There are orchestras like burnished mahogany, orchestras smooth and quicksilver, muscular orchestras and sublime ones, elastic orchestras that can go from butterfly-flicker pianissimos to Mahlerian Armageddons in a second. There are august, venerated “musical institutions” that seem to have invented august, venerated repertory, and there are upstart, brash serial-loving bands that thrive on tight polyrhythms and stunt orchestrations.
And there are lyrical, robust ensembles that play everything with such winning élan, such vim and conviction, such clarity and dispatch, that you can’t imagine them rendering any music as less than a joy.
Such is the Wroclaw Philharmonic from the namesake city in Poland, a relatively new (1954) aggregation under the vigorous, zinging baton of Jacek Kaspszyk, whose 14-city U.S. tour hit the new Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) Thursday night.
Right from the get-go in the alarmingly one-quarter-empty house(!), the Wroclaw (pronounced VRO-tswahv, and with the "r" lightly rolled) established its singing, sonorous, vivacious presence. The extremely Richard Straussian Konzert-Overture by Karol Szymanowski (opus 12) percolated with Till Eulenspiegel-like woodwind mischief, antic strings, quick dynamic shifts, and delicate Debussy-appropriated harp/English horn/solo violin passages. Percussionists smiled, strings dipped shoulders with natural---not exaggerated---enthusiasm, and the horn section resplendently roared. This was a boffo little crescendo-ridden concert ice-breaker that needs more of a niche in standard rep.
The real story of the night was written before a note was sounded, of course, and that was the presence of the great Garrick Ohlsson, one of the most remarkable pianists of the past 40 years, if not all time. Of the astonishing 80 concertos currently at his fingertips, the towering 64-year-old is on tour with the Wroclaw, assaying the Beethoven 4th piano concerto and the Chopin second. VPAC got the Chopin.
One can simply haul out the superlatives here, and rejoice that the man is still at the height of his powers. Yet it should be noted that Ohlsson’s is Chopin that is profoundly comprehended---he famously won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1970---and anything but meddled with, affected. To say the pianist serves the music, and not the performer, would be silly were it not for the preponderance of soloists who do exactly the opposite. Ohlsson, who has recorded the entire piano works of the composer, gives us Chopin that one likes to think Chopin would have admired: expository, direct, poetic, with built-in frills and chills that need no undue enhancements.
Orchestral music is well known to not have played to the strengths of the great solo keyboard fantasist. To put it (too) broadly, the second concerto almost comes off as characteristically transporting Chopin salon writing that happens to also have some lovely, if rather slight-sounding, orchestral backing. Yet this was due to the design, at least somewhat, of stile brillante, a form made popular by Karl Maria Von Weber, in which the concerto served as a showcase for the piano, rather than an equal conversational partner with the orchestra (as with Mozart, Beethoven.) Chopin embraced it, which seems hardly surprising, considering his genius for solo piano composition.
Even given that context, though, and the undeniable splendor of the piece, one tends to almost (unfairly) automatically edit out the orchestral passages in favor of the piano. No matter. Ohlsson’s rendering accentuated flowing lyricism and elegance, statement but not declaration. His feathery upper register runs were the stuff of gasp, and the sheer difficulty of the writing all but forgotten in the face of the pianist’s command. Especially affecting were the second movement’s nostalgic, elegiac motivs, which seemed to almost visibly drift into air and vanish in delicate wisps - and the rousing, bounding Mazurka in the final allegro vivace. Kaspszyk and orchestra accompanied with restraint and subtlety, a welcome change from interpretations that artificially seek to “compensate” with stridence and overstatement. (The soloist obliged cheers with an encore, a warm, just-the-facts-ma’am reading of the Waltz in C-Sharp minor (Opus 64, no. 2.)
The Wroclaw seemed to gel and hit a stride with the Dvorak 7th symphony. Punchiness and cohesion imbued the strings that had not quite been there in the first two works, and it was evident that this is not only one of the orchestra’s showpieces, but something that is well loved. Sadly saddled with the cliché “warhorse,” the 7th is nothing but one of the noblest symphonic works of the 19th century, perhaps Dvorak’s most potent, and a strong argument that there should be a “D” added to the “Three B’s.” It is sinewed with upstart, buoyant Czech nationalism, the fourth movement flagrantly intended as a vote against oppression. There is brooding, anger, menace, sunshine, hope, resolve, courage, triumph in this work; it comes from the heart, not the deadline. (Dvorak drafted it quickly, after hearing Brahms’ 3rd for the first time.) The first movement is every bit as moody, thematically interesting, assertive as any Brahms symphony’s first movement, if not more so, and somehow seems born of more sincere stuff. Is there a more rollicking, furious---even frightening---scherzo outside of Beethoven? Is there a more plangent theme in symphonic literature than the opening motiv of the fourth movement?
The young Wroclaw players---and this orchestra is distinctly on the young side, with touches of 1969 Jimmy Page hair and the occasional punkish cut among the few bald or white heads---inhabited this work and made it their own. They seemed to naturally, innately grasp its many and varied moods and colors, and its Czech soul. Kaspszyk kept the proceedings unwaveringly propulsive, zesty, the piece moving ever forward, forward, but never sacrificing expressive potential. (A neat trick.) This was hardly vivace for its own sake, or a conductor leaving his eccentric imprint. Kaspszyk’s podium manner deserves some mention here. Ever on top of the action, he did not impose on it. That is, while he was thoroughly engaged in directing the work at every moment, he was never a distraction, never the “star.” This was anything but the caricature of the flamboyant, hyperactive - let alone petulant, egomaniacal – maestro. More than any other conductor that comes to mind, Kaspszyk seemed so integrated with the orchestra in realizing the music as to be just another one of the players. An anti-(L.A. Phil music director) Gustavo Dudamel, in that regard. No, the orchestra did not heroically roar Dvorak’s climactic triumphs, the way, say, Zubin Mehta might have had it. In fact, the Wroclaw roar was more noble exuberance than august declamation, less masculine hammer-blow than ardent assertion (a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that fully half the ensemble is female?) Net effect: invigorating the 7th, rather than beating a dead (war)horse.
The assembled were treated to yet another encore, when the Philharmonic returned to a standing ovation and whipped out a crackerjack, sparkling, unerringly executed Overture to Candide, by Leonard Bernstein. Again, percussionists were smiling with the joy of it all. A tour-de-force.
Rip Rense is an award-winning author, reporter, record producer and Internet columnist.