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How USC Nabbed the Great Gorecki

September 21, 1997|Elaine Dutka

Henryk Gorecki 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 Gorecki (pronounced Go-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 Gorecki conducted the symphony himself--and that was in Poland," says Steven Schwartz, publicity manager for Boosey & Hawkes, publisher of Gorecki's music. "Gorecki's coming to USC because of the participation of Adrian Thomas, the leading Gorecki 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 Gorecki 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 Gorecki 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 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 Gorecki to commit was no easy task. The 63-year-old composer--an honorary board member of the reference center--speaks no English. A resident of Katowice, a large, industrial city in southern Poland, he keeps travel to a minimum. To complicate matters further, Gorecki was immersed in a composition he was writing for the pope's visit to Poland in June.

It wasn't until reference center director Maria Anna Harley took a monthlong research trip to Poland in July that the deal was finally clinched. Rescheduling the meeting time and again, he saw the USC music professor three days before her flight back.

"Gorecki 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. Gorecki 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 public Q & A after the symposium as well as to a private recital on 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 Beethoven 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, Gorecki'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.

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