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MUSIC | POP MUSIC REVIEW

Lands joins her voice with Szpilman's

March 14, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

The teaming of Canadian singer Wendy Lands with the music of Polish composer Wladyslaw Szpilman -- the pianist-composer whose story is told in the Oscar-nominated film "The Pianist" -- is one of the more unusual combinations in recent memory.

On Thursday, Lands debuted many of the pieces from the album "Wendy Lands Sings the Music of the Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman" in a performance before an overflow audience at the Mint.

The songs were drawn from the hundreds of numbers written by Szpilman, who, as a professional composer in a socialist country, provided compositions for every imaginable occasion. Album producer John Leftwich selected a diverse representation of the songs, commissioned a team of lyricists to supply new words and arranged the material in updated musical settings.

In performance, a few tunes were standouts -- especially "Without You," "Someday We Will Love Again" and "Smoke and Mirrors"-- despite the coy quality of Lands' interpretations, which too often seemed at odds with the relatively sophisticated quality of the music.

Szpilman's rich, atmospheric harmonies and his well-crafted melodies attested to an apparent admiration for American songwriters such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter. And one suspects that, given different circumstances, he could well have had a successful career in film music or as a composer of Broadway musicals.

It was easier, however, to admire the nature of the project Thursday than its results. There is a marvelously uplifting quality -- especially now, when another war looms on the horizon -- about the fact that this music has survived and that Szpilman, who lost so much, was nonetheless able to find so much to give.

But there's also an off-putting quality to the decision to modernize his music. Many of the songs -- in their original-language versions -- are classics to Polish listeners. Staging them in 21st century pop-music settings seems to implicitly suggest that the character, the style and the lyrics of the original conceptions are somehow not acceptable to listeners without contemporary framing.

The obvious question is, why not? If the songs of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht can still be heard and enjoyed in their original settings, why not the music of Wladyslaw Szpilman?

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