The Kennedy Center

Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos and Orchestra

About the Work

Krzysztof Penderecki Composer: Krzysztof Penderecki
© Thomas May

The remarkably lengthy and productive career of Krzysztof Penderecki might be regarded as a kind of microcosm of some of the (seemingly) contradictory tendencies in contemporary music. Penderecki (pronounced "Pen-duh-RET-ski") first came to international attention as an avant-garde artist who pushed his experiments with texture to bold extremes, at times bordering on "noise," in such pieces as Threnos (also known as Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)-a piece initially titled 8'37" in tribute to John Cage, whose chance aesthetics and other revolutionary attitudes made Cage a profoundly influential figure for several important composers of the Polish Renaissance (as the postwar flowering of new music in that country has been called).

Penderecki's use of extended playing techniques, tone clusters, and microtonal glissandi in the 52 string instruments for which Threnody is scored evoke a terrifying sound world. Yet even during the composer's radical avant-garde period (roughly, between 1959 and 1960, when the young Penderecki experienced the impulse shared across much of the postwar avant-garde in Europe "to erase the past"), such music makes an undeniably powerful, shattering emotional impact. It communicates viscerally-not unlike the Romantic outpourings of the previous century.

Penderecki subsequently went on to experiment with electronic music in film scores. But eventually he discovered that he had reached a limit of what could be accomplished and began to veer away from the avant-garde. A major turning point was Penderecki's St. Luke Passion of 1966, whose reception secured his position as a world-renowned composer. In this work Penderecki managed to incorporate his experiments with texture within a large-scale design while at the same time drawing on musical tradition and employing a more familiar harmonic language. The Passion also proved to be a provocative gesture in the face of the official state atheism of Communist Poland-which was likewise in vogue among many of his avant-garde peers. Penderecki points out that writing the score for the St. Luke Passion brought him back to his Catholic faith.

The composer's restless curiosity is not limited to music. A voracious reader, Penderecki is well-versed in philosophy and classical antiquity and even keeps a section of science fiction in his library. He's an aficionado of theater and the visual arts and devotes a great deal of time to his passion for botany. At his home outside Krakow he has constructed an impressive arboretum with a collection now numbering over 1,500 species.

"I also have my Iliad and my Odyssey," declared Penderecki in a speech he gave after the Communist era had itself vanished into the past (1993). He was referring to a famous quote by Johann von Goethe regarding how the artist's life replicates the full Homeric paradigm: a youthful, heroic struggle a la Iliad is typically followed by a "homecoming" in later age, resembling Odysseus' desire to return home. "For me, Troy was the avant-garde, the era of youthful rebellion and faith in the possibility of changing the way of the world through art," as the composer puts it. But once this phase had been experienced, "I realized that there was more of destruction than of building anew" in the avant-garde approach. He became the "Trojan horse" of the avant-garde, turning back toward the inspiration he found in tradition.

Succeeding works of sacred music continued to explore the path opened up by the St. Luke Passion: Dies Irae, Utrenja (a recent recording of which has been nominated for this year's Grammy Awards), Canticum Canticorum Salomonis, the Magnificat, the Polish Requiem, the Requiem of Reconciliation, Credo, Kaddish. and the recent Dies illa, among others. Penderecki has also penned operas (such as his reworking of the non-fiction Aldous Huxley novel The Devils of Loudun), chamber works, eight numbered symphonies and other orchestral-choral works, and a large catalogue of concertos. Now 81, the highly awarded composer continues to be an active participant in musical life. During the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, his Double Concerto for Violin and Viola (2012) was featured as part of the Winter International Art Festival.

The Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos is a marvelous example of the new attitude toward the past that has become part of Penderecki's evolving aesthetic. His special affinity for the cello can be inferred from the quality of his concertante writing for the instrument: indeed, it was his Largo for cello and orchestra (2003)-a de facto concerto-that Mstislav Rostropovich chose to premiere on his very final concert, in 2005 in Vienna.

The Concerto Grosso was written on a commission from the NHK Symphony Orchestra between 2000-2001 and premiered on June 22, 2001, in Tokyo, with Boris Pergamenschikow, Truls Mørk, and Han-Na Chang as the cello soloists and Charles Dutoit conducting. It has enjoyed remarkable success, to judge from its frequent appearance on programs (in Montpelier, Zurich, and Shanghai in the last two months alone). In 2004 Penderecki completed a Concerto Grosso No. 2 (for the even rarer combination of five clarinets!).

As a term from music history, a concerto grosso refers to the configuration of a small group of soloists who exchange musical ideas with a larger ensemble. Pioneered in part by Arcangelo Corelli, the genre represents a familiar Baroque paradigm-as in, say, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. But Penderecki references this paradigm rather loosely. His treatment of the three soloists vis-à-vis the orchestra is also informed by the Classical era's "updating" of the genre as a sinfonia concertante. Concertos for multiple instruments, usually cast in an extroverted, upbeat mood, became all the rage in Paris. Mozart's great work for violin and viola in that genre is the best known and best loved, but Beethoven's Triple Concerto for violin, cello, and piano (1803) also comes to mind (though in the latter case the division of labor is unequal, with the piano being written as a relatively "easy" part).

The Concerto Grosso for Three Cellos makes use of sinfonia concertante style, yet its overall mood is far more introspective. In fact, Penderecki marks one section in the center of the work Notturno, and a brooding, nocturne-like demeanor alternates with more agitated sections.

Formally, Penderecki's roughly 35-minute-long score also veers away from the usual fast-slow-fast concerto pattern: it is cast in a continuous span comprising six interlinked sections of markedly varying character. What becomes especially interesting is the way he approaches each soloist as a personality with something of its own to say (rather than as a "specimen" of an instrumental group). Similarly, Penderecki's strategies for relating the individual cello's voice, or the cellos in different configurations of their own, to the orchestral ensemble becomes the source of much of the piece's emotional interest.

The opening of the work, for example, has the orchestra introduce the thematic germ cell of the concerto's material (a meditative, shadowy motif of chromatic halfsteps that gravitate downward); each of the three soloists is then presented in sequence, as if delivering a brief monologue. Later comes a more-strident version of the motif, in the guise of a march, which will be developed with hints of Shostakovich-like parody. The Notturno section juxtaposes the cello soloists against a solo violin, later to be supplanted by a roiling Allegro con brio. Penderecki handles the expectation of a cadenza with particular originality: toward the end, all three cellists participate in a kind of mega-cadenza that also calls for contributions from other solo instruments. The Concerto Grosso abjures an ending of virtuoso fanfare, settling instead for a mood of quiet, almost elegiac acceptance.