Polish Orchestra Takes L.A. by Storm

United StatesUnited States Lutoslawski, Chopin and Brahms/Schoenberg: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Wrocƚaw Philharmonic Orchestra (Jacek Kaspszyk, conductor), Cerritos Performing Arts Center, Cerritos (California), 2.25.2012 (LV)

Lutoslawski: Little Suite
Chopin: Piano Concerto No.
Brahms/Schoenberg: Piano Quartet Op. 25

While Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic were licking their wounds from their exhausting road trip to Venezuela and saddened by the death of their longtime clarinetist Lorin Levee, an exciting symphony orchestra from Poland’s hottest city took LA by storm (at least theoretically) in two concerts that showed what happens when the orchestra is young and the conductor is old.

Jacek Kaspszyk conducting (Photo courtesy Wrocƚaw Philharmonic)

With cool Jacek Kaspszyk on the podium, some of Poland’s most brilliant young musicians made music that excelled in elegance, energy and sex appeal before then reaching the heart. The night before in California State University at Northridge’s splendid new hall, the same Wrocƚaw band had thrilled a large audience with Szymanowski, Chopin and Dvorak. An equally promising line-up–Lutoslawski, Chopin and Brahms–awaited all those who dared come to Cerritos, 20 miles south of Disney Hall.

It is easy to take Lutoslawski’s Little Suite lightly; initially, its 12 minutes of songs and dances from a village east of Cracow sound attractively like other composer’s stockpile of national dances; the way in which the harmonic resolutions and the tunes simultaneously take their course, however, is uniquely sophisticated and nostalgic. The gaiety and contagious dancing of the first two movements is followed by an andante molto sostenuto that stretches out into surreal harmonic realms which lie along 23rd century spaceship lines; yet underlying the gorgeous, eerie sounds is a definite sense of a shared emotional message. Lutoslawski is another example, in the lineage of Chopin, of how Poland speaks to itself through her music, and the dialogue even in this relatively light music can be very intense. In the allegro molto last movement, Lutoslawski mobilizes this conversational element into a remarkable surging call to action towards the end which is caught and inwardly directed in a reflective, personal moment before the music returns to the ritual sounds of folk dance for its last minutes of fun.

When Garrick Ohlsson, who in 1970 became the first American to win gold in the Warsaw Chopin Competition, appeared on stage, he towered over the conductor and many of the players, but when he sat down at the piano and began to play he showed a rare humility before the music, and a true appreciation of what partnership with his colleagues meant. In his hands, Chopin sparkled, of course, as Chopin must, but as the orchestra’s sensitive collaboration, first encouraged and then enabled Ohlsson to stretch the time to fit the music’s kaleidoscopic spectrum, the music took on an eternal, involving narrative. Called back to the stage, Ohlsson played Clair de lune and it was the kind of encore dreams are made of: quiet almost to the point of inaudibility, with the melody floating on the surface of the sound like Debussy’s moon shimmering in the water.

Not content with only a first half of musical pleasure, Wrocƚaw and Kaspszyk illuminated Arnold Schoenberg’s rigorous orchestration of Brahms’s Piano Quartet in G minor with dynamic life, clarity and vision. It was a revelation that the music could actually sound light and exhilarating. The orchestra’s encore was Leonard Bernstein’s overture to Candide, and with superhuman power–superhuman considering the grueling two-week national tour the orchestra was on, with more stops in Arizona yet to come–Wroclaw captured the excitement of the music in all its audiophile glory.

Laurence Vittes