Louisville has been a wonderful place to live this past year and a half. We have so many opportunities to hear music in this city: in addition to our own concerts at the University of Louisville School of Music, I have also enjoyed the concerts presented by the Chamber Music Society of Louisville as well as those by our local symphony orchestra and opera company. I have even attended a few live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. When these concerts are not enough though, cities like Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Bloomington, Lexington, and Nashville – all with their own concerts – are just a few hours away!
This Wednesday, November 15, I had the opportunity to attend something truly special. Krzysztof Penderecki, Poland’s most-celebrated contemporary composer and a Grawemeyer Award winner, was in Bloomington at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music to conduct a performance of his St. Luke Passion. An early work by Penderecki, composed between 1963 and 1966, the St. Luke Passion for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra rocked avant-garde circles at the time of its premiere. Its harsh dissonances were expected from the creator of the infamous Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and similar works. Instead, what many critics objected to was its consonances, found toward the end in its Stabat Mater and its now-famous closing chord.
Bloomington is a mere two hours away from Louisville, so I knew I could not miss this once-in-a-lifetime concert! Penderecki, now well into his eighties, might never return to the United States, and anyway it is not every day that the St. Luke Passion gets performed. I have known Penderecki's music for ten years now, starting with his symphony The Seven Gates of Jerusalem, and he has remained one of my favorite contemporary composers. Immediately, upon hearing about the concert, I made plans to attend and recruited my friend Ethan McCollum, who is pursuing his master’s degree in choral conducting, to come with me. He was just as excited! In Bloomington, we also met up with another friend, Tyler Taylor, who is pursuing his doctorate in composition at the Jacobs School.
The hall was packed. Penderecki, who at the last minute declined to conduct for health reasons, was awarded with an honorary doctorate and stood with his wife by his side for a round of applause just before the concert began. Penderecki’s assistant Maciej Tworek – certainly an authority himself through his close association with Penderecki – conducted instead. I was not disappointed: Tworek gave a rapturous performance! And, even to share the same room with Penderecki for a performance of this masterpiece of his was something special.
The St. Luke Passion is an exhausting piece, even from the perspective of the audience. It is relentless: there is absolutely no relief for over an hour. It comes off as a savage ritual, full of suspense and seemingly without end. Even when the Stabat Mater finally enters, the only relief is its familiarity: a certain appeal to chant traditions. The entire time, I felt caught between silent terror and wanting to scream! It is completely engrossing. It is a ritual of purification, I suppose, for the audience is made to feel they are subjected to the same sufferings as Christ. Only after his death on the cross are we delivered and can feel some relief in the final consonant chord and the silence which follows. As someone who has sung in chorus throughout my life, I also suffered alongside the singers on-stage, for they were repeatedly checking their tuning forks to make sure they had not lost pitch!
After the concert had ended, Penderecki hurried to the stage to congratulate the performers and also receive applause himself. This was now my moment to take a few photos! Ethan and I remained in the lobby a few minutes after the concert had ended before we hit the road. There, we caught up with friends and, meanwhile, I secretly hoped that Penderecki might show himself. He did not, unfortunately. The cliff-side road between Bloomington and the interstate was covered in fog, but at least it did not snow like some forecasts had predicted. I navigated us home safely. It was all well worth the adventure!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a composer, music scholar, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across Central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into pieces which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has recently been awarded the Gerhard Herz Scholarship in recognition of his accomplishments. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He also sings with the University of Louisville Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.