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FMF 2017: Abel Korzeniowski returns home to Krakow

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Think of Abel Korzeniowski’s music and you think of elegance, formality and darkness. His music is a juxtaposition. It sits in that void between beauty and sadness. His singular and recognisable style is perhaps described best as beautiful sadness. It can feel regal and classical, yet has a timeless quality that can cross many borders. Therefore it is unique.

In terms of a career, Korzeniowski’s is relatively new. Though he has been working for many years, and playing and composing for decades; if compared to the big picture, one may assume he has just arrived on the scene. But the difference is that although many are just being introduced to his music, it feels like he has always been around. Such is the quality of the music he is writing.

Considering my above point, it may be confusing to have an almost ‘career retrospective’ so soon into a career. But this was a clear advantage for the concert which happened to be the opening concert of this year’s 10th Krakow Film Music Festival. It was surprisingly refreshing to go into such depth of exploration of a composer’s music. Most concerts that celebrate the work of a composer, jump from subject to subject rather quickly to include as many of the fan favourites as possible. They rarely fully satisfy a serious fan of the composer’s work because there will always be that moment when they say, ‘I wish they would have played this or that.’ With Korzeniowski’s concert, that was far less likely to happen. He had a focus to his choices. And he framed them well with entire sections of the concert dedicated to a single subject.

Click to see full image (c) Robert Słuszniak

As the concert was about to begin, the man himself walked onto the stage to join the musicians for the evening; the Beethoven Academy Orchestra. He then took his place on the conductor’s podium. It is always special when the composer themselves conduct their own music in concert. It feels like they are personally showcasing their art to the audience. They are exposing their creativity in the rawest manner.

The majority of the first half was a journey through his music for the television series ‘Penny Dreadful.’ Like the series itself, the music is dark. It is deeply emotional as well as scary. He portrayed that well through the pieces he chose. He went from the main theme to his glorious waltzes and rich, textural themes ranging from the delicate to the terrifying. And from fast, complex pieces with a driving force behind them, to slow, floating pieces that filled the concert hall with serenity.

An evening full of strings and melodies

With Cello being the instrument of choice for a young Korzeniowski, he feels strongest with it now in his composing. Strings are his weapon of choice. He favours them when writing because he says they are the building blocks of melody. He values themes, which is something that is slowly being dismissed in the world of today. ‘Penny Dreadful’ almost has a new melody in every piece. The strings take the lead, and the rest of the instrument groups follow. He doesn’t relegate them to supporting roles though. He finds time and gives respect to all other sections of the orchestra. And as the audience sat and watched the string players sway back and forth, plucking and sweeping their instruments with great care, the woodwinds came in, as did the piano, and they stayed with the strings for a while, adding layers to ultimately create his beautiful sadness. You find yourself falling into a relaxed state of melancholy with every note.

Click to see full image (c) Robert Słuszniak

As the concert continued, he delivered his signature style to the other material shown, such as ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ a personal favourite of mine and of Korzeniowski himself. In this area of the concert, the pianist took a more foreground position. He took the lead with the strings following, normally in an ostinato to compliment the piano and its high, fragile notes, perfectly mirroring the forbidden romance itself. Sometimes the strings would swell so powerfully that the soft piano was overwhelmed as the love between the title characters blossomed. These moments really showed how smart he is in his orchestration. His abilities as a storyteller came across wonderfully as he matched his strings and piano specifically to the images and footage on the screen behind the orchestra.

Perhaps the most well-known piece he has written is ‘Stillness of the Mind,’ from Tom Ford’s film ‘A Single Man.’ The film is the definition of tragic nostalgia. It breathes heavily. The music is no different. His string writing is poignant. It mourns for happiness. This piece shone in the concert hall and put everyone into a thoughtful state. If any music was to be played to introduce someone to the work of Abel Korzeniowski, ‘Stillness of the Mind’ would be that music.

Click to see full image (c) Robert Słuszniak

With any concert that the composer themselves have put together, there is a good possibility that new music will be performed. Music that has never been performed anywhere before. In this case it was another of Tom Ford’s films ‘Nocturnal Animals.’ One of the pieces that was played; ‘Off the Road,’ was a relentless repeating motif on strings. The clip that accompanied the piece was shown on the screen, and you could feel the tension as it built. The scene wasn’t particularly tense upon first look. Several cars were driving in pitch darkness with their headlights as the singular focus of the camera, yet with Korzeniowski’s music, the clip gained urgency and power, and tension was achieved.

From the long-gone King Edward to the future James Bond?

The use of his marriage between strings and piano gave us one more section of the concert. The performance of his music from Madonna’s ‘W.E;’ The story of the romance between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, and the King’s subsequent abdication. The piano ran up and down like the notes were riding a wave, with the strings taking half the melody and giving it a fixed point to be shaped around. It was a perfect way to flow into the finale from the rather obscure film ‘Escape from Tomorrow.’ Here he gives us a whole new flavour. It comes in the style of triumphant declaration. Brass and percussion join his repertoire more than ever before, as he attempts to blow the roof off the concert hall. Lush orchestration fills the hall for the piece, with strings that couldn’t sweep more if they were on a pendulum. The theme soared into the spaces of the room, reminding one of a James Bond score and its gorgeous use to unveil a new location for 007. His score and this performance proved how right he would be for composing a James Bond score in the future.

When the concert came to its natural conclusion, Korzeniowski took his bow and the emotion was evident on his face as the audience stood to congratulate their hometown boy. He was in as much shock as he was in appreciation of being able to perform an entire concert of his works to his home of Krakow. He left the stage and returned a few times as is tradition, and each time he was more humbled. The reception for his music was lovely to see and was a highlight of the festival overall. It was clear that the acceptance he garnered that evening meant a lot to him, and in the end was a welcome and cathartic experience.

Below you can get an impression of the concert “The Music of Abel Korzeniowski” at the 10th Krakow Film Music Festival:

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Film and Television Score enthusiast. Podcast Host at Bombad Radio. World traveller.

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