It happened during a pledge drive in 1992. After encouraging her listeners to grab a glass of wine, light some candles and just relax, KCRW host Ruth Seymour played a recently released recording of the then-obscure composer Henryk Górecki's “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.”
No one could have predicted what happened next.
Instead of flipping the dial to the other public radio station, people actually listened (count me firmly in the camp of those whose shameless NPR-hopping during pledge drive season would have caused one to miss such a treat).
Who knows how much cash KCRW managed to raise — but there is no doubt this was Górecki's best pledge drive ever. “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” went straight-up viral. A full decade before sneezing pandas and Auto-Tune made it big on the Internet, the Polish composer's quasi-minimalist Third Symphony sold over a million copies and found itself in the top-ten on the U.K.'s mainstream charts.
There's no telling why this particular recording appealed to such a broad audience. Gorecki's compositional language was, at least during this stage of his career, largely tonal and accessible for entry-level listeners. Or perhaps it was the pairing of current events with the subject of this particular work that made it resonate so deeply with audiences. “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” is a plaintive, drawn-out meditation on motherhood and wartime loss. It seems no small coincidence that its popularity skyrocketed so soon after the first Gulf War.
But one thing is for sure: in the classical music world, conventional wisdom goes that, if you want to sell albums, win over a diverse audience, or just refrain from offending a loyal but rapidly graying base of concertgoers, you are probably best off avoiding any works written in the past fifty or sixty years.
For those of us that happen to like contemporary music, it sure is nice to see that wisdom flipped on its head, Górecki-style, from time to time.
The Santa Monica-based new/contemporary/interesting music group, Jacaranda, who are presenting an all-Górecki program on Saturday and Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Santa Monica, can be counted on to eschew classical music's conventions pretty much all the time.
Unlike the more orthodox music presenters in town, where repertoire necessarily fits within an ensemble's stated mission and physical limitations (the Los Angeles Philharmonic is largely restricted to symphonic works, the L.A. Opera plays, well, opera), Jacaranda programs whatever it likes and in whatever order it likes.
“Every concert is organized around one idea, so that each program is a journey,” says Artistic Director Patrick Scott. “There will be a string quartet next to a piano solo, then a fairly large-ensemble piece — the scale can be quite dramatic in the course of one evening.”
But Jacaranda's programs are always at the service of the music, and the music is anything but stale.
“I want people to walk out of this place like they are in another world,” say Scott. “When they leave they should be completely transformed.”
If Górecki's music is anywhere near as effective today as it was twenty years ago, that shouldn't be any problem at all.