Witold Lutoslawski isn't exactly a wild young Turk in the musical thicket. He isn't an iconoclastic spirit rousing the rabble on behalf of the fiery avant-garde--not any more, anyhow.
In the marvelously irrational world of the creative arts, yesterday's enfant terrible has a nasty habit of becoming today's grand old man. Respectability is an odd byproduct of survival.
At 78, Lutoslawski doesn't really shock his audiences. He still writes music that is daring in its harmonic gestures, stubborn in its avoidance of formal cliches, inventive in its sonic combinations and permutations, essentially percussive in his dynamic definitions. Even in lyrical flights, Lutoslawski is more likely to fragment than to develop a melodic idea. Still, he is never less than civil.
He prefers to cajole rather than bludgeon. He would sooner fascinate than offend.
Despite obvious traces of a romantic sensibility, Poland's premier living composer remains a modernist in the best sense. Over the decades, he has refined his expressive vocabulary, clarified his structural intentions. But he refuses, now as 50 years ago, to settle for old solutions to old problems.
Lutoslawski approaches daunting challenges with rugged individuality informed by a touch of grace and reasonable respect for the technical strictures of the past. He certainly appreciates the impact of the unabashed, aggressive outburst, yet he never forgets such ancient alleviating virtues as vigor, theatricality, contrast and restraint. He is blessed with an abiding sense of order.
He also commands the rare ability to soothe savage breasts normally hostile to anything that doesn't sound like Mozart at one extreme or Tchaikovsky at the other. He knows how to seduce the conservative spirit.
Back in 1983, he visited the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to conduct an evening of his own works with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The house wasn't quite full, and more of the 3,200 seats were empty after intermission than before. This, one must recall, was the audience that made rude comments and fled in mock horror when Simon Rattle dared program the Shostakovich 14th. Still, the subscribers who came to Lutoslawski brought along open minds, listened attentively and applauded heartily.
Happy history repeated itself on Thursday. This time, the composer--a highly efficient if hardly flamboyant conductor of his own works--brought two relatively familiar pieces plus a major novelty.
The taut, deftly balanced program opened with "Musique funebre" (1958), a poignant elegy for Bela Bartok that had been part of the 1983 agenda. The evening ended with the Third Symphony (1983), with which Esa-Pekka Salonen scored numerous California triumphs in 1986. In between came the first West Coast performance of the much celebrated Piano Concerto, written in 1988 as a showpiece for Krystian Zimerman.
After more than 30 years, the "Musique funebre" has lost nothing in its expressive pathos. Lutoslawski's application of exquisite coloristic nuance constantly enriches the timbral textures, and his broad, folk-oriented accents coexist amicably with passages of abstract compression. On this occasion, he conducted his signature piece with muted passion, and the Philharmonic strings responded sensitively.
The Third Symphony, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony, won the "Solidarity Prize" in Warsaw 7 years ago. It rumbles in nervous foreboding as its ideas slowly take shape, then erupts in heroic outbursts of violent, poetic force, then finds transfiguration, of sorts, in a disturbingly mellow, unresolved adagio for the lower strings. The composer conducted with as much calm clarity as the wrenching score would allow, if without the seething intensity that made Salonen's interpretation so memorable.
The Piano Concerto manages to fuse fond traces of Chopin and Ravel with aleatoric innovation with orchestral shimmer and old-fashioned keyboard bravura. It does the fusing, moreover, with consummate suavity. For all the complexity of the solo writing, the piano often blends into the orchestra fabric, achieving a peak of egocentric glory in the quirky give-and-take of the ultimate passacaglia.
Zimerman, who virtually owns the concerto, played it with lavish brio that precluded neither nonchalance nor elegance. Lutoslawski provided an obviously sympathetic orchestral framework.
It was a stimulating night at the Music Center. Contrary to popular speculation, musical museums can still be lively places.