The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music is proud to present an interdisciplinary collection of concerts in the month-long Polish Festival running Sept. 9 through Oct. 2.
Through a series of classical and jazz concerts, lectures and a special art installation, CCM’s Polish Festival celebrates the wealth of extraordinary music and creative expression of one of the world’s great cultures.
The festival’s opening concert begins at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, with a performance by the CCM Philharmonia in Corbett Auditorium. CCM Director of Orchestral Studies Mark Gibson will lead the Philharmonia in a concert featuring the world premiere of American Dreams by alumnus Piotr Szewczyk (BM Violin, 2000; MM Violin and Composition, 2003). The program will also include Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Naumburg Gold Medalist and CCM faculty artist Soyeon Kate Lee will join the Philharmonia for a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
CCM graduate student Charlotte Kies sat down with Polish Festival Artistic Director Mark Gibson to learn more about the creation and inspiration behind the event.
What originally inspired you to create the Polish Festival?
The initial inspiration came through discussion with Polish friends on the wealth of extraordinary music from Poland, especially in the last century. I jokingly suggested that the only reason we don’t perform more of it is because the names are unfamiliar and daunting. After overcoming that minor stumbling block, the music on the other side – masterworks by Lutosławski, Szymanowski, Skrowaczewski, Penderecki and more – immediately rose to the level of challenge and quest.
What do you hope students will learn from participating in the Polish Festival concerts?
They are learning that there is so much beyond Chopin, even as we enjoy the rare opportunity to share both Chopin piano concertos with our students and public. Specifically, the Lutosławski Concerto for Orchestra takes its place next to, not beneath, its namesake by Bartók. The Szymanowski “Song of the Night” is nothing less than the most colorful Polish Impressionism, inspired by Ravel but uniquely crafted and painted in sound. And Penderecki’s magnum opus, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” remains one of the most dramatic, powerful evocations of the horrors of war ever committed to paper.
Every score we have programmed, from the legendary opera composer Stanisław Moniuszko to the Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist and composer Włodek Pawlik, bears the mark of mastery and import. They all demand to be heard and experienced.
Besides the fact that the composers of the festival are Polish, how did you program all of the music? Could you tell me what led you to pair Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra for your opening concert?
The opening concert of the CCM Philharmonia season has more than once featured a faculty guest artist as a soloist. I had been looking for a chance to work with Soyeon Kate Lee, former Naumburg Competition winner, ever since her arrival at CCM several years ago. The Chopin was the ideal opportunity; when I asked which of the two concertos she preferred to play, she offered the F Minor. The Lutosławski leapt out as among the most celebratory, virtuosic scores I have never conducted, though I have admired it for decades. We perform Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra in November, so the Lutosławski was therefore an easy choice to open the season. The Philharmonia is eating it up!
As for the remainder of the programming, I had the difficult task of choosing between literally dozens of worthy composers and styles. A work such as Górecki’s gorgeous and moving “Symphony of Sad Songs” is by now part of the canon. Along with the Penderecki Threnody, a broad spectrum of Polish music will be performed. Skrowaczewski’s English Horn Concerto was selected to provide a venue to feature another of our superb students. The Szymanowski Third Symphony, the “Song of the Night,” has been on my wish list for at least 20 years. It will be an honor to share it not only with our students and public, but with the Xavier University Choir and tenor soloist CCM faculty artist Daniel Weeks as collaborators on this performance. Ultimately, there were too many scores to choose from and unfortunately we can’t devote an entire year to Polish music. I hope our public might be inspired to explore further by what they hear.
Did you have a strong relationship with the Cincinnati Polish community before planning this festival?
My primary contact with the Polish community in Cincinnati has been through my jazz colleague, Rick VanMatre, who is married to the brilliant Polish visual artist, Anna Socha VanMatre. In fact, she has donated a major art work, a dramatic piece from her “Metamorphosis” series, for display in Corbett Auditorium for the Festival concerts. Through my friendship with the VanMatre’s, I have been introduced to more members of the local community, notably the scientist Piotr Chomczynski and his wife, Dr. Judith Heiny, whose generous sponsorship makes this festival possible. It has been gratifying to see the support from the local community, in particular the Polish-American Society of Greater Cincinnati, led by Emilia Bacca.
Music making is about community after all, the creation of family through sound. Our family just became significantly bigger.
Is the Polish Festival a one-time event, or do you hope to make it into a recurring celebration of Polish music?
For the past 10 years, we have started our orchestral season with a festival dedicated either to a specific composer or a national style. I felt it was time that Polish music be celebrated in a similar fashion, and though I cannot anticipate another festival dedicated to Polish music, I know that we will continue to feature it in our programming. Next year, we are committing major resources to celebrate the centenary of Leonard Bernstein, one of my conducting teachers and a major influence on the lives of so many American musicians.
Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share?
I promise those who come to our concerts will be delighted with and inspired by the music of Poland, and they will absolutely learn how to pronounce the names of the composers by the end! I encourage one and all to join us for this unique tribute to one of the world’s great musical traditions.
The Polish Festival runs Sept. 9-Oct. 2 throughout the CCM Village. You can learn more about the festival’s opening concert and other events here.