The campus residency of famed composer Krzysztof Penderecki at Indiana University and its Jacobs School of Music began last week with the visiting luminary taking charge of rehearsals for a performance Wednesday evening in the Musical Arts Center of his “St. Luke Passion,” which he was to conduct as the high point of his Bloomington stay.
Along the way, he made himself available for two Ford Hall sessions: “Penderecki Speaks to Composers,” designed for student and faculty composers but open to the public, and a “Symposium and Conversation” titled “Politics Meets Culture: The Political and Historical Significance of Penderecki’s ‘St. Luke Passion.’”
On concert night, with the MAC — both in the house and on stage — packed, Jacobs Dean Gwyn Richards took to the microphone to announce that on the advice of his physician, Maestro Penderecki (who will be 84 on Thanksgiving Day) would not be conducting the performance and his long-time conducting assistant Maciej Tworek would.
There was not a disappointed “Oh” or grumble, but quiet acceptance from a courteous audience to the news, listeners already appreciative for what was still to be a very special occasion. And when the performance ended about 80 minutes later, the audience response was overwhelming for a composition and for a performance of it that overwhelmed.
The composer humbly joined conductor Tworek, IU choral conductors Dominick DiOrio and Brent Gault, student conductor Nathan Blair, four soloists, the Oratorio Chorus of 174, the Children’s Chorus of 29, and the Philharmonic Orchestra of 89 to receive an explosive ovation.
Yes, it still had been a special occasion.
A product of the musical 1960s, the score for Penderecki’s “St. Luke Passion” is an earthquake, stunning, gripping, often surprising and indeed passionate. There is heartbreak in its retelling of the Passion story as taken from the “Gospel According to St. Luke,” “Psalms” and other sources. One feels also, in the way the libretto has been constructed and in the tortured path the music takes, that a second story lies beneath: that of Auschwitz and the Holocaust that underscored the composer’s life as a child in Nazi-occupied Poland.
One hears anger. One hears great sadness. One hears a personal melancholy that, at the time of composition, had lasted a couple of decades and has remained thereafter in many of his works. The music is rarely beautiful, at least in any lyric sense, but it is mesmerizing and shattering and certainly was so as performed on Wednesday.
Maestro Tworek, with his own Polish background and devotion to Penderecki, contributed a very evident belief in the Passion; the Philharmonic followed his and the composer/conductor’s dictates persuasively. The Oratorio Chorus was fully tuned into the style and temperament of the composition, thanks to Dominick DiOrio, not only an insightful chorus master, with a particular gift for contemporary music, but one whose academic work includes in-depth study of the score. The Oratorio Chorus, split into three parts, captured every trick and tangle, as telegraphed in DiOrio’s instructions. From the stage, Children’s Choir conductor Gault led his talented and invested brood; their contribution was significant.
Soprano Alejandra Martinez, baritone Connor Lidell and bass Julian Morris unleashed their vocal gifts to reach the tops and bottoms of their range and thereby achieve the demands of the score. Varfolomel Upart, a sophomore with a most impressive speaking voice, made his presence known as narrator and evangelist.
With the honored composer/conductor in the hall, even though not on the podium, the evening was one to remember. I heard a gentleman in the row behind me tell his colleague, “This was a once-in-a-lifetime.” For many who were there, it will prove to be so.