Penderecki pendulates at CSO

...and then at some point, Krzysztof Penderecki stopped asking himself "Is this music different or original?" This question, at the origin of much 20th-century music, acts as both an exhortation and a limit. It results in new methods and sounds but, at the same time, limits composers, preventing them from engaging with the past--except in tongue-in-cheek ironic retrophilia. As a rebellion against this inexorable vector of progress, his new Concerto grosso for 3 Cellos and Orchestra is a success; taken out of context, however, it is a modest failure as a work of art: inoffensive but unremarkable.

When a contemporary composer writes a sonata, a symphony, or a concerto grosso, it's never certain which aspects of the form they will retain and which will be discarded. Expectations should be taken with a grain of salt.

Penderecki's discards the notion of multiple movements but, in that single movement, constructs a form reminiscent of the Baroque era. After a brief introduction, the orchestra presents the first of several ritornello sections: a progression of descending chords that comes back a half-dozen times throughout the work with slight variation each time. This section serves as a sort of home base to which excursions return. These excursions don't fit neatly into any one style and are, on the whole, ostensibly unrelated. It was patchwork but not incohesive--held together by the returning sections.
On the local level, the music sounded Baroque as well. It started with a statement in the strings that was eventually joined by a countermelody--all of which using something like an octatonic scale, sounding much like Shostakovich. Penderecki used another Baroque trick that Shostakovich also enjoyed: sequence. This trick, repeating a melodic fragment, moving it up or down by step, sounds positively archaic to contemporary ears. It was a favorite of Baroque composers but fell out of favor in the Classical period. It betrays an instrumental nature to the music, opposed to vocal or lyrical melodies. Aside from Shostakovich, it's even rarely heard in 20th century music, sounding simplistic or facile when so blatantly exposed in Penderecki's concerto.
While I don't consider the 3 Cellos Concerto a masterwork, it is not unenjoyable. To the naïve listener, the form and sequence make for a relatively easy first listen. There is a middle section that actually sounds cinematic, like a scene from Harry Potter or a Tim Burton film, which is combined with a raunchy march, like a piece of The Wall. But Penderecki was by no means guilty of showing feelings of an almost human nature.
Penderecki's Concerto for 3 Cellos is nothing new or original but is not overly redundant or derivative. In a music world that often looks to the future at the expense of the past, it's a noble effort to synthesize antiquated techniques with a contemporary language. Evolution is both transcending the past but also including it. I give it a ( 5.5 / 10 ). Would I opt to see it again? Probably; once more should suffice. But would I pay to see? Maybe not. Fortunately, there's a free opportunity to see it in the summer of '11 at the Grant Park Music Festival in Millennium Park.

Filed under: CSO, new music

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