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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL CONCERT REVIEW
Focus! 2011 - Polish Modern, Concerts I and VI: Joel Sachs (conductor, concert I), Andrew Arceci (viola da gamba), Douglas Balliett (double bass), Shen Yiwen (piano), New Juilliard Ensemble, Jeffrey Milarsky (conductor, concert VI), Jay Campbell (cello), Arianna Warsaw-Fan (violin), Juilliard Orchestra, Alice Tully Hall, 22 and 28.1.2011 (BH)
Grażyna Bacewicz: Contradizione (1966)
Tadeusz Wielecki: The Time of Stones (2002)
Wojciech Kilar: Chorale Prelude (1988)
Zygmunt Krauze: Terra Incognita (1994)
Elżbieta Sikora: Canzona (1995)
Witold Lutoslawski: Overture for Strings (1949)
Witold Lutoslawski: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1969-70)
Witold Lutoslawski: Partita for Violin and Orchestra (1988)
Witold Lutoslawski: Symphony No. 4 (1991-92)
Once again, the heat-seeking Joel Sachs—founder and conductor of Juilliard’s annual Focus! Festival, and one of the best programmers around—gave lucky New York listeners a glimpse of the thriving compositional scene in Poland after World War II. Titled Polish Modern: New Directions in Polish Music since 1945, the week began with a stimulating sampler at Alice Tully Hall, and concluded in the same venue with a dazzling evening devoted to Witold Lutoslawski. My sole regret this year was not being able to attend more of the chamber music concerts in between the opening and closing nights.
It’s a shame Grażyna Bacewicz isn’t better known in the United States. From a musical family, she studied violin (later becoming friends with David Oistrakh), and composition with the renowned Nadia Boulanger. Although as Sachs writes, her vocabulary was on the traditional side, her works show a deeply personal use of harmony, not to mention contrapuntal skill. Contradizione, written just three years before her death, is sparely scored for 15 instruments—with sonorities now cloudy and free-floating, now transparent and wiry—with prominent use of the celesta. The excellent New Juilliard Ensemble gave it its beautiful due.
In The Time of Stones, with amplified double bass solo (expertly done by Douglas Balliett), Tadeusz Wielecki explores a trill to mirror the delicacies of a visual artist, engraver Monika Piwoworska (1944-1997). The bass begins in a high register, and each subsequent utterance seems to be echoed by the ensemble. In addition to the ovation for Mr. Balliett and the musicians, the composer was on hand for a well-deserved bow. The first half ended with Wojciech Kilar’s Chorale Prelude, for strings, and uses modal harmonies that evoke the simplicity of Arvo Pärt. Inspired by folk music from the Carpathian mountains, Kilar uses a repeated chord in the second half that sounds uncannily like an organ, before quietly fading out.
Zygmunt Krauze is known as a proponent of “unistic music,” designed to minimize contrasts and present a form “as homogenous as possible.” He describes the Europe depicted in Terra Incognita as “…creative, proud, aggressive, but also heroic, cruel, and ambitious.” A dramatic, furious opening, with the piano in stinging accents, leads to the violins raging in their upper registers, as the remaining strings play a chorale underpinning it all. A tango makes a brief, touching appearance, before the piece ends softly yet energetically, bustling with tiny gestures. Shen Yiwen was the impeccable pianist. The evening ended with Canzona by Elżbieta Sikora, who deploys a solo viola da gamba in a frenetic duel with the chamber orchestra. At times the piece felt like a Bach sonata being assaulted, interrupted by enormous forces—perhaps a metaphor for an ancient instrument struggling to find its place in the modern age. Andrew Arceci was heroic in the wide-ranging solo part, vividly conducted (as was the entire program) by Dr. Sachs, with unusually alert, on-point contributions from the Juilliard players.
The following Friday, an entire evening of Lutoslawski began with his seldom-played (at least, in the U.S.) Overture for Strings, an appealing early work with a debt to Bartók and Shostakovich, then reached a boiling point very quickly with a dazzling reading of his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. The opening is for the cello alone, almost as if the composer had placed a cadenza at the very beginning, and soloist Jay Campbell had the audience riveted from the first note. Staccato strokes like heartbeats alternate with jittery clusters, making a bravura statement for a good five minutes before the orchestra eventually enters.
The piece is partially aleatory; all parts are written out, but the performers have some flexibility in coordinating them, and here conductor Jeffrey Milarsky and the Juilliard Orchestra seemed ideally attuned to the score’s mercurial shifts. As in the opening five minutes, the orchestra seems to spar back and forth with the soloist—large, complex chords vs. highly charged, isolated notes—until near the end, when a dramatic unison for the entire ensemble seems to herald something different. With intelligence to spare, Milarsky led the musicians in a performance that will be embedded in my mental database for years. And Mr. Campbell—playing the piece from memory—seemed completely inside the composer’s hairpin turns and sharp edges. It was an unusually confident, even rapturous performance, with this astonishing cellist finding some humor in the composer’s sighing glissandi. At the conclusion, the cheers were legion, and about half the audience gave him a standing ovation; I don’t expect to hear this piece done as well for a very long time.
The equally demanding Partita for Violin and Orchestra is a more fleshed-out version of the Partita for Violin and Piano (1984). Similar to the Cello Concerto, the five-movement structure includes two “ad libitum” sections, in which (Sachs writes) “…Lutoslawski expressly prohibits any deliberate coordination between the performers.” Violinist Arianna Warsaw-Fan was the cool-headed, hardworking soloist, in masterful interplay with the ensemble, and again, Mr. Milarsky made this challenging score seem as familiar as if the musicians played it every week.
To close down the evening, Milarsky led a brilliant reading of the Fourth Symphony, the composer’s final work. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which gave it its sole New York performance before this one (hard to believe), the piece is scored for large orchestra, including a prominent piano role. As in the two previous works, the composer writes for ensemble only partially coordinated, with abrupt clashes in texture creating hugely exciting results. Mammoth structures seem to erupt without warning, only to be replaced with intriguing solo lines, and the overall palette is flashy, hyperactive, violent, restless. As in the rest of the evening, it would be difficult to imagine a more gutsy, committed, and superbly-played performance. Among the lingering side effects of this impressively devised week, I hope that “more Lutoslawski” will be one of them.