Górecki's 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' still connects with audience

Henryk Górecki did something that has become extremely rare in classical music. He composed a bona fide hit, his Symphony No. 3, and what an unlikely thing it was. Subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,'' it ran more than 50 slow-moving minutes, with a soprano singing a mournful text in Polish that deals with a mother's loss of her son.

Composed in 1976, Górecki's symphony had a cult following in contemporary music circles, but the size of its audience exploded in 1992 when it was released in an Elektra Nonesuch recording of soprano Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta, David Zinman conducting. It became a phenomenon, with people reporting, for example, that when they first heard it on the car radio, they pulled over to the side of the road just to listen. Eventually, the recording sold more than a million copies and was No. 1 on the U.S. classical chart for 38 weeks.

"For a piece of music to have that kind of popularity, I think it has to connect with something going on in the culture at large,'' said classical radio announcer Russell Gant, who remembers playing the Górecki symphony on Tampa Bay area NPR station WUSF-FM in those days. Now music director of WUSF's all-classical offshoot, WSMR, Gant programmed the work this month after the Polish composer's death at 66.

"It was a very unusual symphony that listeners had strong opinions about, pro and con,'' Gant said. (On another matter, he said that antenna problems that have kept WSMR essentially off the air are likely to be resolved by the end of December.)

I've often thought that the impact of Górecki's symphony had something to do with the AIDS crisis, which was at its worst in the early 1990s. Little was understood about the epidemic that ravaged a generation of gay men, and to be diagnosed as HIV positive at that time was a virtual death sentence. People with AIDS and their friends and family members were searching for solace, and the Upshaw/Zinman recording met that need.

Though the Third Symphony is an expression of grief, it also has a contemplative, uplifting quality in the soprano's songs, especially in the ethereal rendition by Upshaw. Her performance is quite different than, say, the darker, heavier sound of Polish soprano Zofia Kilanowicz on a later recording for Naxos.

In 1994, the Florida Orchestra played the symphony, with music director Jahja Ling conducting and Marvis Martin as the soloist. Listened to casually on disc or on the radio, the work can come across as deceptively simple and soothing, like a piece of new age music, or Pachelbel's Canon. The orchestra's performance revealed its inner energy, though some of the audience seemed restless with its repetitive, almost static unfolding.

In The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, Michael Steinberg speculated that Górecki's symphony is, in fact, more suited to disc than live performance.

"Are people really listening to this symphony?'' Steinberg asked. "How many CD buyers discover that 54 minutes of very slow music with a little singing in a language they don't understand is more than they want? Is it being played as background to chardonnay and Brie?''

All those reservations may have some truth to them, but wouldn't it be a boost for classical music today if a new piece had the sort of appeal to a mass audience that Górecki's Symphony No. 3 did?

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AIDS, of course, is still with us (the international death toll is more than 25 million), and World AIDS Day is Wednesday. The theme this year is "Act Aware.'' The Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project marks the occasion with a staged reading of Love! Valour! Compassion! by Terrence McNally at 7:30 p.m. Monday at American Stage in St. Petersburg.

Project director Garry Bruel has assembled a cast that includes Steve Garland, Eric Davis, Brian Shea, Joey Panek and Matt McGee for McNally's 1994 play, which follows eight gay men over three summer holiday weekends at a lakeside country house in upstate New York. Admission is "pay what you can,'' with proceeds going to Metro Charities and the project. (727) 823-7529.

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This year is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Italian composer Giovanni Batista Pergolesi, and New Century Opera is performing his comic opera La Serva Padrona (The Maid Mistress) at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center.

Because of its brevity (45 minutes), Serva Padrona has been given many recordings, with eminent singers such as Renatta Scotto and Anna Moffo playing the maid who tricks her elderly master into marrying her. The New Century staging (in English) features Mary Anne Boone, David Powers and Jamie Bierchen, directed by Constantine Grame. $12-$16. (727) 742-5605; tarponarts.org.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.

Górecki's 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' still connects with audience 11/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 27, 2010 3:30am]

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