Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

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John F
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Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by John F » Mon Jun 12, 2017 4:46 am

It's 25 years ago that the symphony became an unprecedented best-seller for Nonesuch Records.

How a Somber Symphony Sold More Than a Million Records
By WILLIAM ROBIN
JUNE 9, 2017

In 1989, the record executive Robert Hurwitz attended a London performance of the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” “I was just completely knocked out,” he said in a recent interview. “And somewhere in the first movement, I thought, well, Dawn should do this.” He reached out to the young soprano Dawn Upshaw, who agreed to record the symphony with the conductor David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta for Mr. Hurwitz’s label, Nonesuch. “I think a lot of people might like this,” Mr. Hurwitz recalled thinking, “and we might sell 25,000 or 30,000 copies.”

That turned out to be an understatement: Within a year of the album’s release in April 1992, it was selling about 10,000 units per day. Ultimately, Mr. Gorecki’s Third sold over a million records, an extraordinary number for an album of contemporary classical music. “It obviously touched a nerve in the public that no one could ever have anticipated,” said Mr. Hurwitz, who stepped down from running Nonesuch last year.

This year is the 25th anniversary of that auspicious release, a doleful 53-minute symphony that swept the Billboard charts, as well as the 40th anniversary of the work’s 1977 premiere. In today’s era of digital disruption and streaming services — in which the record industry has finally seen a positive uptick after over a decade of plummeting sales — that Gorecki moment deserves a fresh appraisal.

Like his compatriots Krzysztof Penderecki and Witold Lutoslawski, Mr. Gorecki had in his early work experimented with modernist techniques like serialism. But in the 1970s, he began to explore a more folk-inflected, tonal language. His Third Symphony represented a stylistic breakthrough: austerely plaintive, emotionally direct and steeped in medieval modes. Inspired by the theme of maternal bonds in wartime and often viewed as a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust, it features a soprano singing three texts in Polish, including a prayer written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell and a folk song in which a mother laments the loss of her son.

But the work’s Gothic tint counted against it at its premiere, which took place at an avant-garde festival in France. A prominent musician, rumored to have been Pierre Boulez, apparently shouted “merde,” while one critic called it “decadent trash.” Although three different recordings were released in the 1980s, the symphony had a limited audience until the Nonesuch album.

Early American sales of that Nonesuch record were strong, but the symphony truly took off after a newly established British radio station, Classic FM, placed it in regular rotation in September 1992, during its first week on air. Warner Classics UK, part of Nonesuch’s corporate parent, quickly shifted its marketing strategy and sent copies of the disc to tastemakers including Mick Jagger, Enya and the archbishop of Canterbury. By February 1993, it had reached No. 6 on the British pop charts.

Mr. Gorecki was quickly branded, alongside John Tavener and Arvo Pärt, as part of a new genre of “holy minimalism.” Mr. Tavener’s 1992 album “The Protecting Veil” and previous releases of Mr. Pärt’s elegiac music, on ECM, had also sold briskly. In a reappraisal of the period in his recent book “Music After the Fall,” an essential survey of contemporary music, the British journalist Tim Rutherford-Johnson identifies this spiritual minimalism as a kind of marketing gimmick. Though their music shared a meditative ethos, Mr. Gorecki, Mr. Tavener and Mr. Pärt were mostly unaffiliated with one another: “Holy minimalism” was a category largely invented by critics and maintained by publicists.

Mr. Rutherford-Johnson situates Mr. Gorecki’s music as part of the same trend as the album “Chant” — a 1994 recording of medieval music by Benedictine monks that went double platinum — in appealing to a young demographic as “exotic yet unthreatening” in a manner that “contributed to a chic, design-oriented, aspirational lifestyle.”

“Spiritual minimalism demonstrated in the clearest terms to those with a financial stake in contemporary music,” Mr. Rutherford-Johnson writes, “that there was a potentially large and hitherto untapped audience.” The record industry immediately attempted to seize the Gorecki moment: “Everyone’s trying to find out the formula,” one Warner executive said at the time. “If I knew what it was, I’d put it in a bottle and use it again.”

Peter Gelb, now the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said in a recent interview, “The Gorecki was a phenomenon.” In the mid-1990s, Mr. Gelb was president of Sony Classical and witnessing a worldwide sales slump for classical music. In the preceding decade, classical labels had profited immensely by converting their back catalogs from LP to CD. But by 1993, the market had readjusted: Catalogs were exhausted, new recordings were expensive to produce, and sales began to steeply decline. Labels increasingly turned to crossover gimmicks like the Three Tenors to maintain profits, so an out-of-nowhere hit like the Gorecki was closely examined. “What I did and what other companies did was to look for new music sources,” Mr. Gelb said. “Most new music, of course, doesn’t sell. So it was a question of finding the right new music.”

Along with releasing albums by the then-up-and-coming Bang on a Can collective, Mr. Gelb saw film scores as a lucrative opportunity. He paired the composer John Corigliano with the director François Girard to create the soundtrack for the film “The Red Violin,” complete with a complementary concerto for the violinist Joshua Bell. “That was the kind of thing I aspired to create,” Mr. Gelb said. “It was art, and it was commercially successful.” That era in Sony Classical’s history peaked with another phenomenon: the “Titanic” soundtrack, which was released in 1997 and sold more than 30 million copies.

Meanwhile, Philips Classics started the label Point Music to, as one executive put it, “redefine what is considered ‘classic’ music”; BMG Classics launched its Catalyst imprint for contemporary music aimed toward a youthful MTV audience. Such marketing-driven projects also yielded notable music: Tastefully curated by the critic Tim Page, the short-lived Catalyst released intriguing work by Alvin Curran and Einojuhani Rautavaara, and, led by Philip Glass, Point Music issued albums by Gavin Bryars and Arthur Russell.

There were also less subtle attempts to cash in on the Gorecki craze. “Remember Gorecki’s Third Symphony?” BMG Classics asked in a news release. “Well, David Zinman is at it again with a world-premiere recording by another relatively unknown 20th-century composer. Sounds like another hit in the making.” Needless to say, that album of music by the early-20th-century French composer Charles Koechlin was no hit. Indeed, none of the Gorecki follow-ups, including Nonesuch’s subsequent releases devoted to the composer, achieved anything like the success of the original.

Mr. Gorecki himself was bewildered by his newfound fame. His output slowed, and he never completed a successor to his most famous work before he died, in 2010. (In 2014, the London Philharmonic gave the premiere of his Fourth Symphony, finished and orchestrated by Mr. Gorecki’s son.) “The first royalty check he got was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and he kept it in his wallet for a long enough time that we had to reissue it, because he wouldn’t cash it,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “It may just have been such a shock to all of a sudden go from someone who had struggled to find recognition, to someone who was at that moment as famous as any modern composer in the world.”

Even if it was notoriously trendy among Gen-Xers in the ’90s, Mr. Gorecki’s symphony holds up as an impressive artistic achievement. As in the large-scale sacred works of Mr. Pärt, the trance-like allure of slow-moving tonal harmonies has the undergirding of an elegant structure: The simple language of the first movement, a canon that expands outward from subterranean low strings, accrues a granitic weight that is sustained across the entire work. The first entrance of Ms. Upshaw in the Nonesuch recording, intoning a 15th-century Polish lament, maintains its original pathos.

“The music is still timeless,” Ms. Upshaw, who became known in the 1990s as the “voice of Gorecki,” said in an interview. “It still speaks very directly, in the same way, to its listeners as it did then. And unfortunately, the pain, the atrocities of the situation that brought Gorecki to write the piece still exist.”..

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/09/arts ... cords.html
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Re: Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by david johnson » Mon Jun 12, 2017 5:19 am

I do remember the hullabaloo. I have the Naxos recording.

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Re: Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by maestrob » Mon Jun 12, 2017 10:50 am

Yes, I remember the hullabaloo (good word!) and am glad to say that I pull the piece off the shelf sometimes for a review. It still moves me, and Gorecki stays in my mind's ear. Thanks for the detailed article. :)

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Re: Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by Lance » Tue Jun 13, 2017 1:29 pm

Now THERE'S a work I immediately fell in love with in a live performance give by the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra in Binghamton, New York, John Covelli, conducting. It made a HUGE impression on the audience in general. I love the work so much I had to have several recordings of it. For those interested, here are some that were (and may still be) available:

* ABC Australia 472 040, Yvonne Kenny, soprano; Adelaide Symphony, Yuasa, conductor
* Elektra 72982, Dawn Upshaw, soprano, London Sinfonietta, Zinman, conductor
* Koch 311 041, Stefania Woytowicz, soprano, SW German Radio Orchestra, Baden-Baden, Bour, conductor
* Naxos 550822, Zofia Kilanowicz, soprano, Warsaw Radio-TV Orchestra, Wit, conductor
* Regis 1284, Susan Gritton, soprano, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Simonov, conductor
* Telarc 80699, Christine Brewer, soprano; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Runnicles, conductor
* Philips 442 411, Joanna Kozlowska, soprano; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Kord, conductor [formerly on Philips 442 411]

My faves, next to the Upshaw, is Christine Brewer's, and most of the Polish singers' recordings. Incidentally, I went on to love some of Gorecki's other works such as the Three Olden Style Pieces.
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John F
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Re: Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by John F » Tue Jun 13, 2017 1:44 pm

Incidentally, I haven't seen or heard much of Dawn Upshaw in recent years. Her performances are nearly all recitals of contemporary music, and she's also teaching voice at Bard Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center. She has no personal web site, and her artists manager's blurb is uninformative about performances, but it appears she's pretty much given up opera for good.
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Re: Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by Lance » Tue Jun 13, 2017 3:53 pm

Well, born in July 1960, and having experienced breast cancer, she is undoubtedly pushing herself slowly these days. She seems to have had a fine career, and, as you say, it was focused somewhat on more contemporary music.
Lance G. Hill
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When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
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John F
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Re: Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by John F » Wed Jun 14, 2017 5:09 am

Dawn Upshaw is in her 50s, but her kind of light lyric soprano usually ages well - Elisabeth Schumann still sounded much the same and was singing well in her 60s. I hope Upshaw is well - no recurrence of the cancer, etc.
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Re: Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by lennygoran » Wed Jun 14, 2017 7:32 am

John F wrote:
Tue Jun 13, 2017 1:44 pm
Incidentally, I haven't seen or heard much of Dawn Upshaw in recent years. Her performances are nearly all recitals of contemporary music, and she's also teaching voice at Bard Conservatory and the Tanglewood Music Center. She has no personal web site, and her artists manager's blurb is uninformative about performances, but it appears she's pretty much given up opera for good.
I seem to recall her being tossed around like a rag doll in a PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE we saw at the Met some time ago. This Gorecki symphony is new to me-I'm glad it's on you tube-I'll have to give it some time-at least is seems to be completely accessible. Regards, Len

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Re: Gorecki's 3rd symphony - remember?

Post by diegobueno » Fri Jun 16, 2017 1:50 pm

The New York Times article prompted me to get out my copy of the recording. It's a very affecting work, though I would like more contrast.

The Kronos Quartet was performing Gorecki's two [edit: I should have said three] string quartets quite widely for a period of time, during the 90s. I heard them in Syracuse performing the 2nd. I'm pretty sure I have their recordings of them somewhere. I'll have to dig them up.

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