Sacrum-Profanum Festival

Hard to believe that we already have the fifth edition of the Sacrum Profanum Festival, a slick, international, high-budget “concept” undertaking that serves both as a way of popularizing classical music and giving popular music a classical facade. This happy (or unhappy, depending on your point of view) confusion is particularly evident in this year’s festival, devoted to the country where this confusion perhaps thrives the most: the U.S.

Things kick off on September 16 with conductor Marc Minkowski, one of the world’s leading lights in classical music, and Leszek Mozdzer, a jazz pianist of superlative abilities, devoting their considerable talents to the mediocre works of Gershwin, of all people.

Can the best of performers inject life into the most threadbare material? The next day (September 17) has two concerts – Tomasz Stanko and his quartet will play Miles Davis (this will seem a very logical pairing if you know this world-famous jazz musician’s music) at 19:00 at the Philharmonic. Stanko has been paring down his sound over the years to become more and more minimal, and probably his best years are behind him, but the combination of him and Davis does seem to promise some good moments.

Then later, at the onetime “Emalia” Factory on ul. Lipowa 4, the Silesian Quartet will play five (!) Philip Glass quartets. The Silesian Quartet has by now made a remarkable name for themselves, and their renditions of contemporary composers (particularly Lutoslawski, Schnikte, Shostakovich) are really first class, but can they keep an audience awake through five Glass quartets in a concert starting at 22:00? No small challenge.

Many of the remaining concerts feature performers and composers that are more equally matched. The remarkable 19th-Century “outsider” composer Charles Ives once wrote: “Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.” His quartets and piano music (which are indeed not for the lazy-minded) will be performed by Maciej Grzybowski (piano) and the Royal String Quartet on Tuesday, September 18 at 18:00 at the Philharmonic.

The repertoire includes the “Concord” piano sonata, which critic David Johnson described as “the thorniest of Ives’ work.” Steve Reich will have two concerts devoted to his work, performed by the London Sinfonietta and the Schonberg Ensemble (September 18 and 19, respectively). And John Cage’s “The Music of Always” will be performed at the aforementioned Emalia Factory at 22:00 on September 20. These concerts all sound promising for those who can stomach a bit of the avant-garde.

The final concert will be an absurd spectacle at the Nowa Huta Steelworks, involving scenes from “everybody’s favorite” Leonard Bernstein musicals. Sounds like a bad night out, though it must be confessed that the steelworks do have an incredible post-industrial grandeur. And finally, a warning: this kind of high-promotion, heavily-marketed festival does not come cheap. Don’t expect to go to a “Sacrum-Profanum” concert without it burning a hole in your wallet to the tune of 50-190 zloty. As a rule of thumb, the more avant-garde and the later in the evening the concert, the less you’re likely to pay. Caveat Emptor!

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