Marta Ptaszynska came to the revolution late.
In 1965, the Polish-born composer lugged some of her percussion instruments into a Warsaw concert hall and participated for the first time in Warsaw Autumn--a decade after the annual new-music festival was started by leading radicals such as Witold Lutoslawski. Ptaszynska was 23 then, fresh out of conservatory." A xylophonist since her early teens, she could tap out Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies on command. At the festival, however, she got a heady dose of the French and German new wave. "I played in Boulez's Le marteau sans maitre. I couldn't have asked for more," she says excitedly of the modernist classic that had rallied the Polish avant-garde when it was unveiled ten years earlier.
For much of the first half of the 20th century, music in Poland had been about nationalism, and folk-inspired work was all the rage. Still, despite the anti-German sentiment strongly expressed in that era's poetry, many composers borrowed from the orchestration of Wagner and Richard Strauss. But "no Schoenberg--none of the atonal music from the Second Viennese School," Ptaszynska points out.
The anti-German feelings prevailed through World War II and into the early days of the communist regime. In the late 40s, says Ptaszynska, "composers began to resent the Stalinist ideology....They'd been attracted to Debussy and impressionism, and they now became interested in the rhythms and textures in Boulez and Messiaen. But still no Schoenberg."
Some artists like Andrzej Panufnik chafed under the regimentation and eventually left Poland. Others waited for a thaw in the government's attitude. When the first Warsaw Autumn was mounted to showcase new trends and composers in Europe, says Ptaszynska, the apparatchiks gave their surprisingly quick approval, perhaps mindful of favorable publicity abroad. The festival was a resounding success. "Finally, Schoenberg was approved and showing his influence everywhere," she says.
Under the spell of this style, Ptaszynska wrote pieces mostly for herself to play on the vibraphone, marimba, and piano, and she got commissions from orchestras eager to exploit the percussive sounds. In 1972--just as the ideological pendulum swung yet again in Poland--Ptaszynska moved to Cleveland to further her training. "America had the best percussionists, so I had to come here," she says.
At the same time her composing style began a gradual shift toward pointillistic simplicity. After graduate school, Ptaszynska decided to remain in the U.S. and embarked on an itinerant academic career, winding up at the University of Chicago in 1998.
Ptaszynska says her music has grown "more lyrical, delicate, and expressive" in recent years. She thinks the same of the new current in Poland. "The young ones like Steve Reich and John Adams. Some have reverted to the harmony of 16th-century a cappella masses. Most of them are postminimalist, postconceptual. They seem to be aimless but may be on their way to another avant-garde."
This weekend Ptaszynska and her colleague Philip Bohlman are hosting a conference at the U. of C. called "Poland: Music, Lyric, Nation." Several recitals, film screenings, and panel discussions are scheduled, but the centerpiece is a survey of modern Polish music by the Contemporary Chamber Players. Ptaszynska says it will present important works by three different generations, from the postwar era (Lutoslawski and Tadeusz Baird) to her own (Krzysztof Meyer and herself) to the emerging (Pawel Szymanski). "I hope to show the vitality of a culture that has triumphed over politics," she says.
The concert is at 3 PM this Sunday, April 22, in Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th (773-702-7300); tickets are $15, $8 for students, and include admission to a preconcert discussion hosted by Ptaszynska at 2 PM. For info about other events in the conference, all free of charge, call 773-702-8484.