• Polish Radio Choir axed

News came through last night that Polish Radio, as feared, has confirmed the announced disbanding of its world-renowned Choir. Despite widespread protests from within and outside Poland, including a belated online petition, the choir, numbering over 30 members, will cease to exist in a few months’ time.*

To say that this is regrettable is an understatement. The Polish Radio Choir has a distinguished history stretching back over 60 years, notably of giving premieres of music by Polish composers, including that by Gorecki and Penderecki. The choir has been one of Poland’s most effective cultural ambassadors and it will be sorely missed.

There is, apparently, an outside chance that it might survive if the Ministry of Culture, Polish Radio and the regional government in Krakow can agree some sort of rescue package for the choir outside its current ‘home’ at Polish Radio. But the last of these three bodies has already turned down this proposal once, so this cobbled-together idea seems most unlikely. A sad day.

* I wrote a couple of weeks ago in more detail about the likelihood of this happening.  See my post of 1 March 2012.

• Polish Radio Choir to be liquidated?

Chór Polskiego Radia (1948-2012?)

Last November, I joined the Polish Radio Choir in Durham for the start of its UK tour.  Yesterday, I learned that, unless Polish Radio relents, the choir is to be liquidated.  It’s a strong term, ‘liquidation’, reserved for businesses or the horrors of ethnic cleansing.  But it’s the one chosen by Polish Radio to describe its decision about the Kraków-based Radio Choir.  Coming on the eve of the 75th anniversary (today) of Polish Radio’s cultural channel PR2 (the equivalent of BBC R3 in the UK), this news could hardly have been more pointed.

There is still an outside chance that the choir will be saved, but it looks like a forlorn hope.  The Minister of Culture yesterday reiterated his offer of an annual subsidy of 800,000 zł.  It was there on the table before the Polish Radio Management Board took its executive decision last week, but it had no effect.  800,000 zł is a sizeable offer – the equivalent of c.£162,630 – and represents almost 50% of the total annual cost of the choir, £1.7m zł (= c.£345,589). In the larger scheme of things, it’s not a huge sum of money to pay each year for such a world-class ensemble (individual annual salaries must average around £10K). Whether Polish Radio reverses its decision at the meeting of its Supervisory Board on 15 March is anybody’s guess, but the omens do not look good.

Whatever public hand-wringing goes on, whatever platitudes are uttered about painful decisions and whatever regrets expressed (and how hollow such sentiments ring), the fact is simple.  Like any organisation that finds itself in financial straits, priorities are made and if an individual or group is not deemed central to future operations, then that’s it.  Polish Radio evidently thinks that this outstanding choir is no longer essential, even though it has been a key part of its cultural strategy since the choir was founded in 1948.  It has been one of its most distinguished – and economically effective – cultural ambassadors.  If Polish Radio had wanted to keep the choir, it could and would have, and some other sector of the organisation would have suffered instead.  I’m not in a position to know what elements in Polish Radio’s current programming policy are more central, more essential or more worth saving, but you can bet your bottom złoty that they ain’t going to add quality to its cultural programming.

One of the key elements in any public broadcasting strategy is to provide programming initiatives that are distinctive. In music, that requires ‘house’ orchestras and other ensembles, like specialist choirs.  With far fewer commercial pressures than independent orchestras and choirs, these performing bodies are in a position to put on concerts whose repertoire can often, indeed should be more adventurous and wide-ranging.  The BBC Singers, whose history dates back almost 90 years to the mid-1920s, are, at 24 singers, fewer in number than their Polish counterparts but fulfil a similar function, with challenging and less frequently performed repertoire at their core. Fortunately, the BBC Singers seem secure in the BBC’s cultural strategy, but if they were ever to come under threat the outcry would be enormous.

Polish Radio, however, has ridden roughshod over the national outcry at its decision.  All the major cultural institutions in Poland – including the Ministry of Culture and its generous offer of recurrent subsidy – plus numerous individuals, including senior composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Wojciech Kilar, have argued cogently against it, but to no avail.  If nothing changes a fortnight today, the choir will be disbanded this summer.

I have a personal reason to be dismayed by this, as I took part (giving pre-concert talks) in the choir’s UK tour last November.  They sang at Durham Cathedral, King’s Place in London, St George’s in Bristol and St George’s Hall in Liverpool.  They gave wonderfully attuned performances of a cappella pieces by their compatriot Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, who had died just a year earlier.  Audiences were mesmerised not just by the music but by the exceptional quality of the choir’s sound.  Enthusiastic applause and standing ovations were instinctive responses.

This is a lamentable turn of events, and an unwarranted farewell is on the cards.  One last, unexpected memory for me was from the choir’s first night, in Durham Cathedral.  They had hardly begun the concert, with Górecki’s peaceful Totus Tuus, when the building seemed to be assaulted by a barrage of explosions as if we were under siege.  Not a single singer blinked, no-one looked askance, no voice wavered.  They didn’t know it, but it was Bonfire Night.  I am sure that they will bear the next few months with similar dignity and sense of musical purpose if the worst comes to the worst.

If you want to write a letter of protest, you can do so by contacting the President of the Polish Radio Supervisory Board, Mr. Stanisław Jędrzejewski (who will chair the board meeting on 15 March), at <marta.rybak@polskieradio.pl>.

• On Tour with Górecki

It is rather encouraging that the approaching first anniversary of Henryk Górecki’s death on 12 November has occasioned a flurry of activity in this country.  Firstly, there was a Górecki edition of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday evening programme ‘The Choir’, which was broadcast on 6 November.  This series, which is devoted to all aspects of the composition and performance of choral music, broadcast the opening song from Górecki’s first collection of folksong settings, Broad Waters (1979), his most famous and most recorded a cappella piece, Totus Tuus (1987), his set of Five Kurpian Songs (1999) and Amen (1975).  And the programme also included Górecki’s earliest choral work – this time with instruments – Epitafium (1958), a stylistic (Webernian) corrective to the popular image of Górecki as a composer interested only in slow modal music.  A few weeks ago, I recorded an interview for the programme alongside Roxanna Panufnik, the daughter of the Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik.  Friends tell me that they enjoyed the programme, especially those who knew nothing of Górecki’s music and life beforehand.  Unfortunately, I missed the broadcast as I was on a coach with the Polish Radio Choir from Kraków (see below).

Secondly, I was visited late on a dark and stormy night at the end of last week, here on the Cornish moors, by a team from Polish Television in Katowice, Górecki’s home city.  They’d driven from France that day and were going on subsequently to interview Górecki’s London publishers and to speak to Bob Bibby, the Englishman who discovered that the subject of the second movement of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs had not died at the hands of the Gestapo, as had generally been feared, but had lived a full life, dying in 1999 (Guardian appreciation, 25 November 2010). I settled the Polish TV director, Violetta Rotter-Kozera, in front of a roaring log fire and we had an intense and warm-hearted discussion about Górecki’s music, life, personality and temperaments.  The programme (my hour or so will be cut down to a few minutes, I’m sure!) will probably be broadcast sometime early in 2012.

Thirdly, I’ve just come back from being ‘on tour’, with the Polish Radio Choir from Kraków, a promotion initiated by Ed McKeon of Third Ear.  It was my first such experience, and probably my last.  Even though this was a short, four-concert tour, I came away with a better understanding of the many and varied pressures that performers experience when daily on the move from one venue/hotel to another.  I was full of admiration for their unflappability and good humour.  This was nowhere more apparent than shortly after the start of the concert in Durham Cathedral, that solidly magnificent example of Romanesque architecture.  The peaceful prayer that is Totus Tuus was suddenly counterpointed by a barrage of deafening booms and bangs that seemed to be coming from right outside the building.  It was like a medieval siege, a terrifying bombardment.  It went on for over 15′.  The choir didn’t bat an eyelid, no voice trembled.  While the choir had no idea what was going on, we in the audience knew well enough.  It took a bit of explaining afterwards (November 5 customs can seem very strange to visitors to the UK).

The choir had flown into Liverpool the previous day and joined the tour coach for the first concert in Durham (Saturday night), on to London (Sunday lunchtime), Bristol (Monday evening) and Liverpool (Tuesday evening).  My role was to give three pre-concert talks, each of a different duration, before the first three concerts.  The choir was very welcoming and after the concert in Bristol asked me if I would become an honorary member of its Association of Artists and Friends, which came out of the blue and was very touching.

The Polish Radio Choir, under its conductor Artur Sędzielarz, is one of those rare commodities, a choir that is funded by a broadcaster.  In the UK, we are lucky to have the BBC Singers and some other European countries still invest in similar vocal groups for the sake of repertoires past and future.  It is a very fine ensemble.  They brought 29 singers and their textural blend was second-to-none.  Equally wonderful were the choir’s harmonic voicing and unfailingly clear articulation.  Dynamically, they encompassed the quietest of pianissimos and the most emphatic of fortissimos.  I was reminded of the extremist markings that Górecki used in his vocal-instrumental Ad Matrem (1971).  On the one hand, in that score he asked for moments that were ritmico-marcatissimo-energico-furioso-con massima passion e grande tensione.  On the other hand, elsewhere he wanted tranquillissimo-cantabilissimo-dolcissimo-affetuoso e ben tenuto e LEGATISSIMO.  The Polish Radio Choir brought such contrasts fully to life, especially in the Five Kurpian Songs, and I’m sure that Górecki would have been beaming at them had he been present.

It is a strange phenomenon in Górecki’s output that he makes little difference in his compositional approach to folksong settings and to church songs.  This is particularly evident in the overwhelmingly slow tempi and sustained vocal lines.  These demand extraordinary stamina and vocal evenness, which the Polish Radio Choir delivered effortlessly.  The programme moved from Totus Tuus, through the Five Kurpian SongsThree Lullabies (1984, in Bristol and Liverpool only, although the first lullaby was sung as the encore in London), and the Song of the Katyń Families (2004).  The concerts ended with Come Holy Spirit (1988) and Amen.

For me, the outstanding piece was Song of the Katyń Families.  It lasts for barely 5′, yet its expressive power became more and more apparent at each subsequent performance.  Typically for Górecki, the piece takes a slightly oblique slant, setting a contemporary text that links the first line of the Polish national anthem with the memory of the Soviet slaughter of thousands of Polish army officers during World War II.  The piece’s lower overall tessitura made quite an impression at this stage in the concert.  When the basses dropped lower still, the harmonic resonance spoke volumes.  And when they moved down two further steps, the luminosity of the choir’s sound was breathtaking.  Song of the Katyń Families deserves as wide a recognition as Totus Tuus.

I wonder if the Polish Radio Choir’s unanimity and utter faithfulness to the spirit and letter of Górecki’s music, as well as their sensitivity to timbral colour, come not only from their collective musical sensibilities but also from their wide musical interests outside their choral work, which include – to take just three examples – musicology, cabaret and period instrument performance.  Whatever their secret ingredient is, it made for rivetting performances that elicited hugely enthusiastic audience responses.  I hope that the choir returns to the UK before too long.

…..

The Polish Radio Choir released a 2-CD recording of Górecki’s a cappella music in 2007.  It’s on the Polish Radio label, Polskie Radio PRCD 1104-1105.  It includes Broad WatersFive Kurpian SongsCome Holy SpiritSong of the Katyń Families and Amen, plus the folksong My Vistula (1981) and Marian Songs (1985).

…..

For Rian Evans’s review of the Bristol Concert, see The Guardian (9 November 2011).

• A Distant Echo of God’s Word

Yesterday I finished writing the programme notes for a forthcoming visit of the Polish Radio Choir from Kraków.  Between 5 and 8 November, the choir is giving concerts at Durham Cathedral, King’s Place in London, St George’s in Bristol and in St George’s Hall Concert Room in Liverpool.  The programmes, under the title ‘Polish Spirituals’, commemorate Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, who died on 12 November last year.  For more details and an introductory essay by Ed McKeon, please follow the link to the tour web site, set up by the UK organisers, Third Ear.

Late in the day, I remembered a particular passage from a homily by Pope John-Paul II that Górecki admired.  The Pope was speaking at a Mass for Artists in Brussels on 20 May 1985.  So here it is, with Górecki’s little postscript, as a tribute to both men and their vision of what it means to be an artist.

Each authentic work of art interprets the reality beyond sensory perception.  It is born of silence, admiration, or the protest of an honest heart.  It tries to bring closer the mystery of reality.  So what constitutes the essence of art is found deep within each person.  It is there where the aspiration to give meaning to one’s life is accompanied by the fleeting sense of beauty and the mysterious unison of things.  Authentic and humble artists are perfectly well aware, no matter what kind of beauty characterises their handiwork, that their paintings, sculptures or creations are nothing else but the reflection of God’s Beauty.  No matter how strong the charm of their music and words, they know that their works are only a distant echo of God’s Word.

Górecki quoted these words at the Catholic University of America, in Washington D.C., on 28 February 1995, adding:

Those words are perfect: you can neither add to them nor take anything away.  Just think deeply about the sense of those words.

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