Polish works fare best in uneven Wroclaw Philharmonic concert

By Lawrence Budmen

Giancarlo Guerrero conducted the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Monday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. 

Rarely played music from 20th-century Poland showcased the best playing from the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Monday evening at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. 

While the works of Witold Lutoslawski and Karol Szymanowski may not be widely familiar to American audiences, they are musical mother’s milk to the Polish ensemble which played them with corporate sheen and dedication. Contemporary and unfamiliar scores are also the strong suit of conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, the orchestra’s music director, and the two rarities offered his most fruitful efforts of the evening.

The Symphonic Variations by Lutoslawski is a student work from the composer’s years at the Warsaw Conservatory. The ten-minute score is a sumptuous instrumental showcase that allows each section of the orchestra time in the spotlight. A quasi- impressionistic theme by the solo flute turns astringent with flashes of neo-classicism along the way. Smooth and fluid string sonorities and hefty brass traced Lutoslawski’s thematic pathways emphatically. Guerrero’s brisk pacing and precise detailing drew out the appealing work’s strengths.

Szymanowski was one of the 20th century’s uniquely original creative artists. His music did not easily conform to any ideology or artistic dogma. Some of his most important works were written during World War I, a difficult period for the composer. 

His Violin Concerto No. 1 (1917), performed Monday, flows in a high personal lyric voice. Violin and winds duet in harmonies that suggest Debussy or Ravel. At moments the musical discourse turns tonally ambiguous. A haunting and memorable theme opens and closes the score and provides the basis for much of the concerto’s development and permutations.

Szymanowski’s score requires an artist of formidable virtuosity and musicianship to spotlight its striking instrumental timbres and make it sing. 

The young Polish violinist Janusz Wawrowski is not in that league. He played with earnestness and intensity but his tone was thin and scrawny. At times he was overwhelmed by the orchestra and reduced to inaudibility. Wawrowski fared best in the extended cadenza, racing through the triple stops and adding an exclamation mark to the shock value of the sudden pauses. The orchestra’s captured Szymanowski’s glowing sonorities (aided by two harps, piano and celesta) and Guerrero was on top of the constant changes of meter.

During his tenure as principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Miami residency, Guerrero consistently displayed a lack of affinity for the core 19th century European repertoire. Guerrero’s direction of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor with his Polish ensemble proved no exception. 

The first movement’s introduction was slow to the point of being funereal and the ensuing Allegro was prosaic. While the strings were a consistent tower of strength, Brahms’ scoring brought out rawness in the Polish winds and brass.

The middle movements fared best with Guerrero bringing a songful pulse to the Andante\ and nicely evoking the ländler like aura of the third movement. The brass chorale of the finale was heavy-handed. Too often the brass drowned out the rest of the ensemble in full orchestral passages while the undertow of the lower strings was barely audible (despite the presence of eight double basses at stage right).

As an encore the orchestra played Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 8 with considerable energy and abandon. In a bit of showmanship, Guerrero stood and listened while the orchestra played, conducting only a small part of the vignette.

Giancarlo Guerrero conducts the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic in Szymanowski’s Concert Overture in E minor Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (From the New World) and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor with soloist David Fray  2 p.m. Tuesday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.  kravis.org

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Tue Jan 14, 2020
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