Le Poisson Rouge pays tribute to a Polish icon

I finally made it to Le Poisson Rouge, which I have heard so much about, to hear this tribute concert on the first anniversary of the composer’s passing.  As I walked down the stairs, it all came back to me – this used to be a nightclub called “Life”!  I remembered dancing here to disco music in the late ‘90s, and wondered how such a space could be converted to a curated classical music space.  I was pleasantly surprised – LPR’s business model seems to have succeeded in making classical music sexy.  Tables are laid out, cabaret-style, in a dark, low-ceilinged room, and one hears the languorous murmur of a mixed bohemian / bourgeois crowd sipping their drinks.

The evening began with a brief interview of Bob Hurwitz (Nonesuch records) by Ronen of LPR.  Asked how Nonesuch came to work with Górecki, Hurwitz related that there had already been a recording of the composer’s 3rdsymphony, but he’d never heard it live until March ’89, by the London Sinfonietta, during a festival of Górecki and Schnittke.  “I was there to hear lyrical music, and they were using extra players (70-80), in a room for only 500 people, and just the live experience was overwhelming.  Dawn Upshaw had a beautiful, clear, bell-like sound, and I decided to record this.”  At CTS Studios, London, with David Zinman conducting, the composer was present during the recording “and so there was this reverence for him; I didn’t know if Dawn would be able to sing, but the recording took only four hours.  It sold itself through word of mouth, and even Górecki was shocked.  There were no royalty participants, so when the record started selling, we decided to give Dawn, Dave and Górecki royalties.”  The latter carried the check around for two years.  “He was stunned that people were affected by the piece.”

JACK Quartet. Photo credit: Stephen Poff.

JACK Quartet. Photo credit: Stephen Poff.

String Quartet No. 2 (“Quasi una Fantasia”), Op. 64 (1990-91)
JACK Quartet

The beginning of this piece immediately establishes a somber atmosphere.  Over patient, repeated bass notes from the cello, the viola explores first a major seventh, sliding down to a minor seventh, then up to a minor 9th, common dissonances in contemporary music, but treated in such a simple texture that vibrato takes a lead role, interrupted only by the stark flat tone of an open string.  With the introduction of the violins a dominant harmony asserts itself, hypnotic and trance-like.  It was very easy to paint mental pictures to this music while seated in this intimate space.  The pedal of the cello becomes so entrenched, the ultimate one-note drone, only to break loose into Psycho-shower-scene music (2nd movement, Deciso – Energico).  The recapitulations of earlier themes feel a bit like musical non-sequiturs, but the JACK Quartet has impressive ensemble unity, like a four-headed beast, alternately hunting musical prey, and digesting that prey in an attitude of repose.

The third movement (Arioso, adagio cantabile) explores parallel minor 9ths in the violins, while a mournful 2-chord progression in the lower strings connects directly with the listener via meditative simplicity.  The final movement is a high-voltage strain of minimalist texture, funky rhythms alternating with a madcap minuet triplet rhythm.  Such is the sawing away that the cellist holds his bow like a meat-cleaver!

The JACK Quartet’s style is immediate and engaging. The few moments that witnessed a lyrical line by the violins could’ve benefited by a somewhat more refined elegance.  The insistence on seeing music of this generation of Polish artists through the lens of WWII ensures that at least a substantial part of the audience is going to replay scenes from Schindler’s list in their heads as their truffled mac and cheese ($9) gets cold.  But with some effort one can easily make various emotional interpretations of Górecki’s music.  It’s starkness has a beauty all its own, and does not have to be seen as programmatic.

Ensemble Signal and Brad Lubman

Ensemble Signal and Brad Lubman

Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka, Op. 66 (1993)
Ensemble Signal
Brad Lubman, conductor

I’ve always thought that the question, “How will this performance be received?” has much to do with the measured use of time.  Ensemble Signal was able, like the preceding quartet, to capture the hypnotism of Górecki’s style by deftly molding the passage of time.  The composer’s insistent use of claustrophobic melodic cells, which are suddenly smothered to allow the piano a zero-gravity recitative, played particularly well in this dark subterranean space.  I would call this style “argumentative minimalism” – if you express something simple, loud and long enough, people will get it, and internalize it.  Then vary it by staggering themes, introducing canon, etc, and you are leading the audience somewhere contemplative and yet uncluttered.  Eventually, the Polka from the piece’s title is introduced, quite an exciting oompah scherzo, with a dark side.

While LPR’s amplified sound system seemed to work well with the string quartet (sudden silences were stamped by the briefest velvety reverb), I wondered whether it was necessary with this mixed ensemble of winds, brass, strings, piano and bells.  The chorale-like interludes in this piece were soothing and reassuring after the machine-gun assault of vivo sections.  Polytonality from the piano and bells made sense in this relaxed temporal plane.

The audience gave a very generous applause, perhaps hoping for an encore, but to kill any such expectation, the sound engineer began playing “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by the Velvet Underground as the lights went on.  It was a fitting reminder that open-mindedness and a spirit of unfussy, artistic adventure are crucial in the endeavor to pass on the classical music heritage to a new demographic.

November 8, 2011, In Memoriam Henryk Mikołaj Górecki

Rob Wendt is a pianist / composer / music educator living in Astoria, NY. You can follow him on twitter: @RobWendt