What’s more Halloweenish than the arguably most evil event in human history? Friday night at the World Financial Center, saxophonist Colin Stetson led a twelve-piece jazz orchestra through his inventive, intensely immersive original arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s third Symphony, better known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” The Polish composer dedicated it to victims of the Holocaust and World War II; the 1992 recording by the London Sinfonietta with soprano Dawn Upshaw remains one of the very last classical recordings to sell a million copies worldwide.
Stetson pointedly remarked before the show that he’d remained true Gorecki’s original melodies, beyond extending or sustaining certain climactic passages, “Amplified for these times.” That ominousness rang especially true right from the start. The main themes are a solemn processional and a round of sorts, both of which rose to several mighty crescendos that were far louder than anything Gorecki ever could have imagined.
Spinning his axes – first a rumbling contrabass clarinet, then his signature bass sax and finally an alto – through a pedalboard along with his looming vocalese, Stetson anchored the dense sonic cloud. Bolstering the low end on multi-saxes and clarinets were Matt Bauder (of darkly brilliant, psychedelic surf rockers Hearing Things) and Dan Bennett, along with cellist Rebecca Foon and synth players Justin Walter and Shahzad Ismaily. Violinists Amanda Lo and Caleb Burhans were charged with Gorecki’s most ethereal tonalities, while guitarists Grey Mcmurray and Ryan Ferreira got a serious workout, tirelessly chopping at their strings with endless volleys of tremolo-picking. It’s amazing that everybody got through this without breaking strings.
The addition of Greg Fox on drums resulted in an unexpected, sometimes Shostakovian satirical feel, adding a twisted faux-vaudevillian edge to a section of the second movement. Stetson’s sister Megan ably took charge of the Upshaw role with her dramatic but nuanced arioso vocal stylings. After the smoke had risen and fallen and risen again across the battlefield, the air finally cleared, an apt return to the stillness and meditative quality of the original score, matching the guarded optimism of the ending as much as the group had channeled the grief and muted anguish of the rest of the work. One suspects the composer – who toiled under a repressive Iron Curtain regime for much of his life – would have approved.
You’ll be able to hear this when the performance airs on John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live on WNYC, most likely early in November.