Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Lutoslawski at 100

I posted in 2009 and in 2010 about my enthusiastic appreciation for the great modern Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. At those times I had few online examples of his music to offer in my posts. His work continues to interest me and I listen to some sort of Lutoslawski piece periodically throughout each year. In 2013 I am in general listening to more contemporary classical music than anything else music-wise. I intend to make some future posts on new compositions I purchased for my collection this year.

Classical music is not dead, nor is it devoid of fresh material. New compositions abound but it is a challenge for a listener such as myself, living in a rural area largely isolated from the cultural vibe except for random snippets I find on the Internet, to keep up with what new CDs are coming out by my favorite living composers.

Lutoslawski is not one of them. He died in 1994. But his music still surpasses most of what I listen to from composers today who are obviously influenced by him. As it happens this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Polish master's birth. For that reason alone there is much more music composed by Lutoslawski available online. Excellent performances of his music now flourish on YouTube.

Several weekends ago, Jennifer and I were listening to music from YouTube through my iPad and Apple TV over our stereo. We started out actually listening to Silver Blue an old JD Souther tune that was performed somewhat more famously by Linda Ronstadt. But I really like JD's original studio version with its prominent acoustic bass. Jennifer seems to prefer this live version. As so often happens in life, one thing led to another and we ended up stumbling upon a treasure-trove of videos on Lutoslawski that I could not find back in 2010.

Specifically, we enjoyed a performance of Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 4 conducted in France in 2011 by one of the heirs to Lutoslawski's musical tradition, Esa-Pekka Salonen, a composer I would rank alongside the very different compositions of John Adams (among others) as one of my living favorites. This performance of the Fourth was ecstatically received by the audience, who called Salonen back out to the podium three times. It is a strong symphony and ends in a lively fashion. Jennifer was entertained by it in what was her first time hearing it.

There is an interesting and insightful aside to this symphony. While receiving a prize in Stockholm in 1993, Lutoslawski spoke with Salonen during the grand celebration dinner. He told Salonen that he had just finished a new work, a symphony, and he would like Salonen to arrange for the LA Philharmonic to commission it. Salonen almost fainted at the prospect of premiering a Lutoslawski symphony. It was a powerful moment for Salonen and a reflection of the companionship Lutoslawski felt toward the conductor by making his rather unorthodox offer. After all, usually orchestras commission works before they are composed.

Of course, the Salonen-Lutoslawski connection is evident on my recent iPad app purchase, The Orchestra. Salonen conducts all the pieces on the app and comments on all of them in progression with himself praising the Lutoslawski piece on the app and next conducting his own composition. There is a chronology of Debussy to Mahler to Stravinsky to Lutoslawski to Salonen in the app. This, I think, accurately traces one of classical music's main evolutionary paths toward post-20th century compositions.

On YouTube you will also now find an very interesting hour-long documentary on Lutoslawski featuring the composer himself speaking excellent English and communicating a great deal about his music. You can learn more watching this video of Lutoslawski rehearsing a performance where he conducted his own work. You can observe Salonen in discussion with Steven Stucky (another living favorite of mine) reviewing Lutoslawski's life and work. Whereas choices were sparse three years ago today there are wonderful videos featuring his String Quartet, his Mi-Parti, his Partita, his Cello Concerto, and many other works.

Two pieces deserve special mention. Lutoslawski's Piano Concerto is now available online. Composed in 1987 it remains unmatched in my opinion by significant recent compositions in this form. There is also an excellent short lecture on the concerto offered here. It covers some of the reasons why I consider it the greatest piano concerto in the last half-century.  Next, the Symphony No. 3 can now be heard. It was unavailable online when I reviewed it in 2010.  This Great Third is still the symphony I listen to most often. Appropriate to the spirit of this post, the performance in the link is by the LA Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

This proliferation of Lutoslawski videos on YouTube and other Internet spaces is rather extraordinary and I feel lucky that it has literally occurred over the past 30 months or so. It is clear to me that Lutoslawski is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Salonen summarizes what it means to him to conduct this music today: "Not only is he a very important composer who shaped a lot of the music of the twentieth-century, but it is also very personal. I knew him. I admired him. Both as a composer and as a human being. He's turning 100 and his music is still very much alive, very much part of our lives...this is our duty to show what a majestic treasure this repertoire really is."

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