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Classical Music

Scoring, but never settling

An Oscar-winning composer, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek stays true to the vision that's taken him from Poland to Hollywood and now back again.

January 15, 2006|Adam Baer | Special to The Times

TRADITIONALLY, going Hollywood has meant repudiating one's past in favor of a glitzier future. But for Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, winner of an Academy Award last February for his score for "Finding Neverland," it's become a way to go home again -- on his terms.

Friday at Royce Hall, a concert titled "Journey to Light" will explore the post-Romantic concert and film music of the Polish-born Kaczmarek, 52. The event will cap a year that saw him not only nabbing an Oscar but using the freedom it brought to write powerful, politically charged concert music, aid a Polish film renaissance and plan the equivalent of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in Eastern Europe.

Over the last 10 years, Hollywood has enjoyed a welcome return to artful film music grounded in more than pop refrains and the ambitions of the commercial harmonists who descend on L.A. to hit it big writing marketable tunes. Kaczmarek, whose work often combines improvisational soloists with such influences as Mozart's Requiem, is an emblem of that trend, of composers whose subtle scores function as narrative elements in the theater but as independent works too. The fusion of an open-minded European sensibility with an artist-activist spirit informs much of his music, including the subtly wrenching melodic strains in the 2002 movie romance "Unfaithful" and the 2005 "Cantata for Freedom."

The latter -- which celebrates Poland's Solidarity movement using texts from Pope John Paul II, union slogans and Polish Romantic poetry -- will receive its Los Angeles premiere at Friday's concert, when Michal Nesterowicz conducts selections from it with the USC Thornton Symphony and various soloists. But "Journey to Light" isn't taking place just to promote a composer's career. It was put together by the new Polish Film Institute as a fundraiser for the institute and an affiliated audiovisual publishing organization, both of which aim to ramp up Poland's contributions to the film and film-music worlds in the wake of a Communist government that silenced such efforts.

As a young man in Poznan, Poland, Kaczmarek didn't dream of being a leader of his country's theatrical and cinematic community -- at least not at first. Instead, he dedicated himself to pursuing a career in political diplomacy, earning a law degree before turning full time to avant-garde theater music and eventually the film world. Which is why simply hearing him speak about his work is evidence enough that he's more than just a top Hollywood tunesmith.

"With every score, I'm looking for different pieces of myself," he said over coffee recently at a Parisian-style Los Feliz cafe. "Luckily, now composers are enjoying a nice transfer between film and serious music. Take Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Tan Dun. Good music is now becoming one thing. Boundaries are falling."

If anyone knows the perils of boundaries, it's Kaczmarek. As a classical piano student schooled by Eastern European taskmasters who discouraged creativity, he was eventually urged by a jury of teachers to pursue another profession.

"Finally!" he said, laughing. "It was great news -- freedom at last. So when I sat down at a piano and began writing music for plays being produced at my high school, it was liberating. The plays were composed of poems, and there was much room for music. I kept writing even though I had other goals."

A few years later, in law school, Kaczmarek realized that the Polish government wasn't the right place for him either. "I quickly understood that to be a diplomat in a Communist country was very unromantic," he said. Instead, he created the instantly successful Orchestra of the Eighth Day, a jazz-cum-avant-garde folk duo made up of guitar and fidola -- a zither-like instrument he refashioned by removing the keyboard and exposing the strings, which he could then pluck and bow.

"We quickly began touring Western Europe and making recordings," he said. "We were part of an anti-government movement that had a strong following. Socialist Poland before 1989, when I came here, was a place where everyone, more or less, had the same amount of money. Talent, spirit and intellect, to say nothing of art, music and theater, were the most important things."

Kaczmarek also studied with innovative stage director Jerzy Grotowski, author of "Towards a Poor Theatre." And, not long after immigrating to America, he won Obie and Drama Desk awards for his music for director JoAnne Akalaitis' production of the 17th century shocker " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore" at New York's Public Theatre. But then, on a visit to Francis Ford Coppola's Bay Area home, he met Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who asked him to score her film "Total Eclipse," starring a pre-"Titanic" Leonardo DiCaprio as 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

"I was comfortable with the challenge, since Polish theater relies heavily on music, poetry and visuals," he said. "In Polish theater, music is as important as it is in opera."

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