You hear his music in "The Exorcist" and "The Shining." Even his sacred music, written in tribute to such figures as Pope John Paul II and St. Maximilian Kolbe, has a sense of brooding darkness.
Yet when Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director JoAnn Falletta met Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki in 2015, she found him a delight. She and the rest of a contingent from the BPO, visiting Europe, were so struck by his good humor that they invited him to Buffalo. He said yes.
"He is the loveliest, kind of fun and gentle person," Falletta told The News, describing the encounter.
Now, the time has arrived. On Dec. 3 and 4, in Kleinhans Music Hall, audiences will see Penderecki, 83, on the podium. It is his first visit here.
The concert, which opens with Beethoven and ends with Dvorak, features as its centerpiece Penderecki's acrobatically demanding Concerto For Violin and Cello. The soloists bold enough to agree to climb this musical mountain are Dennis Kim, the orchestra's concertmaster, and Roman Mekinulov, the principal cellist.
The concerto is an arrangement Penderecki made of a concerto he originally wrote for violin and viola. Kim, reached at his home in Williamsville, acknowledged that the prospect of playing the music for its composer was unsettling.
"Anything with the composer is a little bit scary," he said. "And especially because he's conducting." But he added: "Certainly Roman and I are prepared."
Then he laughed. "It's going to be hard, but it's 10 times harder for Roman."
The cello part in the piece is said to be particularly thorny because it was not originally written for that instrument. Mekinulov, speaking from his home in Amherst, confessed that when Falletta first showed him the score, it was enough to make his head spin. But he said yes, and now is glad he did.
"I am looking forward to it. It's definitely going to be epic," he said. "Dennis sounds fantastic. I'd say 40 percent of the concerto we play together. The rest of it we play alone. It's not a competition. It's cadenza after cadenza. They're impressive. I don't want to say that we are going to be competing against each other, that's definitely not what it's going to be. But the cadenzas are well written and they are impressive, and there's going to be one after another. He'll get to shine a lot, and so will I.
"It was a challenge to learn the piece, but now that I have, I'm really, really looking forward to it. To have the maestro himself conducting -- I hope it goes the way he prefers. We're flexible enough and certainly able enough on our own instruments to make this happen."
Penderecki can be an off-putting figure to the uninitiated. Not only can his music be forbidding, but he conducts with his left hand, a rarity on the concert stage.
Kim, however, has worked with him before, and learned from the experience.
"Last time I played for him, in Finland, we were playing a chamber orchestra piece with a huge concertmaster solo. I was a guest with the orchestra. I was overprepared.
"I went to the first rehearsal, played, thought it went well, and -- no comment. And then the second day, we went and played, I thought I played really well and, no comment."
Spooked by Penderecki's silence, Kim went to see him after the rehearsal.
"Maestro, am I doing everything correctly?" he asked.
Penderecki, he recalled, seemed surprised at the question.
"Oh, everything's great," the maestro said. "When I say nothing, that means everything's good."
With luck, the upcoming concerto will elicit the same response.
"It's a huge, massive work, with not only me and Roman, but the orchestra too, being highlighted," Kim said.
"I feel like it's an event. There's a different sense when it comes live. It's different from radio and CD. You have to hear it live. I encourage people to come out and give it a chance. I promise that Roman and I will give 100 percent."
The audience may reward such dedication by simply enjoying the music -- and enjoying the presence of Penderecki in the hall.
It's exciting to witness the visit of such a powerful personality. Kim, though relatively new in town, described that excitement eloquently in Buffalo terms. He said that he, Mekinulov and their BPO colleagues evaluate distinguished visitors the way sports fans judge players at a Bills or Sabres game.
"Roman and I are huge sports fans," he explained. "We relate to it. There are a lot of soloists who come through, or guest conductors, and there are discussions among players -- 'He's good.' 'He's very precise.' 'He plays perfectly.' "
But no description can quite capture a player's particular magic.
"Execution and perfection are nice, but that's only part of it," Kim said. "If the audience doesn't go home with some feeling of emotion, we're not doing our job."
What: "Poland's Maestro," concert by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki, featuring Penderecki's Concerto for Violin and Cello, as well as Beethoven's Overture to the ballet "The Creatures of Prometheus" and Dvorak's Symphony No. 7.
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 3 and 2:30 p.m. Dec. 4. The artists will discuss the music an hour before the concert.
Where: Kleinhans Music Hall