There's a certain logic to Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki's giving a concert at a synagogue. Penderecki, who will conduct the Warsaw Sinfonia tomorrow evening at 7:30 at Temple Oheb Shalom, achieved worldwide fame with works that were often on religious or spiritual themes -- "St. Luke Passion" (1966), "Dies Irae" (1967), which was dedicated to the Jewish martyrs of Auschwitz, and "Utrenja" ("The Entombment of Christ" and "The Resurrection of Christ" 1970-1971).
So it comes as a surprise that Penderecki, 62, a Roman Catholic, did not write these pieces out of a sense of religious devotion.
"The main impulse behind them was that I grew up in post-war Communist Poland," Penderecki says in a telephone conversation from Hartford, Conn. "I was a very young man and I was very rebellious. Anything I did was against something, and I knew that writing religious music was something that the authorities were very much against."
That his music was, from the beginning, more than a response to the repressive policies of Warsaw's Communist government is something Penderecki admits.
"I lived through the war," he says. "I remember the way cities were completely destroyed. I remember the way the Jewish citizens of Debica, the little town in which I grew up, were sent away to be murdered at Auschwitz. And I was idealistic enough to think that music could change people."
Penderecki became one of the world's most celebrated composers at the age of 25 when his "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" (1959) was first performed. Nothing like the "Threnody," a 10-minute work for 52 strings, had ever been heard. Penderecki went beyond even Xenakis and Stockhausen, the leading avant-gardists of the time, in some of his effects: clustered, massive glissandos; new string and percussive effects, including non-instrumental devices such as typewriters and pieces of wood, glass and even paper.
But the deeply felt atmosphere of the "Threnody" was radically new, as was the ferocity of Penderecki's expression. For the first time, an avant-garde work had enough emotional resonance to achieve a wide appeal to audiences that did not consist of new-music specialists.
The popularity of the "Threnody" made Penderecki a controversial figure. Just as his popularity has continued, controversy has continued to follow him. Much attention has been paid to the three successive periods or styles in which his music has been written. There was the avant-garde period, which continued until the early '70s; the neo-Romantic period from the time of the Violin Concerto (1976) until the later 1980s; and the most recent period, in which the romanticism of the second period seems to have been combined with some of the acerbic elements of the first.
"I don't really think my work breaks into periods," Penderecki says good-naturedly. "In fact, if you listen to my work in all its
so-called periods, what you should hear is continuity."
He is quite right. The "Threnody," which is supposedly avant-garde, can be listened to as a savagely romantic piece; and works such as the recent Symphony No. 4, usually considered a throwback to the romantic symphony of the late 19th century, is actually an updating of symphonic form as it was left by Bruckner and Mahler.
"There's a kind of passionate expression in all my pieces," he says. "It's just that the nature of the expression takes different forms."
What: Krzysztof Penderecki conducts the Warsaw Sinfonia
Where: Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Ave.
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow
Call: (401) 358-0105