Five years ago, only the most hard-core new-music advocates knew the name of Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki outside his native Poland. Reclusive both in his person and his Composed in 1976, Gorecki’s Third Symphony came on as the right artwork for the right time: Music so beguiling in the simplicity of its language that it becomes a surrogate for the listener’s own heartbeat, a comforting hand to solace both rockers and classniks with the message that less can still be more. The work was recorded by Polish forces soon after its premiere, but it was a later disc, on Nonesuch, conducted by David Zinman with the angelic voice of soprano Dawn Upshaw, that spoke most directly and poignantly to music lovers in search of the new — and, incidentally, sold more than 1,200,000 copies.
Subtitled “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” the music voices its sadness in music quiet and slow-moving, by turns numb and serene. The work starts off as a deep rumble in the double-basses and gradually takes on the shape of a folklike melody; the tune moves through the orchestra like a slow-motion sunrise. At the climax, a solo soprano intones an ancient Polish hymn, and the music slowly subsides back to the basses’ rumble. A second movement surrounds a horrifying text, a young girl’s prayer to the Virgin Mary found as graffiti on a Gestapo prison wall, with a passionate orchestral threnody; in a third, the words of a bereaved mother create a kind of distant beacon within the surrounding string tone.
The scoring couldn’t be simpler: strings, harp, piano, a few winds and brass in the background, no percussion. Nothing is clearly defined; the voice of the singer (at USC, the well-known operatic soprano Elizabeth Hynes) and the melody in the violins blend into a single luminous melodic line. Some of today’s contemporary concert music tends to hammer on a hearer’s receptors; Gorecki’s first two symphonies belong in that category. The Third draws you in.
Gorecki lives in grimy industrial Katowice and has, for the most part, deplored efforts to hype his symphony into a cult object. A newly endowed Polish Music Reference Center at USC exerted a powerful lure; the stocky, jovial composer and his lean, affecting symphony became the centerpiece for a five-day conference, with performances of other works and learned symposiums on what they all might mean. On a campus where Friday nights are usually given over to pregame rallies, Gorecki’s presence struck a new note.