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Warsaw Philharmonic, 11/21/08

Polish with Polish!

After a harrowing start to their tour that included a concert on the sun (they survived only because it was an evening show) and a trans-Atlantic crossing in a submarine with a screen door, the Warsaw Philharmonic, Poland's national orchestra, made its way to the Music Center at Strathmore under its director Antoni Wit on Friday night. The ethnic makeup of the Warsaw Phil is decidedly not post-national — someone who would make the joke I just made would have trouble pronouncing every name in there, from oboist Piotr Lis to violinist Marzena Dopytalska-Söjka — but their playing has no detectable Polish accent. In an ideal world, part of the fun of hearing a national orchestra would be to hear a unique national sound; the lack thereof was a disappointment, but it was the only one in an otherwise terrific concert.

After a warmup with a modal, minimalist piece by Wojciech Kilar called "Orawa" that ran its rustic arpeggios at a brisk clip through various combinations of the strings, the Warsaw Phil began justifying a potentially boring program of two Tchaikovsky Best-Loved Classix. From the opening bars of Pytor Ilyich's First Piano Concerto, with the strings making a sound smooth as butter and pure as cream and phrasing the big melody with just a hint of swagger — I got goosebumps — Wit and the orchestra made this music fresh.

Though I have enjoyed his recordings for Naxos, I was not aware that Wit looks like the picture next to the word "maestro" in the dictionary: white tie and tails, a slight paunch expanding his shirt, a face lined with age (and hair whitened with the same) but a little twinkle in his eye nonetheless. If he gained 40 pounds he could make bank as a mall Santa, but I'm glad he hasn't.

On Friday, Wit consistently sought beauty and cohesion rather than passion for passion's sake, trusting that Tchaikovsky's melodramatic tendencies would take care of the latter if he took care of the former. This is right on. Seriously. People need to take notes.

He also got outstanding playing from what sounded on Friday like an extremely talented orchestra. Cues were hit precisely, tricky horn intonations were nailed, melodies sweeping through the string section sounded like grand unfurling sheets of sound (rather than swarms of musical ants running up or down a hill). Everyone seemed to be listening to each other, wittily echoing each other's phrasing across the stage. And though they didn't show it in their faces, listening to them play, the orchestra had to have been having a ton of fun.

Valentina Lisitsa, soloist in the concerto, came out in a dramatically plunging and sweeping red gown that served notice of her intent to match the orchestra's spirit. Born in the Ukraine, Lisitsa now lives in rural North Carolina and calls herself a "redneck pianist," which should give you an idea of how willing she was to buck received interpretive trends. She carved out little spaces for rhapsodic phrasings that sometimes threatened to hang fire but never quite did, instead giving her part an inner life that stayed intact in the orchestral context.

She had a Bösendorfer to play, a welcome change from the usual Steinway. The middle range of the instrument occasionally became sour and clattery under stress, but the more delicate upper-range action flattered this concerto; in the slow movement, Lisitsa would often play soft high notes that sounded like jewels strewn over a pillow of string sound. Yet pianist and orchestra got it crankin' in the finale, pushing to the big glorious climaxes and then pushing just a little harder to put everything over the top, all with impeccable style.

So that was fun. Post-intermission, Wit's interpretive strategy paid even more dividends when he and the Warsawers took on P.I.T.'s "Pathetique" Symphony. This work spends it beginning and ending in the pure depths, and normally we hear it presented by conductors who move mountains to emphasize that. Under Wit's direction, and with the playing of the Warsaw Phil still in the upper echelon, some of the more dramatic moments didn't get played up — the explosion that sets off the first movement's development section, for instance, was relatively tame. But the progression of the musical argument came through more clearly, paradoxically increasing the impact of the symphony as a whole.

Wit also held back on the tipsy, wistful second movement and the horns a-blazin' third-movement march just a little bit, allowing the ambiguity behind their cheerfulness to show and preparing the way for the shattering finale. Here it was just a matter of the orchestra playing with as much eloquence and poise as it had throughout; the string playing, especially, shone with a dark energy. Wit let Tchaikovsky take care of the rest, and the result was a gloom that did not dissipate — until the third encore, when Wit announced, "And now we will play something to celebrate your new President, Barack Obama!" and the Warsawers struck up "The Stars and Stripes Forever." They even had stars-and-stripes-emblazoned hats for the piccolo/flute and brass soloists! It was an unexpected but delightful capper to a complete crowd-pleasing experience.


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