News of Polonia, 22 October 1997 [1]

by Wanda Wilk

October 1-5 was the “Górecki Autumn” Festival at USC. I was the happiest person in the world! The University of Southern California was honoring my husband and me, and the great Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Górecki was our house guest. For months it was touch and go with the elusive, reclusive composer. He finally arrived in New York from Poland with a cold. How could he travel all the way to the West Coast feeling so miserable? I told him the California sunshine would heal him. I also promised to show him our Zakopane and Morskie Oro (Lake Arrowhead to those who don’t know). His New Jersey hosts, Jane Kedron of the Polish Institute of Arts and Science of America and her husband, promised to put him on the plane no matter what.

I picked up HMG and his friend Andrzej Bachleda-Curus (the famous baritone voice heard on old Polish recordings of Szymanowski’s ballet, Harnasie) at LAX at noon. Instead of driving them to my home in the San Fernando Valley all the way on the freeways, I took the scenic route through Beverly Glen canyon. As we descended into the valley, they could see the row of houses built on stilts set up against more mountains on the other side. We remarked on the California earthquakes at the time. I told them that in the fifty years that I have lived here in this wonderland, I only felt four of them. Most of them I read about in the newspapers. They seemed impressed with the California landscape. I could understand that, for HMG is a man who loves mountains, especially Zakopane where his family friend Bachleda lives and where he is presently building a house overlooking Zakopane to which he will move from Katowice. Like Szymanowski, whom he revered, he loves the “gorale” and the highlander region. He does not like to travel (period)! There is a true story about HMG being scheduled for a festival of his music. The “Warsaw Autumn” International Contemporary Music Festival was in progress in Warsaw at the time and HMG was staying at the Hotel Europejski. When it was time to depart for the airport, HMG was nowhere to be found! He had taken the train back home.

So I was surprised to learn that this “non-traveler” had been to Mexico City, Brazil!, Canada, the U.S. (New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C.), Israel, and the far east. He may be going to Australia next. Of course, he travels in Europe a lot, especially to Germany, Holland, Denmark, etc… He speaks fluent French and German and understands a little English. The language barrier did not matter during this trip, since he had an excellent translator who quickly repeated an entire paragraph without missing a point! Yes, Maria Anna Harley was good!

The Dean of the USC School of Music, a frequent flyer to Poland, thought up the name “Górecki Autumn” for the festival, which included three concerts, one lecture, one seminar, meeting with students during a forum, attending rehearsals of his music, and rehearsing once with the USC Symphony orchestra for the performance of his famous Third Symphony on October 3rd. Of utmost importance was the presence of Adrian Thomas, author of the first book on HMG in English, who presented a lecture on Górecki’s music on Thursday night. The British musicologist and professor has known the composer for almost twenty-five years. He met him when he went to Poland on an educational exchange program to study composition with Bogusław Schaeffer in Kraków. Since then, he has learned to speak Polish and has been the recognized authority on HMG, having written many articles on the composer and his music, and broadcast programs of his music when he was Head of Radio 2 on BBC.

A music history symposium, “The Górecki Phenomenon,” took place on Sunday from 11:00-4:00 at USC. Dr. Maria Anna Harley, director of the Polish Music Reference Center (PMRC) was the chair and organizer. Present were Dr. Adrian Thomas of University of Cardiff, Wales; Dr. Luke Howard from Moorhead State U. in Minnesota; David Kopplin, Ph.D. candidate in composition at UCLA and publications coordinator for the L.A. Philharmonic; Dr. James Harley, composer, and Mark Swed, chief music critic of the Los Angeles Times.

The first concert of the festival was organized by Dr. James Harley, composer and musicologist. It took place on a hot Wednesday night, October 1, in Hancock Auditorium (with no air conditioning). The first performer was our local talented pianist Wojciech Kocyan, who played Four Preludes. Next came Variations for violin performed by Linda Wang accompanied by Robert Thies. The latter, a USC student and winner of the prestigious Tschaikovsky Competition, performed the difficult Sonata No. 1, and a short Intermezzo for piano. He also accompanied Emily Lin, flutist, who played “Valentine Piece” and the beautiful “For you, Anne-Lill.” In all, a beautiful program enjoyed by a large audience, ending with a reception hosted by the Polish American Congress with Mieczysław Dutkowski and Vladek Juszkiewicz in charge. The third concert took place on Sunday, October 5 with the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble led by Donald Crockett. Here they played two of HMG’s most beautiful pieces (and my favorites): Good Night and Kleines Requiem für eine Polka. They also played Lutosławski’s Chain I. I could see some Polonia members in the audience, Zbysław Petryka and Zbigniew Kowalski of Polish Radio.

The second concert, Friday, October 3rd, was billed as “Górecki conducting Górecki” with the composer conducting the Third Symphony for the first time in the U.S. This was the night of the “big” performance, which sold out immediately (the hall holds 1558). The phones to the USC ticket office were literally jammed! The Górecki name was magic—made famous by a single recording of his Symphony of “Sorrowful Songs,” on the Nonesuch label which has sold more than a million copies, “despite the competition of eight other performances of the symphony currently in print,” (L.A. Times music critic, Mark Swed). In England the recording with American soprano Dawn Upshaw (David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta) was no. 1 on American Classical Chart and No. 6 on British Pop Chart, beating out Madonna and Barbara. HMG also has the honor of having sold more records than any classical composer. The Górecki name brought enormous publicity to the L.A. Times almost daily with excellent and positive reviews of his music and the artists.

Oct. 3rd was a beautiful night and the student orchestra gave it their all. They zealously followed the composer who conducted it at a much slower pace, adding 11 minutes to the suggested timing of 54 minutes. (Górecki told me his favorite metronome tempo is 69). The slower tempo made sense. Mark Swed further wrote, “And the performance was simply extraordinary, practically unfathomable under the circumstances (one rehearsal, students together for just a few weeks in the new semester). But Górecki’s personality is like a force of nature, and he achieved an intensity that I have never heard equaled in this music from far more accomplished professional orchestras.” I agree with him. It was a performance “par excellence.” Larry Livingston, dean of the School of Music and the president of the University, Stephan Sample, must have been proud! So was I. This was the night when, before the concert began, President Sample made a formal announcement of the Endowed Position in Polish Music and welcomed Assistant Professor Maria Anna Harley as the first Stefan and Wanda Wilk Director of the Polish Music Reference Center.

After the concert a beautiful reception sponsored by the Polish Consulate in Los Angeles with Pawel Potorczyn in charge took place. Dean Livingston presented the composer with wind chimes from Woodstock as a memento, suggesting it serve as an inspiration for his next composition. My husband and I received a beautiful poster of the Górecki Autumn. So here we are in 1997 — twelve years later after the establishment of the PMRC in January 1985, with composer Witold Lutoslawski present at the dedication ceremony at USC — being honored at USC in the presence of another great Polish composer, Henryk Górecki. A beautiful climax!

P.S. Yes, HMG did see our Zakopane (Lake Arrowhead) and loved the mountains, even though the road appears more hazardous than the one to Zakopane. He also went to San Diego where he saw a private performance by the John Malaschock Dance Company who dance to his Third Symphony and two other of his works. In the evening he met with the members of the Polish Cultural Club headed by Jerzy Barankiewicz and Danuta Pawlak.

P.P.S. Special kudos to both Maria Anna and James Harley for all their work in making the Górecki Autumn such a great success! The students and faculty at USC described this as the greatest event ever!


[1]. This article was printed in the Music News section of the News of Polonia monthly paper, Vol. 3, No. 6, 22 October 1997. The paper appears in Los Angeles, with a print run of 10,000 and is distributed only to subscribers. [Back]