Bassem Akiki with Krzysztof Penderecki (detail) View full image

Remembering Krzysztof Penderecki

Bassem Akiki pays tribute to Krzysztof Penderecki, who died on 29 March

I first met Krzysztof Penderecki in 2004, when I went to study at the Academy of Music in Kraków. He was Professor of Composition there and in my first year the whole conservatoire took part in a performance of his Seven Gates of Jerusalem, with him conducting. He started to speak to me, which I will never forget. He asked me where I was from and when I told him Lebanon, he talked at length about the political situation in the Middle East and knew the names of all the politicians. He was very well informed – not only about music, but also about politics and economics. It was fascinating to talk to him.

He was quiet, but he had a great sense of humour. There was always a very positive energy from him. He created an aura of respect around him, but when you started to speak to him you could feel the warmth of a grandfather.

‘He was never stuck in the classical music world, but was always interested in experimenting and looking for new things’

The first professional project we did together was at the Polish National Opera in 2014, with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. He conducted his Polymorphia and I conducted the responses to it composed by Jonny Greenwood, from Radiohead. The concert also included Górecki’s Third Symphony. The aim was to interest young people in classical music, and it showed how open he was open to other genres of music and to young artists. He was never stuck in the classical music world but was always interested in experimenting and looking for new things.

We met a few more times and we were in touch about Amor Fati, a piece I’m composing. I was supposed to go to his house in May to consult him and I’m sad that won’t happen now.

His compositions are very heterogenic, offering a huge range of styles across his career, from experimental to romantic. His four operas sound very different, whether Expressionist or Impressionist or a mixture of both. But when you put any of his music on, you know after a few seconds that it’s his. He could jump from one atmosphere to another and his language was very rich in its expression.

He found a lot of inspiration in nature – he told me that he wrote most of his music in his garden. It was a beautiful, huge garden – I was there a couple of times. He always wanted to be there, rather than travelling so much, especially in recent years.

As a composer he always maintained a distance from his music. I remember once at a rehearsal, he told the trumpets that their notes were wrong, and when they said that’s what he’d written, he said, ‘Well, change it then!’

He never talked very precisely about his compositions, even to his students. He would always advise you to go your own way, rather than telling you what to do. Some professors are very specific in their instructions, but even when I was conducting his music and had a question for him about what to do, he would say, ‘Do it as you feel it.’

‘He was very open to new interpretations – I never heard him say he didn’t like something. He had respect for performers’

That’s the most important thing I learnt from him – the freedom he gave performers. Some living composers get annoyed about what’s happening in the orchestra, but he was very open to new interpretations – I never heard him say he didn’t like something. He had respect for performers, which is an essential attitude.

Seven Gates of Jerusalem will remain my favourite of his works, because it was the first piece I heard and I performed it with him, so it always touches me when I hear it – it’s a kind of nostalgia. When I heard about his death it was the first piece I put on. The Polish Requiem is also amazing, as are his operas – especially Paradise Lost. In the Biblical story, he puts the human being at that centre of the work – his pieces were very philosophical and show us things we didn’t know before.