Antoni Wit conducts the Warsaw Philharmonic. (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
Once on a flight to Warsaw in the 1990s, when the Polish airline LOT was still trying to get the hang of market economy, I requested a vegetarian meal. For the first course, I was served the same salad of iceberg lettuce and thousand-island dressing as everyone around me. But my hot entrée, I discovered as I peeled away the foil, was another helping of that salad zapped in the microwave.
It took a minute or two for the Pole sitting next to me to stop laughing and wipe his tears away, but he then described how fabulous Polish vegetarian cooking could be. He suggested several dishes I try once I landed and told me where to find them. I took his advice and ate very well.
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The Warsaw Philharmonic's concert at Soka Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night was sensational, a highlight of the year. But all I could think of during the long, traffic-encrusted drive to the excellent concert hall that Soka University built in Aliso Viejo last year was that here was another official Polish institution failing to endorse its country's great culture. In this case, the exceptional blossoming of Polish music in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The wan Warsaw program originally announced was Chopin's Second Piano Concerto, with Yulianna Avdeeva as soloist, and Brahms' Second Symphony. That was merely a mirror of the Israel Philharmonic's also disappointingly orthodox program at Walt Disney Concert Hall last week, which included Chopin's First Piano Concerto and Brahms' First Symphony.
The Poles made a last-minute change, replacing the Brahms symphony with Dvorák's equally commonplace Eighth and adding Witold Lutoslawski's Little Suite as a curtain-raiser. The Lutoslawski was a baby step in the right direction, but only that. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the great and influential Polish composer's birth, but the Little Suite is an early, minor, folksy work for chamber orchestra from 1951 that offers little sense of the composer's importance.
This, however, happens to be an orchestra that could even make "The Stars and Stripes Forever" sound like a thrilling, freshly minted masterpiece. And it did precisely that with the Sousa favorite at encore time. But the revelations started with a Little Suite that was anything but little and an astonishingly visceral Dvorák Eighth.
Much credit goes to Antoni Wit, the veteran Polish conductor who, as music director of the Warsaw Philharmonic for a decade, is responsible for the tremendous polish the orchestra displayed Wednesday. He records with the orchestra extensively and has produced an admirable discography of 20th century Polish composers. Lately, Wit and the Warsaw have been putting out stunning Janá¿ek recordings on Naxos. Still, you are not likely to find Warsaw on any of the 10-best orchestra lists, which thus makes it one of the best-kept secrets in the business.
Lutoslawski's Little Suite, which consists of four Polish folk melodies given a little updating, was played with startlingly physical immediacy, enhanced by Yasuhisa Toyota's stunning in-your-face acoustics at Soka. Wit treated these not as the bubbly proletariat music that the Soviets demanded of Polish composers in the early '50s. He instead brought out a subversive anger that Lutoslawski brilliantly understated.
The Chopin concerto was a waste of a great orchestra's time. The accompaniment is no interest, everything in it revolving around the piano. Avdeeva, winner of the 2010 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, played with unobjectionable confidence.
The 27-year-old Russian pianist has a strong tone, a more than capable technique and the proper degrees of aggression and delicacy in her keyboard arsenal. Every phrase fit as it should. But she could just as well have been playing Beethoven. She ruffled no feathers.
The Dvorák symphony, on the other hand, sounded unique, a bright and lyrical symphony radically untamed but powerfully controlled. Every name on the Warsaw Symphony's roster looks to be Polish, and that no doubt accounts for the unanimity of ensemble. The strings dug in as one. The winds brought a special dark, nuanced splendor to the slow movement, a pair of clarinets gave me goose bumps. The brass were dark gold.
At some point during a 35-minute symphony, you've got to take some breaths. But I'd wager the amount of oxygen consumption in the hall during the performance was way down.
As for the Sousa encore, Wit may have unwittingly generated quite a few sighs when he announced that the orchestra had prepared something special to celebrate the American election. Deep Orange County is not where you'd expect a majority Obama crowd.
But what a "Stars and Stripes" this was. Wit, as he did with the entire program, conducted it from memory. The Poles played as though they were putting their lives on the line. The audience was so caught up in the spirit that Wit had to turn to shush the clapping so that extraordinary details could be heard. The piccolo players deserve a presidential accolade.
Could Congress please invite this exceptional band to open a session and bring everyone together? And please serve them a good salad for lunch.
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