06 November 2013

Krzysztof Penderecki's St. Luke Passion with the Berliner Philharmoniker

Yes, I finally lost my Berlin Philharmonic virginity. It took me a year of living here in Berlin before I actually bought tickets and watched the number three in the list of Top Ten European Orchestras. But since I had a couchsurfer on the last week of September who was very passionate about classical music, I decided to buy a ticket and so we attended a performance of the Berliner Philharmoniker together. We watched a performance of Krzysztof Penderecki's St. Luke Passion.

This was actually the first passion I have ever attended. I am aware that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote two passions, and Arvo Pärt also wrote a passion, but I was not aware of Penderecki's passion until that night. And boy, I was blown away.

This passion was wrote rather recent, in terms of classical music. It was written in the 1960s, when the composer was just in his 30s. It calls for a full orchestra, a boy's choir, a full choir, a soprano, a baritone, a bass, and a narrator. The orchestra is huge, and also calls for a piano and an organ. Perhaps the most striking feature of this performance (and work) for me was that this was the first major symphonic work from the modern period that I have actually attended. Until then, my sampling of modern music was in the form of soloists and ensembles. This was something totally new for me.

First, I really liked how the instruments were used. They never played their instruments in the traditional way. Heck, even the voices were different. The crowd was effectively mimicked by the choir, and it felt like I was really there, in the middle of the city square, witnessing the happenings that occurred in Jesus' life. I also loved the use of semitones and microtones. Most of all, I loved the multi-dimensional way the story was told: there was the narrator taking the role of the Evangelist, the baritone taking the role of Jesus, and other elements that I could only imagine making the performance of this very formidable and technically-challenging.

My couchsurfer was very passionate about this piece, to the point that he had a copy of the score. I have a musical background, but still, this is one difficult piece. I could see the soprano always hitting the small instrument next to her ear to get the correct pitch, as her coloratura passages were definitely very hard to execute. I saw tone clusters, and plenty of other elements that are present in modern music, but definitely was verboten during Bach's time for example.

Overall, I am glad that I was able to see this piece performed. It was a huge performance: the Berliner Philharmoniker, together with the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir, and the Boys Choir of the Frederic Chopin University of Music. If this piece gets performed again in the future, I would definitely consider seeing it again.


  1. I smiled at the opening line. My, you are turning European, "virginity" is not a word mentioned out of context in North America!

    I admire your open-mindedness when it comes to attending performances and exploring the art scene.

    1. Zhu,

      Ha! Well, I should say that I've always preferred the open-minded sensibilities of the folks here in Europe!