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Sending listeners to the cosmos


Perhaps a mysterious gravitational force pulls Krzysztof Penderecki and the Eastman School together.

            Seventy-year-old Polish composer Penderecki (PEN-der-ETS-kee) received an honorary degree from the Eastman School in 1972. In the late 1980s, while in Rochester conducting the RPO, Penderecki returned to the Eastman School to give a composition symposium on his Grammy Award-winning Cello Concerto. Now, February 23 to 27, Penderecki returns again to the Eastman School for a festival celebrating his music.

            This time, violin virtuoso and Eastman School professor Oleh Krysa has been the driving force behind Penderecki's visit. Krysa and Penderecki first connected in Warsaw in the early '70s. They were staying in the same hotel. Krysa speaks fluent Polish, since he grew up near Poland in the Ukraine. So when he recognized the revered composer drinking coffee in the lobby, he introduced himself. Penderecki, however, was already familiar with both his name and his playing, since Krysa had won Poland's prestigious Wienawski competition in 1962.

            After hearing Penderecki's Grammy Award-winning Concerto for Violin & Orchestra No. 2 "Metamorphosen" (1992-95), Krysa wanted to perform it with Penderecki. The two musicians have continued to cross paths over the years in Russia, Europe, and America.

            "The last time we met, which was about two years ago in Poland," Krysa says, "I simply asked him, 'Would you be interested to come again to Eastman?' He said, 'Sure.' The Eastman School was also very happy to host him. That's how this festival came about --- a personal connection."

            Krysa and Penderecki will perform "Metamorphosen" with the Eastman Philharmonia. "I think it's one of the major 20th-century pieces for violin and orchestra," says Krysa, who compares it to works of Berg, Shostakovich, and Mahler. "It's such an epic, profound, and philosophical piece --- and very demanding by the way."

            The title "Metamorphosen" reflects its unique technical and creative demands: the violinist must have the technique and creativity to evoke "transitions between different characters," says Krysa. "It's like your telling a story about a life, sometimes a very personal life, sometimes a universal one, sometimes it goes to the people, and sometimes to the cosmos."

            During the festival's chamber-music concert, Krysa will perform two neo-classical works from 1953. He and other Eastman faculty (Kenneth Grant, Barry Snyder, Charles Castleman, John Graham, and others) will also delve into the more recent works, those from Penderecki's post-1977 style, which fuses a "Romantic sweep" with "drama and heightened personal expression, that is also abundant in the earlier experimental works" says David Liptak, acting chair of Eastman's Composition Department.

            Also during the festival, Brad Lubman will conduct works from Penderecki's infamous avant-garde period: the searing Threnody "For the Victims of Hiroshima" (1959-61), the free-jazz inspired De Natura Sonoris (1966), and The Dream of Jacob (1974) --- which Stanley Kubrick used in his Stephen King-based film The Shining.

            "My view now," says Lubman, "is that Penderecki's music from the late 1950s through the '60s was extremely radical for its time. His ideas about the liberation of sound were indeed liberating for a whole generation of composers looking for an alternative to more academic approaches."

            Penderecki's music also liberates humanity from the physical here and now, to look toward the eternal, the spiritual. It is a personal inspiration to listeners, performers, and composers, such as Liptak, who "found in works from the early 1970s a 'monumental' quality that, for me, reflected a sense of the profound."

            Though this profound spirituality may stem from Penderecki's Eastern Orthodox faith, Krysa senses a universal message: "I think every single person believes in something. It could be God, it could be love, it could be anything. I think the contact starts immediately from the music to the soul --- no question. And you just become richer and deeper, thinking about different things, such as the most important things in your life. I think that is the goal of Penderecki's music."

Two concerts are part of the Eastman School of Music's festival of Krzysztof Penderecki's work: Eastman faculty perform chamber music on Tuesday, February 24, in Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs Street, at 8 p.m.; Krysa, Penderecki, Lubman, and the Eastman Philharmonia perform orchestral works on Friday, February 27, in the Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs Street, at 8 p.m. Free. 274-1100