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Hope Springs From Concert Rooted in Grief : Music: The program features music from Poland and Armenia. 'This music is sad, but not depressing,' says L.A. Festival's Peter Sellars. : LOS ANGELES FESTIVAL: "Home, Place and Memory" A City-Wide Arts Fest

September 17, 1993|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tonight's Los Angeles Festival concert at the Hollywood Bowl shapes up as a sorrowful affair, focusing on music from Poland and Armenia that is rooted in grief of the most profoundly human dimension.

Festival artistic director Peter Sellars, who put the program together, isn't the least bit sorry.

On the bill is the West Coast premiere of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's phenomenally popular Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"), in which guest conductor David Alan Miller will lead the L.A. Philharmonic and American soprano Christine Brewer.

The program also includes the eerily sad folk music of Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan and traditional choral music by the Festival Armenian Chorus, a 120-member ensemble of Southland singers assembled specifically for this concert.

The common thread?

"The primary tone is a type of lamentation of utmost grief, growing out of the pain and horrible injustice in the world," Sellars said in a recent interview. "But in that grief, there is a kind of glow of transcendent beauty. This music is sad, but not depressing. Actually, it's very powerfully uplifting."

To Sellars, the opportunity for a communal expression of grief on the closing weekend of this year's festival is especially appropriate here, especially now.

"Los Angeles has never properly grieved for what has happened here a year ago," he said. "This city has been living with an awful lot of pain, and there's a lot to be said for getting together and openly sharing our grief. We find that does release us and lift us up."

Those are precisely the kinds of emotions the festival aimed to tap this year, with its theme of "Home, Place and Memory" and its cultural-geographical focus on Africa, African-Americans and the Middle East.

The Gorecki Symphony falls under that thematic umbrella because the composer incorporated ancient choral music traditions also found in Armenian music, Sellars said.

"Really, that was the whole idea behind the program: connecting the tradition of earliest Christian choral music with the musical sources that Gorecki responds to," he said.

The Gorecki story is familiar by now. The little-known composer's three-movement symphony--written in 1976 and incorporating three key texts: a monastic lament from the late 15th Century, a prayer scribbled on the wall of a Gestapo headquarters by an 18-year-old female prisoner, and a Polish folk song--remains atop Billboard's classical album chart after 28 weeks at No. 1.

The 1992 recording by the London Sinfonietta, conductor David Zinman and soprano Dawn Upshaw has now sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide, according to a Nonesuch Records spokeswoman. Sales were helped along by substantial airplay on National Public Radio and a fervent word-of-mouth campaign that stretched far beyond traditional classical-music boundaries.

Gasparyan, 65, has been on the receiving end of a smaller-scale grass-roots effort to bring his music to a wider audience. In Armenia, he had recorded several albums of music of the duduk , a woodwind instrument related to the oboe, whose pitch and hauntingly mellow sound fall somewhere between a bassoon and an alto flute. When one of those albums was released in the U.S. in 1989, it quickly found favor with NPR programmers. Tonight, Gasparyan will play a short solo segment as well as accompanying the Armenian chorus.

For Sellars, putting the Gorecki Symphony on the same program with the different aspects of Armenian folk music is a chance, in some respects, to refute those critics who have dismissed the symphony as a minimalist pop bonbon, a repetitious "Bolero" for baby boomers. (After a June performance in London, one critic pondered "how, indeed, such an acreage of sustained banality could have struck a chord with the public at large.")

"I hope by making this combination," Sellars said, "there will be a profound spiritual and historical link that will let people recognize the Gorecki phenomenon, not as a cheap (fad), but as a continuation of a very profound musical tradition."

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