After last season's less-than-stellar performance by a visiting Russian orchestra, the organizers of the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series at East Carolina University might have been crossing their fingers a wee bit when they booked a Polish orchestra making its first American tour. For starters, Opole, the Philharmonic of Poland, does not have instant name recognition on this side of the Atlantic, and despite the glowing reviews from distant critics, the orchestra is still a less-well known classical ensemble.
After the orchestra's early February performance in Wright Auditorium, however, the organizers might be getting requests from the audience to bring this group back.
This large ensemble is marked in particular by a most lovely string sound, which infused the entire concert of works by Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven. The sound was near-golden, with a polished (or should it be Polish-ed?) sheen that maintained its warm tone from pianissimo passages to fortissimo, providing a velvety effect when needed, as well as a stateliness and elegance that make the concert-going experience so satisfying.
The concert offered two highlights: Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-minor, Op. 11, with Russian pianist Evgeni Mikhailov as soloist, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55.
Soloist and orchestra gave a splendid account of the Chopin concerto, with its unusually long and dramatic orchestral introduction and its exquisite solo passages. Mikhailov played with both fire and delicacy, negotiating the dense note clusters and the runs and arpeggios with equal ease. He received fine accompaniment from the orchestra in full and from individual players (nice passages of horn and bassoon solos behind the piano in the first allegro maestoso movement, for example).
The second romance movement simply floated off the stage, with lovely and delicate strings behind a soloist playing with great intensity and emotion. Some of Mikhailov's touches sounded as if they were tiny raindrops falling on flower petals, and a piano-bassoon duet helped bring the first part of the movement to a close, before a new theme was introduced.
The final rondo-vivace movement opens with a familiar dance-like melody, and the strings again provided a wonderful cushion behind the soloist throughout. Although this section can be taken at a break-neck speed, Mikhailov and Opole seemed to play at a slightly more leisurely pace, one that let the piano breathe a bit more. The result was a lively, if a bit less showy, performance, which emphasized the elegance and wonderful melodic lines in the piece - less Liszt and more, well, Chopin. The final bars, however, with the soloist moving up and down the keyboard at quite a fast tempo, were thrilling indeed.
Classical music observers and critics say Beethoven's Third Symphony, the "Eroica," signaled the end of the Classical Period and ushered in the Romantic Period - a forward-looking, rather than backward-looking, composition. Let's just say this is one grand piece, one of heroic proportions, and the Polish players put considerable spirit, energy and skill into its interpretation in Greenville.
The first allegro con brio movement alone is worth the price of admission, with at least one fugue, a march and lilting ¾-time measures all coming together in a fine package. The marvelous eight-note figure that opens the movement repeats near the end. The second adagio assai movement, a funeral march, is filled with melancholy and poignancy, and the low strings were especially noteworthy.
The lighter scherzo: allegro vivace that followed featured fast tempi and crisp attacks throughout, but, as in the Chopin concerto, the music was not played with blinding speed for the sake of blinding speed. Indeed, music director Boguslaw Dawidow, while conducting with economical yet expressive movements, seemed content to let the music open up, rather than pop out. The waltz between bolder moments at the opening of the fourth finale: allegro molto movement was a model of grace and clarity, for example, and the theme-and-variations of the final movement was nicely done. An oboe interlude later in the movement seemed to let not only the musicians catch their breath, but it also let the music catch its breath, before moving into a grander and more eloquent statement that foretells the finale of the composer's "Pastorale" Symphony. (Even the melody lines near the end of the final movement of "Eroica" seem lifted and modified a bit to go into "Pastorale.")
One could find little fault with the orchestra's readings of either the Chopin of Beethoven works. The strings, as indicated before, were terrific; the winds were very good; the brass crisp without blaring. The horns seemed slightly on the high side of the pitch on occasion, but the horns' hunting call in the second movement of the Beethoven symphony was carried off with great skill.
The program began with the overture to Mozart's The Magic Flute, which certainly paled by comparison to the heartier works that followed. The slow introduction opened up into a double- (or triple-) timed fugue, played crisply but not too busily by the strings. Dawidow kept up a brisk pace, and the players responded well. This was a good introduction to the orchestra's sound and skill, and for a first encore, Khachaturian's waltz from Masquerade, the orchestra especially showed off its rich string sound. As befitting the ensemble's first American tour, Maestro Dawidow kept the players on stage for a second encore - a spirited reading of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," which the audience thoroughly enjoyed.
Note: During this tour, the orchestra also performed at UNC-Pembroke.