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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Polish Legend's Ode to Moscow

The centuries-old love-hate relationship between Russia and Poland came to an artistically meaningful focal point last Saturday when the pre-eminent Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the world premiere of his new work dedicated to Moscow's 850th anniversary.

The event was a unique blend of exquisite music, Russian patriotism alleviated by Polish vigor, historical allusion and media promotion.

"Glory to St. Daniel, Prince of Moscow," an imposing though elegant creation from one of the music world's few "living classics," was written for a 150-member choir and a reduced orchestra. It was commissioned by the private Russian TV-6 television company, which broadcast the performance live. Also featured in the concert were a selection of the greatest hits of the Russian patriotic symphony repertoire -- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Easter overture, "The Bright Holiday," and Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Slavic March" and "1812 Overture" -- performed by TV-6's own symphony orchestra, "Russian Philharmonia," under Alexander Vedernikov's baton.

Penderecki at age 64 meets all the expectations one has of a great composer. In his gray beard and glasses, he comes across in person as bold and charming. He spends most of his time in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he has a home. His history is that of an insurgent musician who has experimented through a number of modernist styles.

The composer is still very much in demand throughout the world. As he said at a press conference Saturday, he has strict plans for the next 30 to 40 years to fill the back orders for pieces from organizations ranging from the United Nations to the International Olympic Committee.

Penderecki is currently at work on his Fifth Symphony and plans to write nine -- no more, just like Beethoven and Bruckner. He wrote a piece for Jerusalem's 3000th anniversary and has commissions for the year 2000 celebrations.

"For me Moscow is first of all a city of music -- otherwise I would not have written this piece," said Penderecki, while praising Russia's 19th- and 20th-century composers. He said that Moscow has a "wonderful concert audience" and he recalled his frequent trips to the Russian capital in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time the visiting colleague from "brotherly Poland" used to stun members of the Soviet Composers' Union with his modernism, a style that was, to say the least, not encouraged among their ranks.

Penderecki's piece for Moscow is based on an Old Church Slavonic liturgical text dedicated to St. Daniel, the 13th-century prince who began to consolidate the various fiefdoms around Moscow and started the dynasty of Grand Princes of the city. He also founded a number of churches and monasteries and was canonized as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The greatest achievement of "Glory to St. Daniel" is its exquisite taste and measure. Its sound is academic yet vigorous. It falls completely within the rich tradition of Russian Orthodox liturgical singing, yet at the same time manages to have a modern feel.

Getting the piece together in time for Saturday's premiere was no mean feat for the performers. The choir of the Sveshnikov Academy of Choral Arts -- one of Russia and the world's finest vocal ensembles -- received the complicated multipart score bit by bit in express mail packages, the last one arriving just five days before the concert. The orchestra got the wind and bass parts only when Penderecki came to Moscow for rehearsals.

At a time when many symphony orchestras in Russia and around the world are falling apart for lack of funds, TV-6 and its general director, Alexander Ponomaryov, resurrected the dying tradition under which broadcast companies have their own orchestras. Ponomaryov was also the motivating force behind persuading Penderecki to take part in this project back in January.

"There is a great number of people Russia who are deprived because they live with the conviction that they would never understand this music, that it is not for them," Ponomaryov said. He sees a solution to this problem in the creation of special events, such as the Saturday's broadcast, which will "sow interest" in the hearts of those "deprived."

The themes of Russian and Polish nationalism stood out in bizarre juxtaposition at the concert.

Following the tradition of official concerts, this one was preceded by the playing of the Polish and Russian national anthems. The Polish anthem, "Poland Has Not Yet Perished" is known to every Russian as a nationalist song under which the Poles fought against Russian imperial domination. Likewise, the Russian anthem is based on a sketch by Mikhail Glinka, the composer of the great anti-Polish patriotic opera, "Ivan Susanin."

The grand finale for the night was Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," which was commissioned for the consecration of the original Christ the Savior Cathedral, the replica of which stands now as symbol of Moscow's new grandeur. In the work, the Orthodox hymn to the Holy Cross is confronted by the French republican "Marseillaise" and is crowned by "God Save the Tsar" symbolizing the victory of Orthodox Christian monarchy over Napoleonic France. Poland was Napoleon's ally in 1812.

But reigning over this parade of not-so-friendly historical allusions was Penderecki -- a devout Roman Catholic Polish composer, who had written a Russian Orthodox-based patriotic piece.

Bearing witness to the political sensitivity of the theme of Russian-Polish reconciliation was the conspicuous absence of any acting Russian politicians in the otherwise star-studded audience.

"I am not a big nationalist -- not just in music, but generally," said Penderecki who refused to be drawn out about Russian-Polish political relations. He would say only that "our musical relations have always been, are and will be very strong."