Composing by Numbers

Piotr Rubik, the controversial composer and conductor of the music for the specially commissioned musical extravaganza, “Zakochani w Krakowie”, that graced (or disgraced depending on where you stand) the opening ceremony of the 10-day 750th Anniversary celebrations in Krakow, bounded onto the stage provocatively dressed in a gleaming white coat and tails.

Why such a bizarre choice of attire? Maybe it was an act of defiance – his art will remain pristine and pure, no matter how much muck is raked at it by venomous critics in the highbrow press and artistic community. Maybe a touch of vanity – the suit certainly set off his trademark peroxide hair-do to perfection. He could have been, like a beacon in the darkness, winking at his loyal public (his “Greatest Hits” album has already sold 70,000 copies in a slack market). Or, possibly, as a sacrificial lamb, he was meekly offering his neck to let his critics do their worst.

Knowing Rubik, who works the media like a pro, it was a combination of all of the above. To add a touch of spice before the performance, there were even some lingering doubts about whether he would appear in person at all after the recent fiasco at the performance of his work “Psalterz Wrzesniowy” in Olsztyn in the north of Poland. After a pre-concert fit of pique, during which he demanded a significant pay increase, some of his soloists walked out on him, leaving him to sing some of the arias himself while conducting. That takes guts.

Rubik’s harshest critics claim that it is disingenuous of him to present himself as a “classical” (the Polish equivalent, poważny, means both “classical” and “serious”) composer.

His music certainly shows awareness of classical idiom and convention, as one would expect from a graduate of the prestigious Akademia Muzyczna in Warsaw.

He also uses classical orchestration, in the case of “Zakochani w Krakowie”, six solo singers and a narrator, supported by the Filharmonia Krakowska and the Pro Musica Mundi choir.

But this is not enough for his critics, who criticize his lack of respect for classical convention. “Zakochani w Krakowie” was labeled as a cantata. The prime exponent of this classical form was probably J S Bach, who at one point in his career, turned them out at a rate of one a week in a desperate attempt to feed his family.

“Zakochani w Krakowie” obeyed some of the formal conventions of the cantata. Arias featuring soloists in various combinations were broken up by spoken recitatives. The words, which told the history of Krakow from 1257 to 2007, were contributed by Zbigniew Kziążek, who had obviously done some thorough research.

A nice touch was the allusion in the recitatives to contemporaneous world events of historical significance like the French Revolution. This really helped to contextualize Krakow’s historical development.

This, however, is where respect for convention ended. Cantatas traditionally had a chorus at the end with a simple tuneful melody that the congregation could join in with, a kind of eagerly anticipated sing-along.

In “Zakochani”, Rubik launched straight in with an extremely catchy repeated chorus that urged the crowd to exercise their vocal chords. It worked : “Caly świat się dowie, jak się kocha w Krakowie” (the whole world will discover how to love in Krakow) they bellowed at the front, in the case of one small girl, jigging around on her father’s soldiers and conducting in the flamboyant style of Rubik at the same time.

Unfortunately, this theme was repeated again and again until it began to resemble the advertising jingles which Rubik composed when money was hard to come by. It’s true that the text doted on historical love stories like that between King Kazimierz the Great and his Jewish mistress, Esterka, but was it really necessary, regardless of the title of the cantata (which means “In love with Krakow”), to remind us at regular intervals that love is all around us?

The arias themselves borrowed from many sources outside classical music. Transparent influences included góralska (or highlander) music, cabaret, bubble-gum pop and during a particularly effective passage that dealt with the Second World War, Jewish Klezmer music.

I have nothing against composers and arrangers using such influences. But, those that do this well successfully transform the source material in a sophisticated way to create a unified whole, like Bartok did with Hungarian folk music or American arranger, Gil Evans, with Jimi Hendrix songs.

“Zakochani”, however, contained very little challenging to the ear. There were undoubtedly some nice melodies, but these were on the whole unembellished. There was little attempt at thematic development or counterpoint. Changes of key were disappointingly obvious and with the exception of the pleasant ballad “Moj Krakow” (My Krakow), which was repeated as an encore, there was little attempt at rhythmic invention.

The overall impression was of a series of disjointed episodes tenuously bound together by the historical narrative. A hit parade or classic-lite for those who would not appreciate the finer subtleties in the works of a more critically acclaimed composer, like Penderecki, who was put forward by some in the artistic community as a more viable alternative.

I think, however, despite my reservations, that overall, Rubik fully justified the faith that the organizers put in him. The musicians were very well rehearsed and a quick walk around the fringes of the square during the performance confirmed my impression that people were enjoying themselves during what was after all supposed to be a celebration.

“Bellissimo, bellissimo!” screamed an agitated Italian into his mobile phone, as a somewhat dishevelled line of middle-aged women from out of town congaed past. An English listener told me that he felt Rubik’s music deserved much more international recognition and a Pole with two young children added that the whole family had thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Much more than they would have done, no doubt, during a more serious classical concert.

In the meantime, a banner advertising the website, www.kantata.fe.pl, which claims to offer subscribers the chance to create their own Rubrik-style cantatas waved a silent protest above the Orbis office in the square. May the debate continue.

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