Danuta and Witold Lutosławski made their first journey to the United States aboard the MS Batory. They sailed in 1962. After a two-week voyage, their first impression from the New World was the famous sunrise over New York, admired from the bay. They returned to New York following a stay in Tanglewood and a month-long ‘goodwill tour’. On that occasion, they had the chance to visit Milton Babbitt’s electronic studio and meet the 79-year-old Edgard Varèse.
The person of Lutosławski was preceded in this city by his music. In a series of New Year concerts around the turn of 1961, Stanisław Skrowaczewski led a performance of the Concerto for Orchestra at the New York Philharmonic. The same work was played by that orchestra a couple more times during Lutosławski’s lifetime, and the reviews show what a variety of reactions it drew. Seiji Ozawa’s interpretation in 1971 induced the critic of Hi Fidelity to write that the Concerto ‘was spectacular, in the spirit of Hollywood’. Twelve years later, the critic of the New York Times heard in the same work, but under the baton of Zubin Mehta, ‘shrieks of pain and horror’. Mehta was conducting in the programme of a Lutosławski birthday concert, at the start of January 1983. The almost 70-year-old composer was also there, conducting the Cello Concerto and Novelette before the interval. That was only the second monographic concert of a living composer in the history of that philharmonic society; the previous one, in February 1971, had honoured Karlheinz Stockhausen.
During Lutosławski’s lifetime, his music appeared a couple more times on the programmes of the New York Philharmonic, selected by such conductors as George Solti and Daniel Barenboim, whilst Zubin Mehta twice conducted his solo concertos. After a performance of the Piano Concerto with Krystian Zimerman (1988), Lutosławski was compared to Rachmaninov – one of the composers he appreciated the least. He could have consoled himself with the press’s reaction to Chain II,played by Anne-Sophie Mutter (1990), when the reviewer for the New York Times heard in that work ‘sensual refinement unheard of since the times of Ravel’.
The year 1988 abounded in New York performances of Lutosławski’s music, and not just the above-mentioned Piano Concerto. As part of the 1st International Festival of the Arts, three orchestral works were performed by three different ensembles. On 2 December, meanwhile, the first performance was given of Slides, written as a birthday present for the 80-year-old Elliott Carter.
The Alfred Jurzykowski Prize
Alfred Jurzykowski (1899–1966) was a Polish industrialist who in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz founded a car factory in Brazil. In 1963, he funded a prize that was intended to honour outstanding scholars, writers and artists of Polish origins – regardless of their place of residence or citizenship. The group of prize-winners in 1966 included Lutosławski, Kazimiera Iłłakowicz, Zbigniew Brzeziński and two emigrants who were the subject of efforts back home to efface their memory: Witold Gombrowicz and Andrzej Panufnik. Lutosławski was able to accept the prize in person, as he happened to be in the United States at the time, invited to the Hanover Arts Festival in Kentucky. An additional pleasure for the composer was a performance of his Concerto for Orchestra by the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Giving an interview on that occasion to a journalist with the New York Times, Lutosławski anticipated a likely question with a political subtext by saying: ‘I hope you don’t mean to ask me if I am “free”. Western journalists are always doing that. And well I’m here, aren’t I?’