The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Jennifer Montone and the Penderecki Horn Concerto

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Courtesy of the Curtis Institute of Music

On Sunday afternoon before the Super Bowl, I made it down to the Kimmel Center to catch the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Robert Spano. The main attraction was the new Concerto for Horn, which premiered two years ago, by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Once an avant-gardist whose dissonances reflected — and in other cases, subverted — the chaos and political brutality of the middle of the 20th Century, Penderecki, now 76, has generally mellowed and returned to more tonal fancies with the arrival of the 21st. The mood of the horn concerto is dark, sometimes tauntingly so, but it reaches for the heroic and even the humorous to keep it from overwhelming the audience. The trajectory of this twenty-minute piece suggests the act of finding one’s way out of a disquieting wood.

The aesthetics of the Penderecki are ultimately less impressive than the demands of the horn part itself. The showmanship of the French horn doesn’t come from swift fingers, but from versatile lips. The art of extracting notes of radically different pitch and shape from the same instrument cannot be appreciated in the visual sense as much as mastery of the piano or the violin. But with Jennifer Montone on hand, it was difficult not to be bowled over by the sheer force and subtle range of the part. Montone, the very talented (and photogenic) Principal Horn for the Philadelphia Orchestra, stands among the superlatives. Her interpretation of the Penderecki brought out the full range of the instrument, and demonstrated its formidable, brassy power while also capturing its lighter and more gracious side. Through her performance, and the student orchestra’s reliable accompaniment, one can readily appreciate the influence of the great horn composers (especially R. Strauss and Mahler) on this otherwise contemporary composition. The optimist can take it as a sign that, despite the obituaries for classical music that regularly pop up, there can still be a dialogue with the past to produce something alive and fresh for newer audiences.

There may not be many concertos in the horn repertoire, but as long as there are virtuosos like Jennifer Montone there will be composers to keep writing them.


Written by cwmote

February 12, 2010 at 7:09 pm

One Response

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  1. Thank you for this post. I had not heard much about Penderecki’s output lately, and had not realized he had moved away from the avant garde. I’ll need to check out some of his recent offerings. In my book it’s still hard to beat Threnody though…

    American Composer Ralph Kendrick

    Ralph Kendrick

    January 25, 2011 at 12:39 pm

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