While still in his 20s, avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki shook up the concert world with eerily beautiful and aggressively dissonant compositions that, in retrospect, seem to connect the anxiety of the era between the world wars to the defiant rage of the 60s. His Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), written for an ensemble of 52 strings, shatters brief interludes of resignation or uneasy prayer with cathartic eruptions of wailing, squealing, and screaming. Sound effects vastly outnumber actual notes as the score asks players to negotiate microtonal glissandi, scrape their bows across their instruments’ tailpieces, and drum on their soundboards–familiar gestures now, but with few precedents in classical music at the time. Even Penderecki’s Saint Luke Passion (1966) and Stabat Mater (1962), extensions of a centuries-old liturgical choral tradition, require the singers to hiss, whistle, and stutter. The sounds he conceived in this period could be downright harrowing–in fact, several of his works from the 60s and early 70s were put to good use on the sound tracks to The Exorcist and The Shining. Born in 1933, Penderecki has been influenced by his contemporaries Stockhausen and Boulez as well as by Schoenberg and Berg. But in the mid- to late 70s he developed an interest in the classics of 19th-century romanticism and began trying to reconcile his fierce idiosyncrasies and grandiloquent impulses, experimenting with more conventional forms and ensembles; he composed a violin concerto for Isaac Stern in 1976 and in ’78 wrote the monumental Paradise Lost for Chicago’s Lyric Opera. A more recent product of his stylistic shift to the right is Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1997). The 70-minute, seven-movement oratorio was commissioned by the city to mark its 3,000th anniversary, but even though it uses Latin and Hebrew Old Testament texts it avoids quoting early Jewish music, instead relying heavily on Renaissance polyphony. Penderecki makes his debut as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in this weekend’s performances of Seven Gates, accompanied by the CSO chorus, and behind the podium he can be as lucid as Boulez. The oratorio’s quintet of vocal soloists, all making their first local appearances, includes sopranos Bozena Harasimowicz-Haas and Izabella Klosinska, alto Jadwiga Rappe, tenor Jorma Silvasti, and bass Romuald Tesarowicz; Chicago cantor Alberto Mizrahi performs the piece’s speaking part. The first half of the program is Schubert’s Symphony no. 5. Thursday, March 16, 8 PM, Friday, March 17, 1:30 PM, and Saturday, March 18, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 200 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Andersen.