Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”. National Capital Orchestra. Conducted by Leonard Weiss. Llewellyn Hall, Saturday, September 15, 7.30pm. Pre-concert talk by Christopher Gordon. at 6.30pm. Tickets: premier.ticketek.com.au/Shows/Show.aspx?sh=NCOSORRO18.
One of the unlikely but spectacular successes of 20th-century classical music is the centrepiece of the National Capital Orchestra's next concert. It's been programmed to commemorate the centenary of the end of World War I alongside two other works, one a concert world premiere. All of them have particular nationalistic associations.
Canberra soprano Louise Page will be the soloist in Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”. The work premiered in 1977 and was recorded a few times but became an international phenomenon when David Zinman's London Sinfonietta recording with Dawn Upshaw was released on Nonesuch in 1992. It sold more than one million CDs - an extraordinary number of albums for a piece of contemporary classical music. Its slow and tranquil mood, despite its dark subject matter, may have appealed to audiences who also bought many albums of Gregorian chant in the same period - in both cases perhaps filling a need for some tranquillity in an increasingly busy world.
"It took the popular imagination," Page says, describing the symphony as "one of the great works of the late 20th century".
"I feel so lucky to be a part of it ."
For the vocal parts of the symphony - one in each of the three movements - Górecki selected three Polish texts. The first is a 15th-century lament of Mary, mother of Jesus, the second is a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell by an 18-year-old girl to her mother during World War II and the third is a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her son who was killed by the Germans during the Silesian uprisings in Poland after World War I.
Page says singing in Polish "didn't come easy" but she's sought help from Polish friends. In any case, she says, "It's more about the textures and creating atmosphere than the actual words".
Other challenges for her are the deliberate pace of the work and knowing exactly when to come in with her part.
"It's all very slow - it needs concentration."
Although two of the texts have direct wartime connections and all contain more than one theme, Page says when Górecki was asked if he intended to comment on war, history or spirituality he said no.
"It was about the relationship between mother and child."
Page says she will be retiring from singing in public at the end of the year. This symphony will be one of her last few concerts ("four more to go").
Weiss says the "amazingly powerful" symphony with its repetitive patterns "has been a favourite of mine for quite a few years now. It's a piece of sad, noble gravitas and connections to war, loss and family."
He says he has four different concerts with Page this year and describes her as "a wonderful musical force".
Opening the concert is the second, most popular, movement from Czech composer Bedřich Smetana's set of symphonic poems Má Vlast (My Homeland). Vltava (popularly The Moldau), which premiered in 1875, is a musical depiction of the flowing Bohemian river winding its way along and taking in various sights including a rustic wedding.
Weiss says Vltava is "a really beautiful piece", written in the late Romantic style: "It's vividly emotional with great orchestral colour."
The other work on the program is the world concert premiere of Australian composer Christopher Gordon's Ceremonial Games, written for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006.
"It's a suite of three pieces - The Arrivals, Raising the Flag and The Celebration," Weiss says.
Raising the Flag, he says, "is like a really slow patriotic march" and The Celebration is "quite uplifting - a great celebration of talent and ability."