Composers / Witold Lutosławski / Routes


Trasa Conductor

Witold Lutosławski first appeared in the role of conductor with a choir of his classmates from the Batory Gymnasium school. He acquired the basics of the art of conducting a couple of years later, at the Conservatory, where all composition students were obliged to learn conducting for one semester with Walerian Bierdayew. So when he came to stand before an orchestra playing his music for a film, in 1935, he was not really a novice. After the war, he conducted recordings of his incidental music for films and plays on a couple of occasions, but he mostly conducted the radio ensembles for which he wrote music for radio plays and children’s songs. In 1953, the first record was released on which he conducted two such songs for voice and chamber orchestra; oddly enough, that recording was released in New York, during the frostiest period of the cold war between East and West.

At the beginning of the fifties, he was thinking seriously enough about conducting to record Haydn’s ‘Oxford’ Symphony and his own Symphonic Variations with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was not until a decade later, however, that he stood on the rostrum with an orchestra in front of him and an audience behind. That occurred for the first time in May 1963, during the Zagreb Biennale, when the fifty-year-old composer participated in a performance of Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux. From then on, he conducted increasingly often, and an invitation to a festival at the Hopkins Center in the American town of Hanover, in 1966, motivated him to learn his older compositions.

Initially, he conducted single works. With time, he decided to appear in half a concert. In January 1983, that is how his birthday concert at the New York Philharmonic was divided: first Lutosławski conducted Novelette and the Cello Concerto, then after the intermission the host conductor, Zubin Mehta, led the seventy-year-old composer’s Concerto for Orchestra.

As his repertoire grew, Lutosławski most readily conducted whole concerts; on average, there were between ten and twenty a year. He always conducted his own music, the exception being the British national anthem, which he conducted during one of his concerts in London. ‘I prefer to appear in concerts confined to my own works than to share a concert with another conductor leading a traditional programme – he said in the autumn of 1993. – I know that a considerable proportion of the audience comes to hear their favourite Schubert symphony and would only be waiting for it during my part of the programme. By contrast, when a programme is filled solely by my works, I can be sure that those who have come have done so in order to listen to my music. On such occasions, the atmosphere in the concert hall is particularly conducive to a good performance’.

He conducted the most renowned orchestras in Europe, America and Australia, but he also willingly stood before student ensembles, in which he was recompensed for the lack of technical experience by the young musicians’ exceptional enthusiasm. Over the course of thirty years, he appeared in 116 cities. His shortest journeys abroad were to Prague and Berlin (both cities are less than 520 km from Warsaw), and the longest was to Sydney, 15,616 km away.

He was asked many times about the influence of his conducting experience on his composition work. He would emphasise that it inspired his sonic imagination and developed his sense of responsibility for a work, with regard to both the orchestra – be it only in respect to forcing him to make a precise and practical notation – and the audience. ‘Those experiences are simply invaluable, because only when conducting can one get to know one’s own work well – he assured his interlocutor. – I consider that progress in composing involves avoiding that which irritated in previous works and developing that which is worth it. And that is possible precisely when one has to not only precisely study one’s own scores, but also when performing them, bringing them to life. Besides that, when conducting, I am increasingly well aware of what is easy or difficult to play. It is important to me that all the orchestral parts in my scores be playable, that there not be any unnecessary difficulties, because that is invariably injurious to a work’.