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With the demise of the Friends of the College Series, which brought the Triangle many of the world's great orchestras, there have been increasingly few opportunities to hear a fully-staffed symphony orchestra, and even when they have appeared, the cramped platforms of Duke's Page Auditorium or UNC's Memorial Hall have limited the number of players who can be fitted onstage. In recent years, many of the visiting orchestras have been third-tier provincial ensembles no larger than our own string-starved North Carolina Symphony. The Berlin Symphony that appeared at Duke will never be mistaken for the Berlin Philharmonic nor will the St. Petersburg State Symphony, also heard at Duke, ever be taken for the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, the post-Soviet Union name of the famous Leningrad Philharmonic that appeared at Duke and in Raleigh decades ago. The full, rich sound of the visiting Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, heard in Page Auditorium February 9, came as a complete surprise. Instead of a guest conductor for this part of their tour, we were treated to an ably-directed program under their well-known Music Director, Kazimierz Kord, who has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera and has made a number of recordings. (His recording of Massenet's Don Quichotte is still the preferred choice of many critics.)
The apt opening work, Barber's Adagio for Strings (1938), has never sounded so luminous. Despite the events of September 11, Kord led an elegant and straightforward account. Simplicity yielded more eloquence than an artificial overlay would have done.
The only programming concession to the ensemble's Polish origin was a performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11. The accomplished soloist was the Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter, the 2000 Silver Medal Winner in the XIV Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. For some reason, locally, the Liszt piano concertos are performed more often than those of Chopin. While none is a masterpiece of orchestration, at least Chopin's have irresistible charm. Though too few do so, a good conductor can extract some fine detail from the orchestration, and Kord did more with the work than all but one conductor I have heard. Fliter played the piano part beautifully, as a winner ought to do, and melted hearts in the enchanting Romanze movement.
Several music-loving friends, critical colleagues and I only half-jokingly believe that someone in our area must be heavily invested in the scores of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony since they turn up so often on both local and visiting-orchestra programs. (A colleague and I once endured three performances of the same work in the same season!) I approached the concluding Beethoven performance with muted zeal. Kord led a fine, mainstream interpretation of the chestnut. I have never heard such a string-dominated performance. Part of this may have resulted from having only six separate sections of shell around the perimeter of the orchestra; this allowed much of the woodwind and brass sound to escape into the loft. Too many conductors expend so much energy in the first three movements (and especially in the Scherzo) that the final Allegro con brio comes off as an anticlimax. Kord held the first three in check so the last movement became the culmination that Beethoven surely intended. This joins a William Henry Curry performance with the North Carolina Symphony and a Stuttgart Philharmonic performance led by Jörg Peter Weigle, both in Chapel Hill, as the top interpretations heard in the area in the last decade.
Duke's artistic administrators ought to add the Warsaw Philharmonic to the short list of successful visiting orchestras such as the Bolshoi Symphony and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra to be invited back at every opportunity. My only regret was that an all-Polish program wasn't available. Instead of the fine Barber, it would have been even more delightful to have heard Witold Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra or his "Venetian Games." While the Chopin was an apt selection, perhaps next time we could sample concertos or symphonies of Karol Szymanowski. Some works by Krzysztof Penderecki might be bracing, too.
Listening to a concert in Page Auditorium continues to be a Rashomon-like experience. From my orchestra seat just under the edge of the balcony overhang, the orchestra sounded string-heavy and the woodwinds and brass seemed to come from a great distance. According to a friend, those in the mezzanine and balcony heard better-balanced sound although the timpani were more seen than heard. Based on experience, those deep under the balcony probably wondered if they had come down with severe head colds. This hall is long overdue for another major renovation. The stage ought to be widened thirty feet and enlarged enough to accommodate a full-sized symphony orchestra with a full acoustical shell.