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Remembering famed composer Penderecki, TFO’s first-ever guest conductor

The streets are empty, restaurants bare, concert halls quiet. The Florida Orchestra, like thousands of arts groups everywhere, anxiously awaits a return to normal and the performances so many of us crave.

Our self-imposed isolation has given me time to reflect on my 40-year association with this superb ensemble and what it has infused into the Tampa Bay area’s cultural life. I remember those early days, when Music Director Irwin Hoffman conducted what was then the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony, in the old McKay Auditorium at the University of Tampa, before the three big-money halls opened.

I also remember the 1985 season – the group’s 17th year – and the first time it played under a guest conductor, which made quite the news splash at the time. It was none other than Krzysztof Penderecki, the revered Polish composer who recently died at age 86. Even if you don’t know his name (pronounced Pender-etz-ski), you’ve likely heard his music in the movies The Shining and The Exorcist.

For this occasion, he led TFO in a program that included the adagietto from his opera Paradise Lost, his newly composed Symphony No. 2 and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 6. More importantly, he set a precedent by opening the gates to podium talent that helped the orchestra evolve its artistry.

In preparing a story for the Tampa Tribune, I asked Don Owen, TFO’s principal trumpet at the time, what he thought of the occasion. “I think it’s an absolute plus,’’ he told me. “Having someone of this stature doing anything with us is worthwhile. And having him conduct his own music is, well, just a big plus.’’

I spent a morning with Penderecki at a hotel lobby in west Tampa, and asked about his approach to music. He explained in slow, broken English how he wanted to move listeners without alienating them, and to write material that’s personal, not fashionable.

I attended the concert that night – April 10, 1985 – at Ruth Eckerd Hall, later writing that the orchestra “never lost its infectious sense of commitment and concentration. Seldom have these musicians worked so fastidiously with their scores. … The dramatic, neo-romantic sound blocks, eerie pianissimos, volcanic eruptions of color and the urgency of Penderecki’s sweeping gestures were exhilarating.’’

Although many in the audience that night 35 years ago had never heard of Penderecki, I had been a devotee since the late 1970s, when I bought the composer’s haunting Auschwitz Oratorio on LP, a half-hour work for chorus and orchestra dedicated to those killed in the 1940s at the notorious Nazi death camp in southern Poland. I then came under the spell of his Polymorphia for 48 Strings, which swells into a crescendo of white noise before ending on a C major chord; the jazzy De Natura Sonoris; the tumultuous Te Deum; and his masterpiece, the St. Luke’s Passion, which makes free use of Gregorian chant and tone rows. A composition that still jars the senses is the electrifying Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 strings.

I made sense that film directors attached themselves to the composer’s stark, atmospheric sound. Stanley Kubrick used six pieces in the soundtrack to The Shining from 1980, and William Friedkin brought Polymorphia into his 1973 classic, The Exorcist. In general, Penderecki’s music might be disturbing but always remains accessible, and a humanity – as well as themes of political oppression – dominate his thinking as a composer.

Lately, I’ve been listening to his Symphony No. 2 on a Pavane label LP, released in 1981, with Jacek Kasprzyk conducting the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra. No, it’s not the same as that concert long ago, which caused a bit of a ruckus among the more conservative patrons. Some found the music too “experimental’’ and left during the performance, later writing a letter of protest to the orchestra. The Tampa Tribune published their concern, but the disagreement over programming slowly died away. TFO audiences have come a long way since.

I hope to be back among them soon, and relying less on recordings to supplant live performances. Because of the coronavirus, TFO canceled its much-awaited Masterworks program featuring Bach’s Passion According to St. John as well as Vivaldi’s ever-popular The Four Seasons. The orchestra is moving forward with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 to open next season in its ongoing celebration of the 25oth anniversary of the composer’s birth.

No one knows what will happen except that every canceled concert hurts. Ticket sales account for about 40 percent of TFO’s operating costs, so putting the music on hold means financial wounds will take longer to heal. Much depends on the generosity of people who believe an orchestra is vital to our community, and who understand its fragility in a time like today.

But soon, we can only hope, the streets, restaurants and concert halls will bustle again, and the orchestra will find the normal it anxiously awaits.

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