The Transformation of an Ensemble: Warsaw Philharmonic Performances in Florida
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
04/05/2022 - & April 3 (Naples, FL)
Stanislaw Moniuszko: Overture to Pariah
Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, op.11
Edvard Grieg: Symphony in C Minor
Johannes Brahms: Symphony No.1 in C minor, op.68
Bruce Liu (piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrey Boreyko (conductor)
A. Boreyko (© worldredeye.com)
The last time I heard the Warsaw Philharmonic (Filharmonia Narodowa) was during the finals of the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw which took place in October, 2021. One may argue that there’s not much role to play for the orchestra in the accompaniments to both of the Chopin piano concertos, but until one heard a really poor contribution from the conductor and orchestra, one does not realize how wrong this assumption is. Then I marveled how well the orchestra was prepared and what magnificent job their artistic director Maestro Andrey Boreyko did providing twelve different accompaniments, hand‑in‑glove fitted to each of the finalists. Fast‑forward six months and I had another chance to hear my hometown orchestra during my short stay in Florida, where the ensemble was on tour. The pandemic uncertainty caused the tour to be greatly curtailed and the originally planned multi‑concert tournée became, ultimately, six performances in South Florida. I was privileged to hear the group twice (Naples and Miami) with a slightly different repertory in the second half of the program. The first half was the same during all six concerts and consisted of Moniuszko Overture to Paria and Chopin Piano Concerto No.1. The soloist was the recent winner of the Warsaw Competition, Chinese‑Canadian Bruce Liu, a new sensation of the pianistic world. In Naples, the orchestra offered a rarity, which was an early Symphony by Grieg which for over hundred years lay unperformed and saw the daylight and its first performances only in 1981. As Maestro Boreyko explained in the program comments, it was his desire to present the Grieg work in Naples but the pandemic and cancelled season 2020‑2021 didn’t permit his desire to be realized. He presented the symphony only a few weeks earlier in Warsaw and now in Naples, where he is just finishing his tenure as an artistic director of the Naples Philharmonic. It was the first time that I had a chance to hear that work live, though numerous recordings of the work exist and they allowed one to get acquainted with the score.
I am glad that we had a chance to hear a rarely (if ever) performed in the U.S. overture by the greatest Polish Romantic composer of operatic repertory, Stanislaw Moniuszko. His opera Paria was not very well received when first presented in 1869, and even today is infrequently staged in Poland, but the overture to the opera is a gem. It starts with Mendelssohnian lightness and spirit soon to brake twice (second time toward the end) for an extended solo violin and cello duet (presumably its music is based on some of the opera dramatic tunes). Here we had our first chance to witness the excellence of the two section leaders: Krzysztof Bąkowski and Karolina Jaroszewska.
After the overture, Bruce Liu performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1, a work that he has played often, partially as a pay‑off for winning the Competition. While evidencing customary pianistic excellence, elegance, brilliant technique, lustrous touch and exemplary articulation, there were also numerous examples of certain mannerisms, such as surging ahead only to pull back a few measures later; this allowed for an uncomfortable feeling of the broken phrases and loss of natural pulse. It is possible that in the pianist’s mind it manifests itself as spontaneity, or perhaps it may also be a search for something new; after playing one concerto dozens of times in a very short time span, one pays a price. The situation did not improve much in the second movement which continued to be a rhythmic see‑saw. Mr. Boreyko, though, demonstrated miracles of accompanying skills in staying together with the soloist who made his point of playing with more freedom than one imagined possible and which after a while, to this listener at least, became unnerving. In the Romanza, a large part of the movement is the duet of piano and bassoon: here also our soloist benefited greatly from a superb collaboration with Andrzej Budejko, who tried very hard to stay together with the capricious pianist. That it not to say that there was not sufficient tenderness and beauty of touch for which our soloist became famous already during the competition. The last movement Rondo:Vivace served Mr. Liu (and his audience, too) best. Here he demonstrated his fabulous gleaming, sparkling technique, lightness of touch, and effortless ability to delineate all the subtleties of the passage work. Those qualities, demonstrated in especially winning fashion in Chopin early œuvres, most likely pointed to his victory in Warsaw.
I can’t hide my disappointment in Liu’s choice for an encore, which was offered in both of the concerts this reviewer attended, a somewhat primitive (though loved by the audience) Ethan Uslan’s arrangement of the famous Beethoven’s bagatelle Für Elise in a jazzy, spry, brisk fashion. Liu demonstrated that he feels at home in the stride style, but I wish that he had chosen a more talented composer for his model. At that point I would have preferred almost anything else than this naïve composition. Well, the audience went wild, so what do I know?
The two concerts of the Warsaw Philharmonic differed in their second halves. The first, in Naples, featured the rarely performed Grieg’s early Symphony in C Minor, which I never heard in concert performance and which during Grieg’s lifetime was never performed in full. It was composed in 1864 but barely three years after its creation, in 1867 Grieg indicated in the score “must never be performed”. That peculiar request and an act of self‑censorship was honored until a little over forty years ago, when in early 1980’s the symphony resurfaced and started to be featured both in concert halls and recording studios. Grieg was not yet the exponent of so‑called Norwegian influences – closest to it might be the third movement Intermezzo: Allegro energico, resembling a heavy footed country dance – and the only influences felt are those of typical Romantic music of that era. The symphony is well written, well orchestrated (though there nowhere near as many solo parts for the orchestra players as they are in the Brahms symphony performed two days later), there is an ardent and honest feeling, energy and sentiment. One would have a very hard time identifying this as the same composer of the later works such as Symphonic or Norwegian Dances or some other orchestral works. Here we heard echoes of Schumann, and Brahms but it could be written by Berwald, Volkmann or Bruch whose own Symphonies bear resemblance to Grieg.
Maestro Boreyko conducted a vigorous performance and the orchestra responded splendidly, yet there were moments in the first movement, where a little more whip would help to move the story forward. After a beautifully sang 2nd movement Adagio espressivo, the 3rd was a bit unwieldy and in my mind could have used a little more lightness and forward motion; whereas I imagined it danced in loafers, Mr. Boreyko saw it danced with clogs in a tavern, which perhaps was the composer’s intention. Still, the Symphony in C Minor is an attractive, melodious, optimistic score and surely worthy of presenting it in lieu of perpetual symphonic canon.
Brahms Symphony No.1, which in spirit and form was very much influenced by Beethoven, showed the orchestra and its maestro in their best form. In two short years (well, three if we count one season lost to the pandemic...), Mr. Boreyko seems to have changed this ensemble’s character and personality. There is tonal allure and palatable enthusiasm, prior to now not often experienced by this listener. There is first rate precision and discipline but above all excellent work within the different sections. As in the Moniuszko overture, in the symphony there were a multiple of superlative solos. In addition to the already‑mentioned Mr. Bąkowski, who this time was prominently featured in the 2nd movement, his colleagues were no less impressive: the oboist Aleksandra Rojek, sang her sorrowful solo really gorgeously and later in the movement Gabriel Czopka joined in the duet on French horn. Gone are the days when the intonation of that section could not be always taken for granted. The great improvement, as compared to this orchestra’s last American tour, was also noticed in the richness of the lower strings. I suppose a part of the success of the orchestra’s timbre and opulence could likely be attributed to the very good sounding halls for both of the concerts attended. Both venues, a relatively new concert hall Hayes Hal in Naples and Knight Concert Hall in the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, are acoustically excellent and give the Warsaw Philharmonic a certain warmth and refinement that I simply didn’t recall from previous encounters.
Maestro Boreyko offered a traditional, in the best sense of the word, interpretation: one that could be called mittel‑European, in the mold of great old German Kapellmeisters. There was a certain weight, nobility, judiciously chosen tempi and dignified character. Boreyko was sculpting the Brahms phrases, carefully creating culminations and sensibly controlling the balances between the sections. As I mentioned after the performance, it was perhaps the first time in many decades of hearing this orchestra on and off (and for all practical purposes, I was brought up listening to this group!) that I was really proud of them and pleased that I see a real positive difference since the new artistic director took the rudder in his hands. That performance could stand along the best ones both as far as the interpretation and orchestra’s contribution.
The encore was the same both times and indeed it was, if one may say, a national encore of the Polish orchestras: the Mazur from Moniuszko’s (perhaps best‑known opera) Halka, a piece that invariably brings the audience to its feet and here there was every reason for the enthusiasm and standing ovation.