by Elaine Dutka (Los Angeles Times) [1]

Henryk Górecki may be the best-selling living classical composer, but his visibility on the American scene lags far behind his reputation. The 1992 Nonesuch recording of his Third Symphony has sold nearly 1 million copies—virtually unheard of for any classical work. Still, geographical isolation, language barriers and a recently conquered aversion to flying have made visits to the Western Hemisphere scarce. The composer grants very few interviews and, for an occasional pianist and conductor, live performances are even more rare—unusual behavior in this culture of celebrity, especially for someone with a major hit on his hands.

All of which raises the question of why Górecki (Goo-ret-ski) is heading for the University of Southern California where he’s making his American conducting debut. On Oct. 3, if all goes well, he’ll lead the USC orchestra in his Symphony No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” as part of a four-day conference celebrating his work. In the end, it came down to persistence . . . and a well-constructed deal.

“Since we became associated with him in the mid-’80s there has been only one previous occasion on which Górecki conducted the symphony himself—and that was in Poland,” says Steven Schwartz, publicity manager for Boosey & Hawkes, publisher of Górecki’s music. “Górecki is coming to USC because of the participation of Adrian Thomas, the leading Górecki authority, and the presentation of some of his lesser-known works. Rather than awarding him an honorary degree or premiering his music, the festival is providing the whole package—scholarship and Polish culture which has been so central to his work.”

The event, called Górecki Autumn (a play on the name of the prestigious annual international contemporary music festival Warsaw Autumn), grew out of a desire to honor Dr. Stefan and Wanda Wilk, friends of Górecki and founders of the Polish Music Reference Center—a 12-year-old USC-based organization that houses the largest collection of Polish music books, scores, recordings and manuscripts outside of Poland. If the composer agreed to participate, USC School of Music dean Larry Livingston decided six months ago, the university would organize a full-scale festival.

Not surprisingly, getting the headstrong, exceedingly private Górecki to commit was no easy task. The 63-year-old composer— an honorary board member of the PMRC—speaks no English. A resident of Katowice, a large, industrial city in Southern Poland, he keeps travel to a minimum. To complicate matters further, Górecki was immersed in a composition he was writing for the Pope’s visit to Poland in June. It wasn’t until PMRC director Maria Anna Harley took a month-long research trip to Poland in July that the deal was finally clinched. Rescheduling the meeting time and again, he saw the USC professor three days before her flight back.

“Górecki has a tough time making up his mind…he’s always weighing the pros and cons,” said Harley. “It made things easier that his close friend [Polish baritone] Andrzej Bachleda, who speaks English, will be joining him. Górecki actually defined the terms. No press conference, he insisted . . . he didn’t want to be treated ‘like an animal in a gilded cage.’ But he turned down my offer to eliminate the symposium: ‘I want to hear what people have to say about me,’ he said.” The composer also agreed to a Q & A after the symposium as well as a private recital on Saturday night Oct. 4. He’ll be accompanying Bachleda on the piano in a performance of songs written by Karol Szymanowski and himself.

“I look forward to the day when events such as the USC program aren’t so unusual, when the Third Symphony is performed regularly alongside Beethovan and Brahms,” said Robert Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records. “After all its success, it still hasn’t been represented as consistently by American orchestras as we hoped.” It was Hurwitz who helped transform the Symphony, an emotional, spiritual work that premiered to mixed reviews in 1977, from a well-respected piece of music to an unprecedented hit. He first heard the minimalist blend of chant, Polish folk tunes and texts (from Medieval prayers to Holocaust writings), performed by the London Symphony orchestra in 1989, and decided to record it. The Nonesuch CD, featuring mezzo-soprano Dawn Upshaw, lodged on Billboard’s classical charts for more than 100 weeks and peaked at No. 6 on the British pop charts. Often interpreted as a reflection on man’s inhumanity to man, Górecki’s Third—a cult favorite after a push from Manhattan’s WNYC-FM in the mid-’80s—has become a worldwide phenomenon and remains a steady seller.

The prospect of seeing Górecki live has made the ticket a hot one. When the ticket was first announces in these pages, entities ranging from Dreamworks, to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences, to Walt Disney animation called for tickets. According to Mary Reale, the USC School of Music’s director of public information, the 1558-seat Bovard Auditorium was booked up to the second balcony before a single ad had run. One woman bought 50 seats and sales of 10 and 15 were not uncommon.

“This kind of response and the massive CD sales suggest that Third Symphony cuts acrss age, gender, and ethnic boundaries which is the cause for celebration in itself,” says USC music dean Livingston. “It refutes the notion that classical music is the domain if an effete segment of society reared in the European tradition.” If there’s a fly in the ointment, everyone aggress, it’s that Górecki has been known to cancel in the past. “In the late 1980’s, his publisher met him at a Warsaw hotel to bring him to London for a big music festival,” recalled Wanda Wilk. “But when it came time to go to the airport he found that Górecki had taken a train back home. Still, I am an eternal optimist. We talked to him a few days ago and he said he’d definitely come.”


[1]. This article by Elaine Dutka, staff writer of the Los Angeles Times was printed in the Los Angeles Times, Calendar Section, (21 September 1997): 1, 3-4. [Back]