A pulsing taste of culture in the Krakow mode unfolds in early April, when the Unsound Festival arrives again. Unsound’s venturesome concerts, installations and club events scored a startling success last year, lighting up New York audiences from Lincoln Center to late-night dance bashes at Public Assembly in Williamsburg. The festival’s amplified 2011 version will provide a further glimpse of its home city’s array of cultural festivals. For opening night, April 6, Unsound teams with Sacrum Profanum, another important, comparably young Krakow fest (in mid-September, Sacrum Profanum features minimalism in the U.S. mode). That program, at Alice Tully Hall, will be performed by Sinfonietta Cracovia, a crack ensemble that will intensely underscore the Unsound buzz.
A new piece for orchestra and electronics by Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason, “We Don’t Need Other Worlds, We Need Mirrors, Music for Solaris,” is based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, the Krakovian writer of philosophical sci-fi. Brian Eno and Nick Robertson projections come from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of Lem’s masterwork. Sinfonietta also plays music of Krzysztof Penderecki—another prime figure in Krakovian culture, he conducted a career survey at Carnegie Hall last spring including influential 1960s works—and of Steve Reich. Pay heed to this chamber orchestra. In Warsaw’s National Philharmonic Hall last March, Sinfonietta was part of the Beethoven Easter festival, which Elzbieta Penderecka, the composer’s spouse, has directed impressively for 15 years. Chopin’s two piano concertos were on that program, with Louis Lortie conducting from the bench, and to say Sinfonietta’s contemporary interests are steeped in steely tradition would be to say the least. The Larghetto movement of Concerto No. 2 suspended exquisitely, feathered about piano passages that are among Chopin’s most moving.
On the phone, director Mat Schulz spoke of the Unsound’s origins, when he organized a concert in 2002 for his musician brother in Krakow, where Schulz was living as a writer and teaching English. “The first four or five editions were very much an underground event,” Schulz said, “with locations mostly in underground cellars in Krakow. Four years ago, the city council started to get involved, with their festival office, and the Mickiewicz Institute [of the Polish Ministry of Culture] has become very supportive.” Unsound’s international activity is fundamental to the model—“a very mobile concept,” Schulz called it—with events in Prague, Bratislava, Kiev and Lviv in Ukraine, and Minsk in Belarus. “One main reasons we exist,” Schulz said, “is to create connections between countries and artists, and curators in different places.”
The air of delighted surprise had been rich last year when Unsound debuted here, and was amply reflected in mainstream media coverage. This year, plans have grown, as has support. “We’re working again with the Goethe Institute and the Polish Cultural Institute to present the festival,” Schulz said, with opening night organized with the Krakow Festival Office and the Mickiewicz Institute. “We weren’t prepared for how completely positive the response was last year, so when it happened everyone involved wanted to do it a second time.” Maintaining the Polish element while displaying international range was important. “Bringing Sinfonietta Cracovia seemed a good way to do that,” Schulz said, “and also to put them in a festival where it might not be expected.” Another angle is providing the taste of Sacrum Profanum’s progressive programming, “to highlight the fact the Krakow is a very interesting place in terms of these festivals occurring.”
Krakow had another New York pinnacle at the 92nd Street Y on March 21 with the opening of the Year of Milsoz. The poet Czeslaw Milosz broke with Poland’s new communist regime in 1951, publishing the anti-totalitarian tract The Captive Mind in 1953, a time when Western intellectuals espoused a Marxism they’d little experience of. Milosz taught for years at Berkeley, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1980, then returned to Krakow in his late years, to a newly independent nation (where people readily profess their favorite poets). At the 92Y, three of his translators and friends read his work and reflected on his achievement, including Clare Cavanagh, who’d received the National Book Award for criticism the week before.
A stone’s throw from the Vistula River is the cathedral crypt where Milosz was interred in 2004, alongside Polish luminaries including the composer Karol Szymanowski. His final residence is a walk away near the Planty, central Krakow’s ring park of promenades and chestnuts, developed after the occupying Austrians destroyed city walls in the 19th century. On the opposite side of the Old Town, in Krowodrza, lives another poet, Wislawa Szymborska, the 1996 Nobel laureate whose column in Zyci Literacki bears the enticing title “Noncompulsory Reading.” Between these points lie a myriad of marvels in a city Milosz described as “a painted egg / Just taken from a pot of dye on Easter.” (A friend, the author Juan Flores, told me of visiting the Hungarian literary critic Gyorgy Lukacs in the late 1960s, who said that among central Europe’s cities, Krakow was the gem.)
An immense favorite among these marvels is the balconied courtyard of the Jagiellonian University, where Nikolai Kopernik, or Copernicus, studied from 1492; a half century later, his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres recalculated church doctrines about who was orbiting what. A small mechanical globe from around 1510 gleams from a massive safe in the Jagiellonian collections, and locates the new continent, America noviter reperta, in the wrong spot. Around several corners, beneath the renovated Cloth Hall in the Rynek, the enormous central market place, is the subterranean archeological museum that opened in autumn, exposing a thousand vertical years of Krakow’s history. About a year before the museum was finished, down in the naked work site, Cezary Bosku, the lead archeologist, had shown me about; we’d then sat in his field office, swilling vodka and handling artifacts now in extensive vitrine displays: toe bones used as playing dice, six-hundred year old leather shoes. Arriving to see the new museum in December, while attending the Divine Comedy International Theater Fesitval, I felt impossibly high expectations that were then utterly trumped. Sections of “cat head” cobble roads lined with timber water channels; the carbon level where a Tatar invasion torched the town in the 13th century; ingenious curatorial practice, alive with screened reenactments and engaging touch-screen displays; visitors of all ages enjoying the legend of King Krak defeating the local dragon at a “theater machine,” which I viewed with its creator, Avishai Hadari, an Israeli director who’s made Krakow his home, and who had the legendary actor Jerzy Trela voice the mechanical raven telling the tale.
Krakow is warrened with lively cellar spaces. One charming nightclub maze, Lodz Kaliska, branches under barrel-vault ceilings just beyond the Rynek, while raucous beer dens draw weekend crowds and soused Brits. The bar-cabaret Pod Baranami, at one Rynek corner, is a storied site. There, in December, a group enjoying late vodkas included Ruthi Osterman, a young theater director from Tel Aviv, just back from the city of Lodz where she’s developing a site-specific project about her grandmother in the huge, wartime Lodz Ghetto. Krakow, unlike Polish centers including Warsaw and Wroclaw, survived brutal German occupation during the Second World War without being bombed to rubble.
The permanent exhibition at Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory opened last year as a branch of the Historical Museum of Krakow, and intricately documents those occupation years. Located across the Postancow Slaskich Bridge from the former Jewish district of Kazimierz, the intensive curating is painstaking and revealing. In a metal chamber in Schindler’s office, the names of some 1,100 Jews who survived as his workers bear witness. Somber galleries recall the Krakow Ghetto; another covers the Plaszow work camp, established atop ancient Jewish cemeteries and commanded by Amon Goeth, an infamous figure during years in which Germans killed nearly as many Polish Catholics as they did Polish Jews. Chipped metal signs for Adolf Hitler Platz had replaced those around the Rynek. The organization of the Polish Underground State shows hierarchies with which Poles endured the occupation, from secret schooling to clandestine theater by directors including Tadeusz Kantor. A plaque discusses Karol Wojtyla, who’d become Bishop of Krakow then soon-to-be St. Pope John Paul II and who had labored in the Zakrzowek quarry.
As forsythias blossomed last spring, at a business hotel down the Vistula, the window views were to Wawel Castle, on bluffs above the Vistula. The royal site in Poland for centuries, Wawel’s magnificence infuses Hamlet’s late line, when Fortinbras returns “from the Polack wars.” While attending the Misteria Pascalia baroque music festival, I’d stepped into St. Mary’s Cathedral during Easter mass. Days later, the presidential couple and some ninety Polish elites died in the jetliner crash at Smolensk, Russia, en route to a ceremony for Polish officers executed at Katyn in 1940. Poland was stunned, the world mourned in solidarity, then in short order President Kaczynski’s twin and the archbishop of Krakow elected—rather controversially—to inter the couple among royalty and national heroes in Wawel Cathedral’s crypt.
On another visit, I gained a less jaded vision of the future after interviewing the composer Krzysztof Penderecki and receiving an invitation to his country home. At Luslawice, ninety minutes east of Krakow, he gardens more than a thousand rare species of trees on thirty-five hectares. A second hedge maze, out in the New Park, stood at about shin level. Penderecki spoke of its maturing in thirty years; this is a man whose blazing orchestral works were challenging the avant-garde by 1960. At lunch, his spouse spoke of her Beethoven Easter festival, which began in Krakow, with concurrent exhibits of music manuscripts from the Prussian State Library in Berlin. This trove, discovered in Poland in secret storage at the end of the Second World War, included Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Mozart’s Magic Flute, and has become a means by which Poland continues to negotiate with Germany for war reparations. To conclude Madame Penderecka’s festival this month, the National Opera in Warsaw will thrum with her spouse’s 1966 choral opus, the astonishing St. Luke Passion. The other evening, New York City Opera director George Steel said he thought frequently about one of Penderecki’s operas playing New York, then said with a clear gaze: “Watch this space.”