Avant-garde at 81: composer Krzysztof Penderecki on how he found his musical voice
The Pole, who will conduct Hong Kong Sinfonietta tonight in his Violin Concerto No.2, sees work he wrote in 1950s to remember victims of Hiroshima bomb as turning point
Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki has a gentle face and gracious old-world manner. Dressed in a blue suit and wearing a silk pocket square, he hardly appears the leading member of the musical avant-garde that he has been for more than half a century.
His abstract but expressive style came to international prominence in the 1960s. Now aged 81 but still a forward thinker, he said recently: “Never in history was there such a time as now, where so much music is played from all the epochs. You can have a couple of operas in a pocket. We are lucky to be alive now.”
Tonight the Hong Kong Sinfonietta is presenting an orchestral concert featuring his Violin Concerto No 2, Metamorphosen, with concertmaster James Cuddeford as soloist, along with Shostakovich’s Symphony No 15.
At age six or seven, Penderecki remembers composing a polonaise for his grandmother. He was a violinist but decided to be a composer when he was 18, at that time composing music in the style of violin virtuosos Wieniawski and Paganini.
After the second world war, Poland was under Russian occupation. “As a young man I couldn’t travel, nobody could travel, they wouldn’t give us a passport. For many years I was trying to go abroad. And then one day I read in the newspaper about a new competition for composers, and the first prize was a trip to the West. I decided I must get the first prize, so I wrote three pieces in three different styles.
“Because I am [ambidextrous], one score I wrote with the right hand, another score with the left hand, and my colleagues copied the third score. Nobody could recognise it was one composer.”
He won first, second and third prize, and took a trip to Italy for six weeks: “A fantastic journey. Since that time I never sent any pieces to a competition. That was once in a lifetime.”
By the 1950s, rebellion was in the air. “I was looking for my own music. The real change in my life was the Threnody [to the Victims of Hiroshima]. I wrote Threnody, then I wrote several works where I changed my music completely.”
Threnody was a piece for 52 stringed instruments that won a Unesco award in 1961.
The 1960s proved pivotal, especially his piece St. Luke Passion. “It opened all doors for me in the music world. This was really a very big success for me,” Penderecki recalls.
Thanks to his friendship with famous musicians such as Isaac Stern and Dmitri Rostropovich, who premiered several of his concertos, he composed almost 20 concertos and other major works in the ’60s, including operas and symphonies.
Penderecki’s music is considered dark by some, and in fact has been used on the soundtracks of movies such as The Shining and The Exorcist. He himself seems bemused by that, and mentions that it also has a “scherzando” or lighter side.
The piece to be performed by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, Violin Concerto No 2, Metamorphosen, is a huge piece, 40 minutes of unbroken music. It won two Grammy awards in 1999, one for the performance by Anne-Sophie Mutter and one for the composition.
The composer describes himself as “a melodist” which is evident in this dissonant but haunting piece.
Of the other work on the programme, Shostakovich’s final symphony, Penderecki says: “I love Shostakovich. We were good friends. I think he is the best symphonist of the last century. In person he was shy, but he was a warm person. The last symphony was written when he knew death was coming, and maybe it is his best.”
Saturday, 24 October, Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall, 8pm