More Profanum than Sacrum

Pity poor Gershwin. The celebrated American populist composer par excellence, this composer’s glitzy star that once shone so brightly has by now dimmed to almost nothing, his catchy jingles are just as likely to make you snort in condescension as they are to make you tap your feet.

But here, to open Krakow’s high-budget Sacrum Profanum festival, we have the much-praised Marc Minkowski saddled with the thankless chore of conducting an entire evening of Gershwin’s greatest hits package. To his credit, Minkowski really did try his best. Instead of trying to find some profound and serious layer to Gershwin, to adopt the air of a serious European composer in the high tradition, Minkowski preferred to waggle his hips and encourage the kitschy flaring of the trumpets by pumping his fists in the air. In this way, by swimming with the current of kitsch instead of trying to fight against it, Minkowski did manage to squeeze a few interesting moments out of the pieces. I don’t recall “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” ever sounding so syrupy and dreamlike, and the honking of horns in “American in Paris” became a great clattering mess here.

On the other hand, the refrain of the latter piece is repeated until the listeners want to scream for it to stop (the Tchaikovsky Effect) and “I Got Rhythm” is just patently absurd from beginning to end, and should be removed from all repertoires at once.

The main problem seems to be that Gershwin’s music has been best served by jazz musicians, and the symphonies he himself wrote simply sound like schmaltzy soundtracks to films you can’t quite put your finger on. Jazz pianist Leszek Mozdzer battled heroically with the symphonic works, but really only shined in his multiple encores, receiving a standing ovation from this crowd who paid 190 zloty for their tickets and should have been too tired and glum to do any such thing.

The next day was another filled-to-capacity crowd for Tomasz Stanko’s renditions of Miles Davis with a four-man backing ensemble. Stanko, a jazz trumpeter whose reputation started in the 60s with the famous Krzysztof Komeda ensemble, did not stray far from Davis’s blue ballads, and appeared to be almost too tired to lift his horn. Saxophonist Joakim Milder was also oddly reticent during the concert, blowing a few lazy notes from time to time and then stepping back to let the young rhythm section show their stuff. The great jazz drummer Art Blakey had a policy in the 60s and 70s of continually playing with younger musicians, because he said it challenged him and “kept him fresh.” During this Sacrum Profanum concert the younger musicians slipped into Stanko’s comatose pace whenever the trumpeter was playing, and only when they were given a chance to solo did things heat up a bit. Slawomir Kurkiewicz on upright bass and Stefan Pasborg on drums were particularly effective. Stanko’s lethargy was infectious, however – by the end of the concert the audience (60-100 zloty per ticket) could barely summon the strength to clap.

It may seem rather prosaic to point out the cost of the concert tickets so methodically; art, as we all know, has no price tag, and world-acclaimed performers deserve every penny they get. But in a country where the average monthly salary is around 1,900 zloty, the Sacrum Profanum festival is creating an exclusivity around an artistic event of this sort that serves neither the artists nor the audiences, and ultimately makes culture more inaccessible to the “ordinary people.”

As is generally the case, the best concert of the festival thus far was also the most poorly attended. The night devoted to Charles Ives was a generous four hours of music by this unjustly-neglected 19th-/early 20th-Century composer, including pieces for solo piano (some splendid work by Polish pianist Maciej Grzybowski, particularly in the hypnotic “Three-Page Sonata” and the frenetic “Concord Sonata”).

The Royal String Quartet were also impressive in their rendering of both of Ives’s quartets, particularly the second. This piece is described by Ives himself as follows: “String Quartet for 4 men – who converse, discuss, argue (in “politics”), fight, shake hands, shut up – then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.” And whether or not such programmatic notes are always desirable, seeing this piece live did allow the viewer to follow the “conversation” between the instruments, adding a great deal to the piece. The small audience got smaller as the music progressed, an old woman dropped a purse full of coins, which rattled all over the floor, and by the time the musicians were taking their final bows I doubt there were more than 30 audience members, though the remaining few did beat their hands wildly.

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