Times Music Writer

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a strong tradition where the music of Krzysztof Penderecki is concerned. Our orchestra has been performing the Polish composer’s works regularly, and with some authority, since 1968.

Yet it took the Philharmonic 20 years to bring Penderecki’s “St. Luke” Passion--a sacred work of large proportions and enormous musical power--to the West Coast. When that happened, however, Friday night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, neither the piece nor the occasion was stinted.

The 52-year-old composer was imported to conduct this belated premiere of the “Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to St. Luke” (1965). He may have looked shaggy, but he led this performance (which was repeated twice over the weekend) with clarity, a charismatic conviction and unrelenting drive.


Penderecki’s Passion, its Biblical texts more meaningful to some on Good Friday than on any other day of the year, uses 20th-Century musical materials in its traversal of the narrative. It begins in desolation, proceeds to grief, and only at the very end concludes its survey of grim emotions.

As a religious artifact, it is more than touching--though it is that, consistently, through its 74-minute length--it is deeply disturbing.

The use of grating dissonances, quarter-tones, extended vocal techniques for the choir, unorthodox instrumental sounds and even serial procedures, is combined and alternated with Gregorian chant, conventional melodic lines and, ultimately, two dramatically imposed major triads. Penderecki’s musical language is kaleidoscopic but effective, and in no moment unconvincing.

The performance on Friday seemed to realize all the drama inherent in the score. It was dominated, as any performance of this work must be, by the choral contribution. The Los Angeles Master Chorale accepted all technical challenges and sang its collective heart out, sometimes--as at the beginning of Part II--masking the words, at other times--as in the climactic “Stabat mater” in the last quarter-hour of the work--delivering every syllable, and its attendant emotional inflection, clearly. Credited with preparing the chorale for these performances was Dale Warland, who teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

No less authoritative were the solo singers, American soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, Polish baritone Andrzej Hiolski (the original Christ of the 1966 world premiere) and American basso Malcolm Smith, each of whom brought emotional urgency, combined with solid and legitimate tone, to the myriad musical difficulties presented by the composer. Actor Gregory Peck was the alert speaker/Evangelist.

In support of these compelling vocal performances, the Philharmonic players gave the composer-conductor unflagging attention, solid ensemble and the full range of their instrumental resources. An audience well-dotted with composers of many ilks responded to the intermissionless performance loudly and lustily.