Saturday, November 22, 2008

Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra - Kilar & Tchaikovsky - 11/21/08

Conductor: Antoni Wit
Kilar: Orawa
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No 1, Op. 23, B-flat Minor
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6, Op. 74, B Minor, "Pathétique"

What better way to end this music marathon week with the man who first ignited my interest in classical music, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky? The one whose music grabbed me, made me see the light and put me back to earth definitely shaken, and forever enlightened. The prospect of hearing the celebrated Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra play two perennial works by my favorite composer, the piano concerto and the Pathétique, in the acoustic wonder that is the Strathmore concert hall, allowing for a nice change from the Kennedy Center, was almost too good to be true. Therefore, I did not even think twice about braving the bitter cold and trekking all the way across the Maryland border for the grand finale of my unusually hectic but oh so enjoyable week.

As if two Russian masterpieces were not enough for one evening, the concert opened with the short but exciting Orawa by Kilar, which got things energetically started right away. Inspired by the Carpathian region on the Polish-Slovak border, it is a vibrant evocation of the area’s scenery, people and folk culture. Combining no less than 15 string instruments and assuredly conducted by maestro Wit, this briskly driven piece gave us all the impression of being dazzled passengers in a train zooming through the exotic landscape, and by the same token proved that the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra could boast of a mean, mean string section.
Next was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, which by general consensus remains THE ONE, even for the poor unsuspecting souls who do not care for classical music. One can only be relieved and grateful that Tchaikovsky did not follow the advice of his colleague, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, who in good faith recommended a whole revision of it because it was “unperformable.” Last night, the Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa brilliantly demonstrated one more time, as if it were necessary, that not only is it performable, but also almost too much of a marvel for words. As soon as the horns played the famed four descending notes, a frisson of pleasure ran through the audience and we all started to breathlessly take it all in, from the grand, take-no-prisoner opening to the magnificent pyrotechnics of its finale. The andantino did not get lost in all the soaring melodies either, and sprung up as a lovely interlude in the middle of all the sweeping passages. The orchestra was in fine form, and Ms. Lisitsa gave an inspired performance, even if the pounding was a bit much at times. I guess one can never be too passionate when playing Tchaikovsky…
After catching our breath during the intermission, we braced ourselves for more transporting intensity with his symphony No 6, incidentally the last work he wrote. However, in the interest of linguistic accuracy, it is first of all important to point out that its other name, Pathétique, should be understood according to its French meaning, which is the same as the original Russian title, Патетическая, and quite different from its frequent too literal English translation as “Pathetic.” It is indeed not meant to express a sense of “arousing pity,” but is intended to be rendered as “emotional,” which it most certainly is. Profoundly melancholic, it starts with a somber adagio and eventually ends with a requiem-style adagio lamentoso. Although the second movement presents a waltz, it is not the joyful kind, but instead yearns for unattainable contentment even in its relative serenity. The third movement contains a military march which occasionally sounds joyful and concludes on a triumphant note, but the last movement falls back into despair and ends on a strikingly mournful note. The orchestra powerfully expressed all the deep-seated sadness of this beautiful symphony in large part thanks to its outstanding string section working some real magic in tight harmony with the clear sounds coming from the brass instruments.

But the Tchaikovsky festival was not over, and our rapturous applause earned us a few encores, the first of which was a dynamite Slavic March that got everybody out of their funk. Finally some truly happy music! The last, but not least, bit of music we got to hear was a classic of a different sort, and much closer to home too. As it turns out, the surprise of the evening was a hair-raising rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever in honor of our new president-to-be. If only we had had such a winning combination during the Cold War, things might have improved much faster.

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