Krzysztof Penderecki: Sergey Smbatyan keeps surprising me with his talent
Towards the end of the Malta International Music Festival, one of the greatest mystifiers of the modern times came to the island. He is the owner of an endless number of doctoral gowns trimmed with a sweet intonation of challenge and rebellion, a supporter of ecumenism and an avant-garde artist who gave the reason to cast doubt on the future of both the common musical stave and entirely all overtones. All in all, it was Krzysztof Penderecki himself, recognized as the “best living composer” of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
– How wonderful this place is for holding a festival, – said Penderecki in admiration, when he first came to Malta, although he seems to be so even-tempered. – I am especially delighted to see musicians here who are so significant for our world. Definitely, one of them is Maestro Sergey Smbatyan, who will be at the conductor’s podium during the performance of my Chaconne. We have known each other for about a decade, and all these years he keeps surprising me with his talent, his wisdom and maturity.
I often prefer to conduct my own compositions. But I am ready to trust Sergey Smbatyan. A musician of his level can discover something in my music I did not expect to find there myself.
– These words are very surprising, because it is known that you prefer to conduct your compositions yourself…
– Yes, but you see, exceptions are possible sometimes. As for me, at the beginning the 1970s I had to stand on the podium myself, because I was not satisfied with interpretation of my music by other conductors. Not because I did not like those conductors, they simply could not read what was behind the notes. And that was where I communicated very important information. And I also thought that the author understood his music better that anyone else. That is why I often prefer to conduct my own compositions. But I am ready to trust Sergey Smbatyan. A musician of his level can discover something in my music I did not expect to find there myself. It is not unlikely that my concept is the only one of possible interpretations.
– Could you explain why you hold the baton in the left hand? Doesn’t it confuse the musicians in the orchestra?
– Because I am left-handed. And no, they are not confused; I believe it is not a big deal for musicians who play in orchestras. For some time I did not use the baton at all, because ten fingers were enough. But then I decided that for musicians it is more convenient when a conductor uses a baton.
I remind Penderecki of the Florence-born Jean-Baptiste Lully, who served at the court of Louis XIV (the Sun King) long time ago, he was a composer and conductor (because in those days it was expected that the composer would conduct his own music), and he used a big stick to thump the rhythm. Unfortunately, he struck his foot with it by mistake, the wound soon turned gangrenous, and it all led to an amputation and his death. So they decided to turn this stick with its pointed end upwards, with time it got smaller, and after a series of transformation it became a baton.
– What do you think about women conductors? Do they have their place at the podium?
– Why not? Modern women do everything what was done by men in the past.
– However, not long ago there was an international scandal in that regard. Chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Vasily Petrenko said that “a female on the podium can be a distraction for the orchestra”…
– I think such views are anachronistic. Today a woman on the conductor’s podium is normal, absolutely normal. It started at least twenty five years ago. In my opinion, there are no gender differences in music.
In the past Penderecki had a good laugh at the classics and himself in Ubu Rex Opera Buffa. He refused to use traditional notation, instead he drew triangles, arrows, and squares on paper. It was not surprising that many musicians refused to perform his compositions with an excuse that they did not what to “break instruments”. The composer himself explained, “This is how I see music”. And if someone cannot see it, forget about them.
– I have been wondering about one more, let’s say, peculiarity. When you are conducting your own music, you always have a score in front of you. But you know your music by heart, don’t you?
– It is true, but I need to read music. I need to see notes, because a visual aspect is very important for me. It helps me to concentrate, including during the process of composing. I always start with a graphic sketch, with a shape, and then I fill in the blanks.
Soon Krzysztof Penderecki will celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday. But it does not mean anything: he has been a modernist and “renewer”, ready at any moment to burst onto the stage like the armed force of Earl Roland with the warcry “Munjoie”! Whether contrary to the said above or by virtue of it, this highbrow bearded aristocrat has preserved the status of the most highly paid and popular composer in the world. He was commissioned by the United Nations to compose the spiritual opera in two parts Paradise Lost, dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the USA, for a fantastic fee. A similar order was received from the city hall of Jerusalem to commemorate the 3000th anniversary of the capital of Israel (it was in 1997); and the Catholic composer wrote the Seven Gates of Jerusalem oratory, combining the canonical text of the Old Testament and the musical language of “big avant-garde”. In general, Penderecki composes his music on demand. And in response to sarcastic comments he remarks that Bach used to write one cantata per week, but music did not suffer from it.
– Six years ago you composed a new orchestra version of your first opera The Devils of Loudun. Why?
– Because I wrote it long time ago, when I was young and furious, and at that time I wanted to use numerous instruments: there were four flutes, four trumpets, four trombones, six French horns and so on. The modern orchestras do not have large instrumental groups like when I was composing that opera. At that time I lived in Germany, a rich country where opera houses could afford to have big orchestras. I seldom create new versions of my compositions, maybe just two or three times, not more. When you turn fifty, you begin understanding your music much better.
When I was young I wanted to destroy, nowadays I want to embed in a form. And when this pure form is already established, I begin adding music to it.
– Shostakovich, for example, preferred the second version of his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (in the first version Katerina Izmailova). Did he have the same reason, what do you think?
– I think, the second version of the opera is more successful than the first one. The first one was too long.
A rebellious artist by nature, Penderecki revealed to the world the unprecedented and unparalleled tone quality and richness of sound. His compositions of the 1960s resembled samples of intricate abstract graphic works, rather than the usual musical scores. These early scores were beautiful, covered with mysterious signs and wavy lines.
– You were doing it contrary to whom?
– When I was young I wanted to destroy, nowadays I want to embed in a form. And when this pure form is already established, I begin adding music to it. And by the way, the Poles have always been known as mutineers. If we are told to do something, we will definitely do it the other way round.
He sees all sounds in colours, and the colour might change depending on his perception. The palette creates polyphony of sounds in his mind and it becomes visible in the music sheet. “It can be said that I illuminate it”, explains the composer.
– As far as I know, you like to quote Hans-Georg Gadamer, a representative of the philosophical hermeneutics tradition. Why is he so close to your heart?
– In his work “The Relevance of the Beautiful”, Gadamer considers art as a certain playground that requires a co-player, as a symbol that makes you think, and, finally, art as festivity. Gadamer finds everything that we wish to find, in Pythagoras’ theory, in his Harmony of the Spheres based on the law of numbers. Probably, this is why I love mathematics, because numbers and order are the oldest aesthetical principles, which form the basis of any art.
In the distant 1960s Penderecki was time and again blamed for the “cult of noise”. Today the attitude to him has changed and his intellectual avant-garde escapades can now be described as vintage. Moreover, musicians love when he conducts his own fanciful music. Sometimes there are so intricate consonance rhythmic figures, that it is hard to makes sense of them without the author.
This time Penderecki the composer, as already mentioned, yielded the role of Penderecki the conductor to the amazing young maestro Sergey Smbatyan who, together with the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra, will be performing Chaconne in Memoriam John Paul II at the final concert of the Malta festival in the presence of the composer and his charming wife Elżbieta. This Chaconne for string orchestra is the hymn in praise of beautification of the Pope, who used to sing, write poetry, play as a young man in an amateur theatre and who had left to the world numerous passages about love; Chaconne forms the last movement of the Polish Requiem finished in 2005. It is necessary to explain that this composition was expanding for a long time: the composer spent twenty-five years writing it, from 1980 till 2005; all parts (and traditional for a requiem mass Lacrimosa, Dies Irae, Agnus Dei, Recordare, Jesu pie, as well as a nontraditional hymn Święty Boże) are dedicated to various tragic events in Polish history: Resistance, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, shooting of shipyard workers in Gdansk during anti-government riots, the Katyn massacre. Other parts are dedicated to legendary figures, who are spiritually close to the composer: his friend Cardinal Wyszynski; the Reverend Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who gave his life at Auschwitz to save a fellow prisoner, and John Paul II.
– Tonight your Chaconne in Memoriam John Paul II will be performed at the Malta International Music Festival. Did you happen to know him long before he became the Pope?
– Absolutely right, we met at the beginning of the 1950s, at that time he was a Roman Catholic priest and he played in an amateur theatre. I wrote music for productions of that theatre and he was an actor. We saw each other very often, I can say we were friends, and after he passed away I decided to write this homage. You know, even then he perceived the world differetly, he always was ready to give a helping hand to lost souls. There were always young people around him; probably they felt he was a spiritual leader.
– Did he play a role in your destiny? Maybe, it led you to composing spiritual music?
– I come from a very religious family; my mother was a devout woman, not to mention my grandparents. So I started writing spiritual music quite early; Stabat Mater, for example, was finished when I was 29. In Poland such music was prohibited by communists, but I wanted to rebel and do everything against the regime. I have always travelled with a Bible. Later I also composed a lot of religious music for churches of different denominations. My father was a Catholic and a Greek born in the Polish part of Ukraine near Ivano-Frankivsk, my grandmother was Armenian and belonged to Gregorian church, and my dad was German by birth… This is why I am open to all cultures and interested in sacral music at all levels, and I never make a secret that sacrum for me is way more important than profanum.
– Here it is relevant to remember your Symphony No. 7 Seven Gates of Jerusalem dedicated to 3000 years of the City of three religions. By the way, why is “seven” symbolical for you?
– Believe me, I did not think about the seven days of creation, it just happened so; I did not intend to write a symphony in seven movements, they just followed one another. And I called it a symphony, although it is an oratory. Salvador Dali suggested we write together the Creation oratory, so that I could be responsible for music and he – for text and scenography. Unfortunately, it did not work out… And seven for me is just a number I love. I like to play with numbers, because it makes the process of composing more amusing. I use colour pencils for different groups of instruments for the same reason.
– Seven Gates of Jerusalem was recently performed at the festival in Yerevan, and its interpretation belonged to the Armenian State Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sergey Smbatyan.
– It was one the best festivals where my music was performed. I love to come to Armenia and I am fascinated by musicians of this country. As for Sergey, I said before that I consider him one of the best conductors of the new generation.
As a child he was interested in nature and collected a herbarium. Later he bought an old abandoned manor with a park near Krakow and started bringing it back to life; he has planted more than 1,500 tree species over these thirty years.
– How does it go together with music?
– Creation of a garden for me is similar to creation of a musical score. A garden is nature expressed in mathematics and music is emotions expressed in mathematics. My Symphony No. 8 Songs of Transience appeared under the impression from my garden in blossom. I even thought of calling it the Symphony of trees, those ones I planted myself. It is likely if I had started my life now, I would have become not a composer, but a musician. There are only twelve notes, practically all combinations are well known, and trees live their hard- to-understand and unfathomable life.