It was in Zurich that Witold Lutosławski’s parents studied and met. His father, Józef Lutosławski, studied at the polytechnic. The huge neoclassicist building of the polytechnic also housed the university’s medical department, where one of the many students from Eastern Europe was Maria Olszewska, from Podolia. They both travelled to lessons on the Polybahn – the only urban funicular railway of its kind in Europe, still running today.
Witold Lutosławski came to Zurich seventy years later, invited to the seventieth birthday celebrations of the conductor Paul Sacher. The collection of musical gifts (prepared for the occasion at the initiative of Mstislav Rostropovich) included his Sacher Variation. That occasion enabled Lutosławski to strike up contact with Sacher, a conductor and musicologist who had come into possession of a huge fortune from the pharmaceutical firmHoffman-LaRoche and for years had supported early and new music as the wealthiest private patron in Europe.
In January 1986, it was in Zurich that Paul Sacher conducted one of the two works that he commissioned from Lutosławski: Chain II. That Dialogue of violin and orchestra, as the composer entitled Chain II, was written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. ‘In 1985, that was a huge shock for me, because I had never previously performed contemporary music – recalled the violinist. – When I received the score from Paul Sacher, it seemed to me like hieroglyphs. The proposition of performing Chain II flattered me, but I was worried whether I would be able to understand that music, to bring something personal to it. Not just play it, but breathe life into it…’
The performance of Chain II at the Tonhalle proved a triumph, and that work launched a friendship between the 72-year-old composer and the 22-year-old star of the violin. Still today, Mutter considers that ‘It was a turning point in my musical development’.
Planned for March 1994 was a Lutosławski Week in Zurich. Alas, the composer did not live to see that project. Neither did he manage to compose a work for the centenary of the New Tonhalle, although he was ready to accept the commission on account of his sentiment for the city in which his parents had spent their youth.