KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led musicians from 40 countries Tuesday in a thrilling concert in the heart of former Nazi-occupied Poland to mark the outbreak of World War Two 70 years ago.
"I turned the first page of the music and said I can't handle this and then professionalism took over," said violinist Monica Curro of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who joined a select group of about 90 musicians for two concerts by the World Orchestra for Peace in Krakow and Wednesday in Stockholm.
Krakow-native Krzysztof Penderecki, whose five-minute-long "Prelude for Peace" had its premiere at the concert which concluded with a rousing performance of Mahler's gargantuan Fifth Symphony, said music is too abstract to stop war, but gave the orchestra a rave review.
"It's an important day in our history," the composer said. "And the Mahler was extremely good, and played with such passion."
Gergiev, whose conducting of the orchestra coincided with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attending a memorial ceremony in the eastern Polish port city of Gdansk, had said earlier that if the concert stopped even one suicide bomber it was worth the effort and expense.
"Someone who plans a suicide bombing doesn't pay any attention to our concert, of course," he said.
"But the people who hear just great music, maybe they will pay some attention and if out of 100 potential bombers...at least 10 will start thinking...other things than just killing each other are important in this life, that's already the power of music," Gergiev, a close friend of Putin, told a news conference Monday.
The concert in Saint Peter and Saint Paul's Church, just off the main square of this intellectual and artistic hub that was the headquarters of a Nazi administration, was broadcast live on Polish television and streamed over the Internet (www.cnn.com).
The orchestra, founded in 1995 by the late Hungarian-born Jewish conductor Sir Georg Solti, brings together some of the world's best musicians from all parts of the globe and from some of the world's best orchestras.
Among them were violinist Nabih Bulos of Jordan, who plays with Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and Israeli viola player Doron Alperin, whose Polish grandfather survived a Nazi camp in Poland and was traveling to Krakow to hear his grandson play live in concert for the first time.
Alperin, 30, was so choked with emotion at the thought of performing in a city whose 64,000 Jews were deported or exterminated by the Nazis, with several thousand killed at the nearby Auschwitz death camp, he was unable to play a solo version of the Jewish "Kol Nidre" call to prayer outside a remnant of the ghetto wall Sunday.
"It's something inside my gut," Alperin said, explaining why he asked a colleague to step in to play the haunting tune.
Alperin's grandfather Adam Neuman-Nowicki, who left Poland in 1957 to settle in the United States, said he was very excited to see his grandson perform. Even at age 83, he returns to Poland regularly and thinks his talking to young people has helped to steer people away from anti-Semitism.
"This is a disease, there's no antibiotic to cure it, nevertheless there are changes and I am working for the changes."
The performance with Gergiev, an ethnic Ossetian who led a controversial concert in 2008 in the Russian-backed breakaway Georgian enclave of South Ossetia to draw attention to the deaths and bombings there, came against a backdrop of controversy over Russia's role in World War Two.
Gergiev said he did not think the chequered history of Russian-Polish relations, including Polish insistence that Russia apologize for Josef Stalin's order to massacre the entire Polish officer corps at Katyn in 1940, should overshadow his role in the concert, or Putin's visit to Gdansk.
"I think if he (Putin) didn't want to contribute to peace he wouldn't come," Gergiev said.
Penderecki, 76, said his short prelude, scored for brass and percussion and including a glorious, uplifting fanfare, was a distillation of his childhood memories of the Nazi invasion, and the subsequent communist rule in Poland that ended in 1989.
"We had a dark 45 years, first the Germans then the Russians, and now we feel the release," Penderecki told Reuters after a rehearsal.
"What you hear in this music is the release, it is not the war fanfare."