At about 4 this afternoon, the audience rose in Symphony Hall here and stood silently for several minutes. The vivid, brilliant "Lacrimosa" movement of Krzysztof Penderecki's "Polish Requiem" was what brought the audience to its feet in a gesture echoed at the end of the concert by a 10-minute standing ovation.
The "Lacrimosa" section opens with an intense, deeply emotional soprano solo, soaring above orchestral music that has the flavor of a funeral march. Anger, sorrow and terror are mingled in the music and in the Latin words, describing "That tearful day when sinful man shall rise from the ashes to face judgment."
But the words and music were not the main reason for standing -- a gesture audiences usually reserve for the "Star-Spangled Banner" and Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus. The "Lacrimosa," the first part of the requiem composed by Penderecki, was commissioned by the Polish union Solidarity in memory of the dockworkers massacred in Gdansk in 1970. Now this music is treated as a sort of Solidarity anthem -- music that cannot be heard sitting down. Although this was the first Boston performance of the Polish Requiem, the audience clearly knew the meaning of the music. Symphony Hall was packed and many in the audience were wearing Solidarity buttons.
A substantial part of the applause was lavished on the Choral Arts Society of Washington, which performed with the Kracow Philharmonic and composer Penderecki conducting. This chorus performed the music's American premiere last year with Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony. It has now refined even further the powerful interpretation it gave on that occasion. It sang superbly from the opening words, "Requiem aeternam," which were floated out gently and clear as a bell by the women's voices, to the shattering final chorus, which does not petition but imperiously demands an end to death and suffering.
It was at its best, perhaps, in the gentle, unaccompanied "Agnus Dei" movement, composed in memory of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, who was for a generation the leader of the Polish resistance. But it was splendidly dramatic, matching the impressive fireworks in the orchestra, in the "Dies Irae," which commemorates the 1944 uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto.
The Kracow Philharmonic is an excellent orchestra, deeply versed in Penderecki's music and accustomed to his unorthodox conducting style, which includes holding the baton in his left hand. Compared with the first American performance, the composer's interpretation places a bit more emphasis on musical values, a little less on such dramatic elements as contrasts of tempo and dynamics, vigor of attacks and accents.
Of the four soloists, the most consistently impressive were bass-baritone Malcolm Smith and alto Jadwiga Rappe. Soprano Mariana Nicolesco was often vocally thrilling but lacked the focused, thoughtful interpretation given in Washington by Phyllis Bryn-Julson. Tenor Henryk Grychnik sang beautifully at times, particularly near the end, but his voice was often lost in the orchestral sound.