Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra gave the first of the two concerts arranged through the Great Performers Series of the San Francisco Symphony. The conductor was General and Artistic Director Antoni Wit, and the ensemble was touring with pianist Yulianna Avdeeva. As I wrote in my preview piece, Wit has established himself as a champion of Polish composers, particularly those who were prominent during the second half of the twentieth century; yet last night’s performance was the only one of the two to program Polish composers.
Ironically, the only piece by one of those recent composers was a rather unrepresentative work. The evening opened with the Little Suite by Witold Lutosławski, composed for chamber orchestra in 1950 and revised for full orchestra in 1951. This predates the more experimental efforts of Lutosławski’s career and stands more as a Polish response to the innovative approaches that Béla Bartók took to Hungarian and Romanian folk music. The strength of the score resides heavily in the composer’s keen sense of instrumentation, and Wit’s command of his ensemble elegantly disclosed all the subtleties of coloration that made this music an engaging introduction for the evening.
That sense of orchestral color emerged in far greater depth during the second half of the evening, consisting entirely of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) symphony in B minor. While the string section may have been a bit ragged in some of their more intricate passages, Wit did much to convey the shifts in sonority that arise as Tchaikovsky’s thematic lines migrate across the different registers of the different instruments of the string family, all growing out of the hushed double-stop bowing from the double basses in the opening measures. Of course Opus 74 is about far more than the strings; but, under Wit’s direction, the strings often provided the canvas upon which the more sharply defined colors of winds and brass would emerge. This logic of sonority was nicely enhanced by placing the winds in the center with the horns on one side and the trumpets and lower brass on the other.
Wit conducted Opus 74 with neither score nor baton and was frequently overt in his display of the intense emotionality he wished to elicit. It was clear that he was always aware of the multiple centers of activity behind the logic of this composition. If the emotional cup occasionally spilled over (usually in the brass section), Wit was quick to regain control. Thus, while there have been more disciplined approaches to this work, Wit’s interpretation throbbed with an emotional impact whose sincerity could not be disputed.
More questionable was the approach to the other Polish composer on the program. Avdeeva performed as soloist in the Opus 21 piano concerto by Frédéric Chopin in F minor, the second of his two concertos. Chopin was always more comfortable with shorter forms, and the overall structural logic of Opus 21 leaves much to be desired. There is some compensation through several interesting approaches to instrumentation, but accounting for the lower register through a single bass trombone certainly did not show Chopin at his best. (Unfortunately, last night’s trombonist had no sense of restraint in performing his part, which simply made the effect all the more absurd.)
What remains, then, is an extended series of opportunities for piano virtuosity stretched out over three movements. Avdeeva performed as one determined to master every single note in that outpouring of virtuosity, and there is a good chance that she communicated every last one of them through her execution. Unfortunately, there was almost no shape to her phrasing; and, far more critically, she showed no sense of prioritizing all of those notes into foreground and background roles, even when she was supposed to be performing in conjunction with the rest of the ensemble. The result was an overabundance of notes in the midst of a paucity of music. One got the impression that Wit was always trying to establish a more sensible balance between soloist and orchestra, but he seemed resigned to fighting a losing battle.
One might almost say that Avdeeva was trying to play Opus 21 as if the orchestra was irrelevant. However, even without the orchestra, her uniform attention to all notes did little justice to Chopin’s capacity for musicality. This was all the more painfully evident when she took for an encore his A-flat major waltz, the first of the three “Grande Valse Brillante” waltzes of his Opus 34. The execution took a breakneck pace that was more athletic than choreographic, leading anyone familiar with the music to wonder why she had bothered to select it as an encore in the first place.
Wit took his own share of encores at the end of the evening. He began with the Gavotta movement from Sergei Prokofiev’s first (“Classical”) symphony in D major (Opus 25), conducted with just the right lightness of touch to capture both the sparkle and wit of Prokofiev’s rhetoric. This was followed by the Polonez (polonaise) by Wit’s contemporary, Wojciech Kilar, best known in this country as a film composer. Kilar’s selection was performed in celebration of the Polish National Day; and, having duly acknowledge Polish nationalism, Wit then concluded his encore set with a generous nod to our recent Election Day, leading his ensemble in a rousing (and highly effective) account of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.