The Word on Lutosławski: A 24-Hour Tribute

Here’s what I know about Lutosławski:

  • His first name was Witold.
  • His Cello Concerto got namechecked in some interview with Tim Berne or Jim Black, some years ago. The context was along the lines of, “I don’t listen to kind of classical music you just asked about, but if you want me to pick something, here’s what I do like…”

Not what you’d call scholarly expertise.

Photo by Sue Terry. Source: WXQR; click to go there.
Photo by Sue Terry. Source: WXQR; click to go there.

But because of that interview (which I can no longer find), I picked up a copy of the Concerto — played by Mstislav Rostopovich, another name I would eventually come to know much better. (He’s super famous as a player and conductor.) So, you could call me a casual fan of Lutosławski.

The chance to quickly learn more about Lutosławski is at hand: WQXR-FM’s online satellite, Q2, has assembled an eight-hour tribute to celebrate the 100th year of his birth. It’s going to be played three times on Tuesday, Nov. 12, Eastern time.

The program starts with a one-hour “Lutosławski 101” session, which is what I’ll be listening for. In Pacific Time terms, it’s playing at 9:00 p.m. on Monday, and 5:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Tuesday.

That’s followed by seven one-hour installments that hone in on different phases of Lutosławski’s career.

The Cello Concerto itself famously starts with the cello alone, digging at one note. No buildup to a big entrance; the cello is just there, already seizing the conversation. After four minutes, a lone trumpet breaks the spell, joined by a gaggle of others. Most of the orchestra doesn’t do anything until the second movement. As opening movements go, it’s quite different.

The third movement, “Cantilena,” features some high-note cello sawing that bursts into a big, dramatic phase, with slightly chaotic horns, a splash of piano, a screaming violin mob, and (out of nowhere) a couple of seconds of scattered xylophone that mark the transition into the colossal “Finale” movement. It’s captivating, featuring lots of spaces for the cellist to show off, nearly unaccompanied.

naxos-lutoIt was enough to get me to randomly buy a Naxos collection of Lutosławski: Orchestral Works, Vol. 8 (released in 2003). It’s lighter, featuring a bunch of “children’s songs” and a set of dance preludes. What I really like, though, is the Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and Chamber Orchestra. It opens with a frenetic swirl of strings, and it’s got some of the same ocean-crashing orchestral qualities as the Cello Concerto. Being for oboe and harp, it also presents some more soothing textures.

And then, in the third movement (“Marziale e grotesco”), the oboe gets a few moments of squeaking and buzzing — extended techniques! I guess it’s not that surprising, considering the piece was written in the ’70s, and it’s possible the sounds were a decision by oboist Arkadiusz Krupa and not part of the score. In any event, it was a nice surprise.

I like modern-classical music. It’s got a sense of exploration that I don’t find in “regular” classical music. And I’ve found I like this guy Lutosławski. I wouldn’t mind learning more.

(UPDATE: Judging from this video snippet, which I think is the same passage I excerpted, the oboe craziness is written into the score.)