Maria Pomianowska Brings Moody Medieval Polish Themes and Instruments Into the 21st Century at Lincoln Center

by delarue

Early in her set last night at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse, Maria Pomianowska held up her handmade fiddle, called a suka in her native Poland. “It doesn’t translate well,” she grinned. Since the 1990s, when she singlehandedly rescued this once-ubiquitous folk instrument from obscurity – basing her initial design on a rare depiction in an 18th century painting – it’s enjoyed a resurgence. Its rich, starkly resonant sound explains why.

Pomianowska took care to remind that her goal isn’t merely to lead a period-instrument ensemble playing ancient repertoire: she wants to take the instrument into the here and now. What stood out most in her quartet’s performance was how hard this band jams. That made sense in context: watching her stretch the limits of her alternately stately and joyous compositions, along with several medieval themes, evoked images of rolling hills, windswept fields and circles of line dancers being pushed further toward ecstasy.

Pomianowska played a five-string Biłgoraj suka – named for the city in northeastern Poland where it originated – for most of the show. With a body carved from a single block of wood, its range is similar to a viola, but with a low string that Pomianowska employed to anchor the melodies, or for a drone effect. That was bolstered on the low end by Iwona Rapacz, who switched between elegantly plucked basslines and austere washes on her four-string bass suka.

Playing the regular proto-violin suka, Aleksandra Kauf often doubled Pomianowska’s lines as well as her poignantly rustic, ambered high harmonies on the vocal numbers. Some of this was akin to Bulgarian folk music, but stripped to its brooding minor-key essentials. Percussionist Patrycja Napierała provided an often Middle Eastern-tinged groove on daf frame drum, at other times using her brushes on a similarly boomy hand drum for a spot-on impersonation of a tabla. That final ingredient proved to be one of the main keys to Pomianowska’s cross-cultural, cross-centuries style.

The group began austerely and carefully in the fourteenth century, moved forward more kinetically to the sixteenth and then took a leap into this one. While Pomianowska took the lead on the folk jams – a handful of dances and a hypnotic dirge – the rest of the band contributed subtly, and not so subtly when Kauf suddenly took one of the slower numbers warpspeed. Pomianowska’s own pieces were, predictably, the most cinematically shapeshifting, from a slowly mutating Nordic fjord tableau, to a couple of jauntily circling interludes with a Celtic-tinged flair, to a suspensefully crescendoing nocturne based on an Indian raga that proved to be the night’s most rapturous work. The group’s response to a rousing ovation was an encore that went straight to pastoral Chopin plaintiveness.

The most auspicious of all the upcoming Lincoln Center Festival shows is this Saturday night, July 29 at 8 at John Jay College’s Lynch Theatre, 524 W 59th St., where haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. $30 tix are still available.

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