How IU’s Performance of Szymanowski Disappointed

April 12, 2010

From onstage, I can count the number of standing ovations after the final strains of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth) have faded into the ether. About half of the audience in Auer Hall are on their feet, applauding and smiling. I want them to sit back down.

Today’s concert consisted of two orchestra-chorus numbers, Szymanowski’s Stabat Matar and Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden. The Jacobs Music School at Indiana University, despite having a smattering of contemporary ensembles, usually does not extend many opportunities to perform works such as these, especially to students unable to enroll in contemporary music groups. We started rehearsing the two pieces on Monday, and because of the rarity of rehearsing such works, the events of Saturday were an especial shock. There we were, rehearsing the work of one of Poland’s most prominent composers who, despite all credentials, does not get performed very often in the States. It seemed like such horrible, ironic timing, the coinciding of the crash and our performance.

I wrote an email to the Conductor’s Orchestra organizing the event, and told them to please consider dedicating today’s performance to the victims of the Polish airplane crash and their families, as the opportunity to use Szymanowski to express our condolences was very fitting. I received an enthusiastic response back from one of the conductors who unfortunately was not conducting anything in the program. He told me he would ask the main conductor and push him to do this.

Shortly before showtime, I met the main conductor in the elevator and asked him if he did decide to dedicate our performance to the tragedy. His response, surprisingly, was very apathetic and whimsical. The other conductor who answered my email told me that he was completely behind me, and that he would ask once more.

Unfortunately, the main conductor bestowed upon the audience two wonderful works without any acknowledgement of the situation in Poland. He had intentionally missed a golden opportunity to address and alleviate grief and confusion through our art — one of the most important aspects, I personally feel, of what we do. As it was, our performance simply became a job. Instead of feeling like what I was performing had meaning, I felt the emptiness, and the potential for the event to be so much more than what it was. I felt disappointment in the conductor’s attitude, who gave the impression of thinking that the tragedy is a Polish tragedy instead of a universal tragedy. I felt disappointment that the performance existed in its own medium, instead of being used to show our respects to the Polish amid their time of difficulty.

From grasping snippets of conversation from some singers and audience members, they too felt the same. Some even found it very odd that the crises in Poland was not addressed, especially since we were performing Szymanowski’s Stabat Matar and the Schoenberg also leaned towards that atmosphere of peace and reconciliation.

In many aspects today’s music exists in a state removed from the politics/events/culture of the present (unlike, say, the 19th century) and when given the opportunity to use it to address the uncertainties or situations of our world, it is a complete shame when it is turned down. There was so much potential for the event to actually mean something, but unfortunately, that opportunity is now forever lost.

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