by Richard S. Ginell (American Record Guide[1]

Henry Mikołaj Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 is probably the most popular major work by a living composer—and who would have predicted it? A few of us were caught completely off guard by this deeply moving piece when it appeared on LP in 1986 as the soundtrack to the movie Police [Erato]—with no liner, no bios, no information whatsoever about the music. Most of the world found out about it in 1992 when radio station switchboards lit up upon the playing of the David Zinman-Dawn Upshaw- London Sinfonietta recording (Nonesuch), which improbably went on to sell over a million copies. Suddenly an obscure Polish composer was a celebrity, albeit a reluctant one, and the world hammered on his door.

Yet not until October 3, 1997 did anyone outside Poland hear Górecki conduct the symphony that made him world famous—and in another unlikely twist to this amazing tale, the lucky vehicle was the student orchestra at the University of Southern California. Thanks to the efforts of Stefan and Wanda Wilk—two staunch local champions of Polish music—and the Polish Music Reference Center, USC not only lured Górecki into Bovard Auditorium, it built a five-day mini-festival called Górecki Autumn around his appearance, adding two chamber music concerts, a symposium and a lecture.

For a school still reeling from the infamous loss of Arnold Schoenberg’s archives, this was a newsworthy coup to savor. And it was a performance to savor, too, unlike any that I have experienced thus far.

A short, somewhat stocky man wearing a purple bowtie, walking to the podium with a pronounced limp (stemming from childhood), the 63-year old Górecki appeared like a stern, strong spiritual figure, waving his arms sans baton in graceful, imploring, breaststroke-like motions. At the great emotional first movement climax after the soprano’s solo, his gestures became jerky and punchy, urging the young musicians to pour it on. Górecki took his first movement at a glacially slow tempo, slower than anyone (35 minutes, as opposed to the usual 25-30 minute range), allowing the mournful, overlapping canons to emerge with aching deliberation, while the remaining two movements were closer in tempo to other interpreters. Clearly Górecki takes his subtitle, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, very seriously—and his passionate, lingering conception would sober any New Age dabblers who might want to use this music as passive, meditative background.

Yet this talented university orchestra, working on not much rehearsal, maintained total concentration and tension from the first bar to the last, generating a rich, dark, cohesive, always-in-tune string tone. Even though the symphony’s fuel tank of inspiration runs somewhat low in the third movement, the USC Symphony’s attention level never flagged. Soprano Elizabeth Hynes’s singing in the first movement was hair-raising, even electrifying, and she turned on a wider vibrato in the later movements. It was a performance that any orchestra, let alone a youth ensemble, could be proud of—and although the musicians seemed surprised by the tumultuous six-minute ovation, they should not have been.


[1]. This review appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of the American Record Guide. [Back]