical music with jazz. Following the “Lutosławski Retuned” premiere in Cairo, the trio plans further performances as well as the release of a CD at the end of the year.

***

Egypt has many Chopin lovers, for he reaches the hearts of listeners with music that has superb poetic qualities. Lutosławski, however, needs to be better established with Egyptian audiences.

Lutosławski’s music has the ability to walk listeners through the modernity wrapped in vivid sensitivity towards timbre and nuance, where a profound musical vocabulary encloses a multitude of textures and colourful harmonies.

“Lutosławski Retuned” was one brilliant way to provoke an audience’s interest in this important 20th-century composer.

It is not the first time for Polish musicians to bring interesting propositions to Cairo stages.

Many still remember “Chopin at the Pyramids: Classic, Jazz, Rock from Warsaw,” a large-scale event that took place in September 2010 at the Giza Pyramids, which involved the cooperation of Polish and Egyptian artists performing to an audience of 3,000.

It was the biggest Chopin-related event in the Arab world. In the same year, in November, Chopin Year was wrapped up with a performance by Maria Pomianowska and Friends, along with the finalists of the first Edition of the Chopin Competition organised in Cairo. The second part of the competition took place in December 2012.

Pomianowska returned in 2011; and together with a group of artists, performed as well as conducted a series of music workshops. Themed “Miłosz bil’Arabi” (Miłosz in Arabic), the events combined Egyptian and Polish folkloric music, and were inspired by the poetry by Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Miłosz, translated to Arabic by the late Hanaa Abdel-Fattah.

In September 2012, clarinetist Szymon Klima and pianist Radoslaw Kurka gave a recital, within the Cultures in Dialogue – Change by Exchange in Cairo Festival, organised by cultural and diplomatic institutions in Poland, Germany, Hungary, Portugal and Egypt. Most recently, in December 2012, Polish artists performed “Carols from Around the Globe” at Cairo’s Manasterly Palace.

With the unique and obviously increasing dynamism of the cultural sector of the Polish Embassy in Cairo, we will still see many interesting initiatives that aim at bringing Polish culture closer to Egyptian audiences. The interaction between the two cultures, Egyptian and Polish, will definitely bear fascinating fruit.

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