BSO's 'Voices Of Loss, Reckoning, And Hope' Festival Concludes With Two Powerful Works

Tuesday March 14, 2023

Julia Wolfe
Julia Wolfe  

Closing the third and final Boston Symphony Orchestra's 'Voices Of Loss, Reckoning, And Hope' Festival is a program that features two works — one an anthemic, late 20th century work that offers solace in troubled times, the second — a BSO co-commission — a tribute to the struggle for women in their ongoing struggle for equal rights, representation, and access to democracy for women in America. The concert is helmed by frequent guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero with soprano soloist Aleksandra Kurzak, soprano and Lorelei Ensemble.

The latter is Julia Wolfe's "Her Story," a work for vocal ensemble and orchestra, which invokes the words of historical figures and the spirit of pivotal moments—from a letter written by Abigail Adams to words attributed to Sojourner Truth, public attacks directed at women protesting for the right to vote, and political satire—to pay tribute to the centuries of ongoing struggle for equal rights, representation, and access to democracy for women in America.

Featuring the Lorelei Ensemble (Beth Willer, Artistic Director), under the direction of frequent guest Giancarlo Guerrero, with stage direction by Anne Kauffman, scenic, lighting, and production design by Jeff Sugg, and costume design by Márion Talán de la Rosa, Her Story is the latest in a series of compositions by Wolfe—who draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock alike—that highlight monumental and turbulent moments in American history and culture, and the people—both real and imagined, celebrated and forgotten—that defined them.

A major co-commissioning project of the Boston, Nashville, Chicago, San Francisco, and National symphony orchestras, "Her Story" was originally scheduled to be performed throughout the country during the 2019-20 season, until it was delayed due to the pandemic.

Giancarlo Guerrero
Giancarlo Guerrero  (Source: Kurt Heineck)

Opening the program is Polish composer Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3," Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," which contemplates the pain of a mother mourning the loss of a son at war and features soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. The performances of Górecki's "Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," also falls under the season theme of musical perspectives on the tragedies of war and conflict.

Comprised of three movements, the work explores loss in three songs Górecki chose when asked to incorporate folk melodies in an orchestral work. "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," wrote the New York Times in a 2017 piece about the work's success.

The work was unusual for the modernistic Górecki, who died in 20zz at the age of 76. Simple, plaintiff, and minimalistic in technique, it was greeted with derision at its premiere in France in 1977. "A prominent musician, rumored to have been Pierre Boulez, apparently shouted "merde," while one critic called it 'decadent trash,'" wrote the Times.

Henryk Górecki
Henryk Górecki  

Nonetheless, it was recorded three times in the 1980s and began to find a following, most notably amongst the LGBTQ+ community who responded to the balm of its simple, evocative music and themes of loss at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

It became an international recording sensation in 1992 when Nonesuch released a recording featuring Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman. Within two years, it sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide; it reached number 6 on the mainstream UK album charts, and while it did not appear on the US Billboard 200, it topped the US classical charts for 38 weeks and stayed on the chart for 138 weeks. The Zinman/Upshaw recording has sold over a million copies, making it probably the best selling contemporary classical record.

The work became coupled with works by John Tavener and Arvo Pärt, as part of a new genre of "holy minimalism," though the three composers shared little in common and the concept was considered something of a marketing gimmick — New Age classical music.

"Gorecki has dismissed the New Age analysis, that the music fits the spiritual needs of this particular time, as an explanation for the success of Symphony No. 3," wrote the New York Times in an interview with the composer in 1994. "He doesn't know what the New Age is, he says. He has said that the work is not about World War II in Poland, although the song in the second movement is taken from an inscription on a wall by a young prisoner of the Nazis. And he insisted it's not a religious work, even though the text of the first movement is a 15th-century Polish monastic lament, known as a Holy Cross Lament, in which the Virgin Mary asks her dying son to share his wounds with her. The third movement is based on a 19th-century Polish folk melody, with a mother mourning the loss of her young soldier son during an uprising in the Silesian region of Poland, where Gorecki was born. In short, the piece dwells on the motives of mother, child and the premonition of death."

The New York Times critic John Rockwell wrote "Mr. Gorecki's 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' consists of nearly an hour of slow music, three lentos in unashamed succession. The orchestra breathes and pulses like a wounded organism, with a woman's voice periodically uttering agonized laments." Rockwell also wrote: "The singing, though crucial, is set into long stretches of purely instrumental texture. The first-movement lament is flanked by the two halves of a huge canon for strings, building from near inaudibility to surging, shining triumph, and then receding. Elsewhere the music recalls not only the mystical Minimalists but also Shostakovich's late, world-weary song-symphonies, Wagner's 'Parsifal' and even the radiant simplicity of Copland's 'Appalachian Spring."'

The concerts take place on Thursday, March 16 at 7:30pm; Friday, March 17 at 1:00pm; and Saturday, March 18 at 8:00pm. For further information, click here.