Listen @ This, Part 1: Lutoslawski Third Symphony

For a while now, I have wanted to produce a series of podcasts with my friend Alex Freeman called Listen @ This (TM). Essentially, this would be a place where you, adrift on a sea of auditory flotsam, would come to find your bearings. Alex and I would play some music and tell you why we think it’s awesome. But because Alex and I have this job and this job, respectively, plus I have two of these, and because we both do some of this (which both is and is not the same thing as this), we simply have not had the time to put it all together. (In fact, the above paragraph just took me an hour, since I was simultaneously overseeing the creation of this work of art, and it’s still only 6:45AM!)

But hey, enough of my yackin’. It’s time to take matters into my own hands. Therefore, I am presenting you with the first work on what I hope will serve as a guide to exploring a corner of the literature you might not otherwise encounter––the kind of work that isn’t going to get programmed a whole lot on most subscription series, but probably should.


You can read all about it here, so I will dispense with the background. But there are a couple of cool things worth pointing out:

1) It was composed over a ten- to eleven-year period (depending on where you choose to get your info.), which officially makes this work the “slow food” of orchestral repertory. I like this. I like this because I consider myself the “slow food” version of composers under 40, and knowing that this work was a decade in the making makes me feel better about myself.

2) It was the first recipient of the Grawmeyer Award, which is kind of cool because it consists of a cash prize of $150,000.00 $200,000.00 $100,000.00, thereby setting a nearly impossible benchmark for future award seekers.

There are several recordings out there. Initially, it was the B-side of a CSO disc, coupled with the Concerto for Orchestra. I bought this CD in high school, and used to hit stop before the symphony really got going. That was a mistake. It took several years of maturing and the guidance of one Samuel Adler to reveal the work’s charms to me. (It was presented to us in an Advanced Orchestration class when I was a grad student at Juilliard.) It has been said before, no doubt better than I am about to say it now, but this music has a way of fooling you. There are some immediately appealing sounds, such as the four-note blast of brassy Es (which I totally ripped off alluded to in my band piece), followed by a tangle of wind-and-horn bugle calls. But it also contains some very long stretches of sound that can make the listener weary, such as the various moments of extended clarinet-bassoon noodling.

And yet, something about this music gets under the skin. It doesn’t happen overnight––I’m convinced it requires repeated hearings. But, if you hang in there for the long haul, you’ll be rewarded by the tumultuous climax that crowns this work. Few pieces of music leave me as emotionally drained as this (in the best possible sense). And while the highpoint of the music represents, to me, the crumbling of one’s entire emotional edifice, it is eventually rebuilt in the Mahlerian luster of the closing minutes: all horns, harps, and Viennese inniger Empfindung.

So, dim the lights, open a bottle of something halfway decent, and give this work a listen or five. And let me know what you think!

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