Review: ‘Tribute to Górecki,’ L.A. Master Chorale, June 10, 2012
By Marc Porter Zasada
Executive Editor, L.A. Opening Nights
What music from the 20th century will last? I mean really last, as in many centuries? Let me put in a vote for the works of Henrik Górecki, the too-little-known Polish composer who passed away in 2010. Back in the 1950s, Górecki began writing in the serial tone mode of Schoenberg, et al; but quickly departed that highly-academic style to create something entirely his own.
Drawing from traditional sources like Medieval chant and Polish liturgy, Górecki forged what is sometimes called “sacred minimalism.” These are works of magnificent subtlety and patient power. They build quietly and exercise an un-selfconscious simplicity with slowly-modulated chords that reach us on a timeless, even primal level. As L.A. Master Chorale conductor Grant Gershon pointed out the other night, Górecki is the exact opposite of “music created for the ADHD listener of our time.” And certainly the opposite of “academic.”
Górecki is known to the casual listener mostly through his popular Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976) which broke out of the classical world to find listeners of all persuasions. Its sometimes hypnotic harmonies led to the facile categorization of Górecki as a “New Age” composer, but the label was mistaken. There is nothing facile and certainly nothing “New Age” going on in Górecki’s works. They arise from an honest faith and while simple, they convey a complex wonder.
Sorrowful Songs is a terrific entry point to Górecki, and should be in everyone’s library—but he rewards a much deeper dive. On June 10, the Los Angeles Master Chorale ended its season with a deeply moving and exquisitely rendered “Tribute to Górecki” which included three potent and religious works, all performed a capella in the acoustic temple known as Disney Hall.
In the first half, Gershon used a subset of the Master Chorale, mixing up the sections to produce a seamless sound for the Lobsegang (Song of Praise) and Piésni Maryjne (Marion Songs).
Ostensibly composed to honor the 600th anniversary of the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, the Lobsegang is a statement of faith repeated in the form of a slow motet and ending with an intonation of Ewig sollst Du Sein (Thou shalt dwell forever). The Ewig or “forever” moment is overlaid with a brief response from a glockenspiel—the only instrument that appeared in the program—momentarily tapping out Gutenberg’s name in musical code. If you didn’t know the backstory, you would just call it “inexpressibly moving.”
The Piésni Maryjne are based loosely on old Polish church tunes celebrating Mary, but take the listener to a similarly hypnotic place of innocence and joy—accessible no matter what your faith. The Master Chorale is known for its world-class execution: clean, controlled, and utterly on tonal target with a hundred-plus voices. Here they did it in rapid Polish.
In between these pieces, Gershon slipped in a short work by Johannes Brahms, Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz (Create in me, God, a pure heart), as both a contrast and a complement to Górecki. It was fascinating to see how Brahms, working out a complex canon a 100 years earlier, went after many of the same emotions, and developed many of the same themes.
While Górecki was composing his Miserere in March of 1981, the Solidarity trade union was being violently put down in the city of Bydgoszcz by the communist government. The composer immediately turned his new work into a song of protest—or rather, a statement of solidarność. The Miserere was repressed until 1987, when it was given a highly-charged performance in the midst of turbulent times.
For this work, conductor Gershon brought the full Chorale to the stage, now divided into eight sections which stood, one by one, to join their voices together. As with all Górecki, the solidarity does not occur quickly. The lowest basses stand to deliver a slow, unison figure which is eventually taken up by the first basses—with subtle changes. It takes, as Gershon warned his audience, about 20 minutes to work our way all the way up to the first sopranos. Along the way, and in the masterful hands of Gershon and his singers, each slight modulation became a major event. If one were foolish enough to text during such a concert, one might write “OMG, they added the seventh!!!!!” And each exclamation point would be an understatement. The entire audience sat in awed silence for perhaps 20 seconds before breaking into applause.
Fortunately for Górecki fans, the Master Chorale yesterday recorded the entire program for Decca (in Disney Hall, no less)—the first time the Marion Songs and Lobgesang have been recorded for commercial release. The album is expected for release in October of this year: just in time for a holiday present to your soul.