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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Sinfonietta Cracovia, Glass/Kilar – music seen through the international lens of the silver screen

By Ilona Oltuski

On June 1st, New York's iconic downtown club (Le)Poisson Rouge hosted a fascinating program with the Polish chamber orchestra Sinfonietta Cracovia that paired works by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar and the American icon Philip Glass, who was in attendance. concert'sThe event was presented in partnership with the Polish Cultural Institute New York and Supertrain Records, a label co-founded by Richard Glass's Glass's Orange Mountain Music label manager, to unearth neglected masterpieces and help audiences hear the label's artists' contemporary works of music in new ways.

The Concert at LPR, Photo: by Ilona Oltuski

Formed in 1990 and renowned for exploring classical and contemporary genres, Sinfonietta Cracovia has become one of Poland’s leading, most versatile ensembles. As part of its international tour, celebrating Kilar’s 90th birthday anniversary, the concert paid tribute to the late notable Polish composer, primarily recognized for his extensive work for national and later internationally renowned films.

As a guest soloist with the ensemble, the Polish pianist Aleksander Debicz introduced two original compositions from his recent albums, Inventions and Sideways. Both showcased his fresh improvisational compilations, incorporating genres from Bach to Hip Hop and impressing audiences with his rhythmic precision and expressive versatility at the piano.

Co-sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and The National Heritage of Poland, the concert fulfilled its cultural diplomacy efforts." It further aspired to transcend the categorial separation between art, music, and commercial entertainment, aiming to bring new music to new ears.

Contrasting the works of both the American and the Polish masters, whose film scores, at least to a certain degree, tied their success to the fame of the movies they wrote for, the program also suggested an exploration of the individual stylistic elements of eachcomposers'mposers’ works, and how they relate to the framework of the medium of film and its democratizing virtual reach of international audiences.

Photo: Katarzyna Tomala-Jedynak (left) and Agata Grabowiecka, Photo: by Edyta Dufaj

Since September 2022, Sinfonietta Cracovia has been led by the newly formed partnership between Agata Graowiecka and Katarzyna Tomala-Jedynak, the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Sinfonietta Cracovia. Tomala-Jedynak's exceptional energy and enthusiasm extracted the utmost precision from the well-versed musicians of the ensemble.

Considering that much of the programmed music was meant to be heard as an integral component of the cinematic soundscape created with the help of the visual film elements, it entailed specific tasks. At times patches of sparsely spaced instrumentalization took rapid turns into extremely textured and rhythmically complex episodes that were mastered with a swift reaction and powerful performance.

Tomala-Jedynak’s partner at the helm of the ensemble, Agata Graowiecka, took the reigns of Sinfonietta Cracovia in 2021 while keeping her position of Cultural Manager at Krakow’s Festival Office. The role enables her to oversee programming and planning at two of Krakow’s major festivals – the Krakow Film Music Festival and Sacrum Profanum. This may also provide some perspective into the concert’s program’s strong reference to film.

Photo: Philip Glass and Richard Guérin

Incidentally, at Sacrum Profanum, Graowiecka, and Glass met when he performed his Complete Piano Etudes in 2014, remarked Richard Guérin, who accompanied Glass on this first trip. It needs to be understood that probably more American music gets played in Krakow than in any other place in the world; we are talking about the great American composers of film music. Agata has a deep commitment to that. And if you have ever been there, you can see the amazing culture they have built around embracing those American film composers as real artists, sadly, this is not the case here in the USA, he explains in a recent interview with publicist Gail Wein.

Neither Glass nor Kilar, who graduated from the Academy of Music in Krakow and spent a year in Paris (1959) studying with the esteemed pedagogue Nadja Boulanger, set out to become a film composer. Glass, who also studied with Boulanger for two years in Paris in the 1960s, primarily considered himself an opera composer. Both artists' work developed and went through stylistic changes throughout their lives. Neither Glass nor Kilar would fully identify with the often attached classification of their work as "minimalism," describing the use of persistently pursued and reiterated simple melodic themes.

Wojciech Kilar, Photo: Romek Koszowski

Kilar is also described as a disciple of the New Polish School, the Polish avant-garde movement of the Sixties, which took root in the intense rhythmic articulation, clear texture, and substantial dynamics of the post-modern exploration of the new music scene of the sixties.

Glass recognizes that his earlier works could lend themselves to being likened to minimalist elements and patterns of “minimalism,” but that he would instead describe himself as a classicist. But Glass’s diverse experiences continued to shape his music. For example, from his immersion into European art music, his frequent trips to India changed his perception of global music.

“In Kerala, I encountered kathakali, the classical Indian dance theatre which influenced my own operas, such as Satyagraha. Back then, hearing anything beyond Western music wasn’t easy. You couldn’t find records except for a few specialist discs of music collected by anthropologists. If you wanted to hear Balinese music, you pretty much had to go to Bali,” he describes in a recent interview with the Guardian.

Labels aside, the National Endowment for the Arts, noting that many of his operas have been produced by the leading opera houses, stated: He is the first composer to win a wide, multi-generational audience in the opera house, the concert hall, the dance world, in film, and popular music. "

In his Einstein on the Beach Notes, his opera in four acts that perhaps changed opera forever, he describes his artistic process: "Bob Wilson (theatrical producer Robert Wilson) and I worked directly from a series of his drawings which eventually formed the designs for the sets." "Prior to that, we had reached agreement on the general thematic content, the overall length, its division into 4 acts, 9 scenes, and 5 connecting knee plays. "

Compared to Glass, Kilar stayed local, connecting deeply with the region’s music’s folkloristic elements. The concert sampled his work Orawa, one of Kilar’s most popular works for chamber string orchestra. Its folkloristic character sounded with a wide emotional range and lyricism. Like Orawa, some of Kilar’s classical scores provided materials for his later film scores. But early on, Kilar also wrote scores specifically for the screen.

In 1993, his score for Francis Ford Dracula brought him international recognition. The same year his brooding Exodus, written for mixed choir and orchestra in 1981, was chosen for Steven Spielberg's trailer in place of John William's late-arriving soundtrack for the movie.

Breaking into the English-language market, other films, such as Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady (1996) and three by Polish-born Roman Polanski: Death and the Maiden (1994), The Ninth Gate (1999) and the Oscar-winning The Pianist (2002) followed. Here, Kilar used motives rooted in Eastern European Jewish folklore to fit the movie's background.

Like Kilar, Glass also wrote a score for a Dracula movie; both were sampled that evening. Adding a piano part to the score, Glass took his Dracula on tour with the Kronos Quartet, making it one of the earliest live-to-film presentations, as Guérin describes.

In 2002, Glass's score for the Holywood hit, The Hours, brought him his third Academy Award nomination and the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. An excerpt of his Suite, an arrangement by Michael Riesman, was performed with Aleksander Debicz, bringing out the atmospheric quality of Glass'sche clarity and insisting simplicity of the melodic lines, at times reminding of Michael Nyman's score for Peter Greenaway's The Piano.

Interestingly, a pairing of Glass' and Kilar's work happened during The Truman Show, Peter Weir's film from 1998, a witty play on the illusion of reality; it featured Glass' original score throughout the movie. "During the movSchindler'se's high point, Weir chose to play a work of Kilar from his original film score called A Life for a Life, which he later turned into a concert piece.

In its obituary for Kilar, who died in 2013, the Guardian shares an excellent description by Krzysztof Zanussi, whose films featured dozens of scores by Kilar, including Illumination (1973) and Revisited (2009) of their collaborative work, with music most often realized on the piano with long notes in the strings, gently hinting at depths beneath dialogue.

Zanussi describes his collaboration with Kilar as "a kind of semantic interpretation, where the music steps up to the level of dialogue in the scene."It enriches the sense of what is being shown."

And so, the discussion about film music, its freedom – and merit as standalone composition, or level of dependency, the excitement of creating music in a different interdisciplinary context, and the use of existing works by film directors will be continued. The concert offered a vivid exploration of this underlying debate, which will not only continue to be a part of scoring music for international cinematography but become more relevant, with more and more productions needing more and more scores that will inspire the choices of directors' and composers' output.


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