- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Some of the most interesting musical evenings in the Washington area appear quietly, like the fog, on little cat feet. They’re here and gone before we know it. The lovely concert presented Tuesday evening by the Polish Philharmonic Resovia at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park was one such gem.

Highly regarded in Poland for its regional festivals, this 49-member ensemble is typical of the kind of small orchestras that dot the continent of Europe, providing even the smallest of communities with excellent artistic programs. Led by its white-maned artistic director, Tadeusz Wojciechowski, the orchestra presented a program of mostly Polish music, consisting of two pieces by little-known Polish composers as well as the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor by Frederick Chopin and Beethoven’s infrequently played Symphony No. 2 in D major.

The concert opened with “Orawa,” a tone poem by contemporary Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, who is better known in this country for his movie music, including the scores for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula” and the acclaimed Roman Polanski film “The Pianist.” Alas, Mr. Kilar’s tone poem proved to be another monotonous example of the currently fashionable minimalistic style of composition in which brief motifs and harmonies are repeated monotonously like a litany or a chant. True melodic development is avoided at all costs. “Orawa,” like most minimalist works, is pleasant enough when compared with the atonal bombast that marked much of the 20th century. Though crisply played by the ensemble’s string section, it nevertheless proved eminently forgettable.

More successful was the philharmonic’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto, written when the composer was just 19. Leopold Godowsky III, grandson of the late romantic pianist-composer whose name he shares, was scheduled as soloist, but his appearance was scrubbed because of a recent hand injury. In his stead, the orchestra recruited New Zealand native Read Gainsford to perform as soloist.

Hearing the Chopin without the usual bombast of a large symphony orchestra allowed the audience to experience this work as it might have sounded when Chopin premiered it in Warsaw, with himself as soloist, in 1830. Musicologists have been fond of dissing Chopin’s allegedly feeble orchestral writing, but the fastidious Pole was always most at home in the drawing room. The concerto had this feel with the philharmonic, and it re-emerged as a highly idiosyncratic love song for the piano, whose soloist is enhanced by Chopin’s delicate orchestral embroidery.

Read Gainsford gave a workmanlike reading of the work, employing a precise, almost Mozartian touch fully in keeping with Chopin’s admiration for the Austrian composer. The philharmonic accompanied him with grace and refinement. The ensemble’s small size allowed the nice solo snippets Chopin wrote for flute, clarinet and French horn to carry on a dialogue with the piano that often is lost in more massive settings. The intensely emotional outcry of the piano against the tremolo strings in the famous “Larghetto” movement — Chopin’s love poem to a teenage girl — has scarcely been more movingly realized.

After the break, the philharmonic opened with a sprightly interpretation of Karol Kurpinski’s overture to his opera “Kalmora.” Heavily influenced by Rossini, Kurpinski’s party piece strongly resembled the Italian’s madcap works in that genre, but with more northern “oomph” in the bass line.

As with the Chopin, the orchestra’s performance of the Beethoven was more in tune with the way it might have been performed when Beethoven completed it in 1802. Strongly influenced by his teacher, Haydn, his expositions are nonetheless more complex here, his harmonies more daring, his music more robust than the older master’s. The philharmonic gave the work an excellent reading save for a few unfortunate gaffes by the French horns and some strange intonations from the strings in the first stanza.

**1/2

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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