Saturday 4 December 2021

We give a nod to contemporary music but don't relish it: conductor Zvonimir Hačko aims to change that with the founding of the International Centre for Contemporary Music

Zvonimir Hačko in rehearsal
Zvonimir Hačko in rehearsal

The newly founded International Centre for Contemporary Music (ICCM) is an ambitious multi-faceted organisation devoted to the performance, production, and promotion of contemporary music. ICCM was founded by Croatian/American conductor Zvonimir Hačko, who is now its Artistic Director & Music Director. ICCM projects already underway include plans to record all of Krzysztof Penderecki’s symphonies with the Philharmonia, a mini-series of three concerts (with the Philharmonia, London Sinfonietta and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra) entitled Leaning East, Music of Eastern Europe including two world premieres of ICCM commissions (by Wojciech Błażejczyk and Paweł Mykietyn) and three UK premieres. Zvonimir was recently in London to record music by Clarice Assad, Sofia Gubaidulina and Anna Clyne, and I took advantage of this to chat to him about ICCM and its plans.

Krzysztof Penderecki in Gdańsk, 2008 (Photo Adam Kumiszcza)
Krzysztof Penderecki in Gdańsk, 2008
ICCM will be recording all of his symphonies
(Photo Adam Kumiszcza)
Traditionally organisations such as orchestras commission music and then perform it, but Zvonimir's ambitions for ICCM are far greater than this, though he understands that to become a real centre for contemporary music they must operate in several different departments which need to be synchronised. So in addition to simply performing the music, ICCM wants to be concerned with the composers' experience, the audience's experience and young people's experience. Zvonimir feels that it is important for ICCM to 'have the whole pie', and rather than launching everything at once, they will be working over several years in a phased way.

Inevitably, there will be overlap with other organisations promoting contemporary music, but Zvonimir regards this as a good thing and he uses the metaphor of it being an advantage to open a restaurant in an area where there are other restaurants. And having other organisations means that ICCM can collaborate with others with a similar goal. The distinctive aim of ICCM though is to be comprehensive regarding its treatment of contemporary music, and exclusive, in that it only treats contemporary music and music from the very recent past. They will be dedicating their efforts just to the music of the last 70 years.

This means that ICCM will not just be promoting contemporary works but those of the more recent past that are becoming part of the canon, so they are planning performances of music by Witold Lutoslawski and Penderecki combined with other contemporary works. Zvonimir wants ICCM to promote works that are of significant, ground-breaking and seminal, older works that are of enduring quality with the intention of creating new great works that need to be heard.

The inaugural concerts next year take the theme of Leaning East, with performances of music from Eastern Europe, there are UK premieres alongside music by Lutoslawski that is part of the canon yet not heard very often (Symphony No. 3 and Concerto for Orchestra). Music that Zvonimir sees as of high calibre and representative of our times. With his programming, Zvonimir tries to create a mixture of types of work, from new music to pieces that are emerging as important works, and everything in between.

In May 2022, there will be a performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Fachwerk for bayan, percussion and strings; this is one of the great works of our time, written in 2009 it has already received 20 to 30 performances yet has only been performed once in London. Similarly Peteris Vasks' Vēstijums (Message) which is being performed in March 2022 is a fabulous work from 1982 yet it has not been performed in the UK. When selecting music for performance, Zvonimir looks at what the composer is trying to say and how to represent their art most authentically.

The fundamental aim of the project from the very beginning was to aim not to be selling ice to Eskimos. Many orchestras perform contemporary music, paying homage to new music by mixing it in programmes of older pieces. This is the reason ICCM will be keeping to its speciality and only performing music from the last 70 years. Zvonimir is concerned that there is a whole area of music belonging to our own time that we give a nod to but don't relish it, and he wants to change that. And he points out that the past was different, in earlier eras contemporary music was relished, but we have veered away from that and concentrated on celebrating antiques. He admits that much of the music of the past is incredible, but in the visual arts we celebrate both old and new, there is room for both the National Gallery and the Tate.

Zvonomir is aware that concert programming needs variety, and he is at pains to include a mix of tonal and listenable music, futuristic music and dissonant music. Different seasons will focus on different national schools, to give the audience a wider exposure to music from one area of the world. And again, Zvonimir uses a culinary metaphor, commenting that a country's cuisine can vary significantly as you travel, and thus they want to give audiences a real taste of the variety of music from a particular area of the world. But each season will only have around 70% of the works according to the national or regional scheme, there will be other music as well so that Leaning East includes a new work by French composer Thierry Escaich. Whilst the planned Penderecki retrospective will include other music as well. For Spring 2023, the focus will be on music from the Americas, whilst British composers will feature in the 2023/24 season. Zvonimir admits that he chose this approach partly because, whilst doing the planning for the seasons Penderecki died and this led Zvonimir to look in greater depth at Polish music. 

They are planning to record all of Penderecki's symphonies, with the support both of the composer's widow and his publisher, Schotts. This will be the first time that all eight of the symphonies have been recorded because the two previous cycles (conducted by Antoni Wit, and by the composer) omitted the sixth symphony which, despite its number, was completed after the composer's eighth symphony. Zvonimir describes Penderecki’s Symphony No. 6 as very Mahlerian. In tandem with the recording project, there will be performances of some of the symphonies and other works including Seven Gates of Jerusalem, which needs huge forces, the Violin Concerto, and Cosmogonia, which Zvonimir describes as hair-raising and incredible, though it is not well known.

They understand that the project is something of an experiment, and Zvonimir says that the answer to the question will be known in four or five years. It remains to be seen how heavy a lift it will be to bring audiences into the concerts. It won't just be concerts, however, there will also be opportunities for the audience to engage with the composers. And they will be patient; Zvonimir sees ICCM as being on a quest, breaking new ground. He has a conviction that this is a project that needs to be done, without a doubt, and they will build an audience over time.

What has been most gratifying is the support that ICCM has received from sister institutions, and the planned projects have only been possible thanks to the enthusiasm of other organisations. After all, most of the music that is planned is not the sort to be performed by a pick-up orchestra and having the support of performing ensembles has made things possible.

As a young man aged 19, he came to the UK to study English and the arts. He would buy cheap seats for concerts and it was a superb exposure to classical music, both wonderful old music and contemporary music. And he wants to funnel these experiences into something tangible, the ICCM.

Leaning East Festival

Zvonimir Hačko
Zvonimir Hačko
Music of Eastern Europe
Sunday 13 March, 19.00
Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music
Thierry Escaich, organ
Zvonimir Hačko, conductor
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Pēteris Vasks: Vēstijums (Message) (1982) for strings, two pianos and percussion [UK premiere]
Thierry Escaich: Organ Concerto No 1 (1995) [UK premiere]
Witold Lutosławski: Symphony No 3 (1983)

New Polish Music
Wednesday 27 April, 19.00
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
Wojciech Błażejczyk, electric guitar
Jessica Cottis, conductor
London Sinfonietta

Krzysztof Penderecki: Sinfonietta per archi (1992)
Wojciech Błażejczyk: Concerto for Electric Guitar & Orchestra (2020) [World premiere/ICCM commission]
Paweł Mykietyn: Prank for chamber orchestra (2021) [World premiere/ICCM commission]

Celebrating Sofia Gubaidulina
Sunday 22 May, 19.00
Cadogan Hall
Geir Draugsvoll, bayan
Zvonimir Hačko, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra

Isidora Žebeljan: The Horses of St. Mark’s (2004) [UK premiere]
Sofia Gubaidulina: Fachwerk for bayan, percussion and strings (2009)
Witold Lutosławsk: Concerto for Orchestra (1954)

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