Poland's orchestras - they survived censorship to face the free-market

Photo: www.sinfoniavarsovia.org

Since the fall of communism nearly two decades ago funding of the arts has undergone a dramatic and, in many cases, successful transition in Central Europe. As you'll hear in these reports public funding for culture is still a strong tradition but gone are the days when central regime's paid the bills and then told the orchestra what to play. As Michal Kubicki reports from Warsaw, there's now a dynamic mix of public and private funding - especially when it comes to Poland's thriving classical music scene.

Forty years ago last month, Communist Party leader Gomulka was furious with the anti-Soviet undertones of the National Theatre production of Forefathers Eve by the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz. The regime panicked and closed the production down.

Among those lambasted by Gomulka for anti-communist views in that speech was the writer and composer Stefan Kisielewski.

His son, journalist Jerzy Kisielewski, says that his late father welcomed the Solidarity revolution and the subsequent collapse of communism, realizing however that a political breakthrough would not make the life of Polish composers and musicians a bed of roses overnight.

"His obsession was with censorship. He was against censorship. He knew the risks to art linked with the free market but he accepted it. He was a true liberal, understanding the risks for classical music, for modern music…Of course, the state has to have a special policy to promote culture but there is no alternative to the free market."

Even though, in comparison to other fields of art censorship in music was not perhaps an acute problem, Polish musicians had much reason for rejoicing when communism collapsed 19 years ago. Composer and performer Krzysztof Knittel is also president of the Polish Music Council.

"It was important for me, for my life, the freedom of the press, the freedom of the people who could organize their music societies, music foundations, to create new organizations, that was very important. All non-governmental organizations appeared after 1989, before everything was under the pressure of the government and communist party."

Krzysztof Knittel served as Director of the Warsaw Autumn International Contemporary Music Festival for many years. Two years ago he launched Ad Libitum, a festival of improvised music. An event for a relatively small circle of enthusiasts, it relies to a great extent on alternative sources of funding. The trouble is that, as Kacper Miklaszewski, editor of the Ruch Muzyczny journal argues, big companies are interested solely in promoting themselves, with little regard for the artistic calibre of an event.

"Private and corporate sponsorship is no doubt in its infancy. There’s no institution, no festival, no event which could say that it’s stable, that the people who do it can be sure that they will have money for what they’re doing next year or in two years. It means that the planning of concerts, inviting great artists is very difficult because you never know if you’d have enough money for, say, May 2010."

An institution that looks with much optimism into the future is Sinfonia Varsovia, one of Poland’s leading symphony orchestras. Founded in the mid 1980s by Yehudi Menuhin, it functioned under the beginning of this year as a part of Warsaw’s major arts centre which also comprised a theatre and an art gallery. In 2008, it became an independent institution financed by the city’s local government. Sinfonia Varsovia’s Managing Director Janusz Marynowski says that the new formula gave the orchestra a greater sense of stability.

"I don’t have to worry so much that some musicians will run away because of the financially bad situation because the situation is much better now. They have finally found out that this is a special orchestra, an important orchestra in Poland and as we play around Europe, in Japan and the United States, everywhere on the posters as have Sinfonia VARSOVIA – the name of the town. We’re proud and now we’re happy that the city government is proud as well having such an orchestra."

The intricacies relating to the system of sponsorship and the sources of funding are of little concern to an average concert-goer. What Polish music lovers are interested in is the artistic level of performances and the diversity of programming. Seen from this perspective, the state of musical life in Poland appears to be healthier than for festival organizers and impresarios vying for funds and big stars to grace an event.