A Classical Feast

Garrick Ohlsson, NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra

By Steve Gladstone

The Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra with Garrick Ohlsson

Take a relatively unknown orchestra where the orchestral soloists are graduates of prestigious European music academies, a conductor with the precision of a top shelf celebrity chef, a piano virtuoso with “magisterial interpretive and technical prowess,” and mix them up in an acoustically sublime concert hall; chances are good you’ll wind up with a savory stew to satisfy the most discriminating melodic palate. (Oh yeah, toss into the kettle a couple of compositions by Chopin and Brahms and all the ingredients are there for a feast.) That’s what was cooking last Friday February 10 in the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall in Miami's Arsht Center. 

The appetizer was a salad of four dances garnished with folk songs from the region just east of Cracow. Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s 1950 Mala suita ("Little Suite”), offered up four brief and memorable pieces simply labeled Fife, Hurra Polka, Song, and Dance. A solo piccolo pricks our taste buds, sounding like a sweet music box giving rise to an unexpected Stravinsky-like rhythm, settling briefly only to launch into a rousing 90 seconds of horn blowing swirling traffic trumpets, almost giving the feeling of being an “American in Paris.” Then, like an unexpected ingredient, like hearts of palm, a soft and slow third movement takes us on a quiet solitary walk where solo clarinet meets with solo flute and oboe and invite the strings to come and play. A mounting storm, at once both dissonant and melodic, gives way to breaking light with two satisfying orchestral chords to end the movement. The final dance, a rhythmic bounce, finds a solo voice wandering through the forest of instruments, the theme passing from oboe, to violin to clarinet. Chancing upon some mocking brass, sneering trombones, a sudden solid full orchestral chord comes, a thump, as if to say, “All done!”

Poland’s outstanding Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra (established in 1954), led by Artistic Director and Conductor, a world class Jacek Kaspszyk, along with Grammy Award-winning pianist Garrick Ohlsson, served up the first course with more Polish cuisine--Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21, actually the first piano concerto Chopin wrote--it was published after ‘Piano Concerto No. 1’ which was composed after this piece. Chopin wrote this concerto before completing his formal education, significantly forecasting his most unique style. Though this concerto is in the three movement style of the day (Maestoso, Larghetto, Allegro Vivace), Chopin showcases the piano by crafting the orchestra as more of a frame around the instrument rather than serving a more “balanced, cohesive and densely argued musical drama” between the piano and orchestra in the traditional vein. If the larger classical forms he had studied at the Warsaw Conservatory were incompatible with his imagination, Liszt remarking that Chopin “did violence to his genius every time he sought to fetter it by rules”, then Chopin treated the orchestra as a platter on which to serve the piano because the sort demanded it. “Showing off the soloist was the whole point.” The 20 year old Chopin himself was the soloist for the premier of his concerto in 1830 Warsaw. 

In 1970 Warsaw, Garrick Ohlsson was the first American to win the prestigious Chopin International Piano Competition and has conquered every square inch of all the piano literature since then. The New York Times has reported that Ohlsson demonstrates “his ability to segue between a light, fleet-fingered touch and meaty, powerful torrents of sound." And this he delivered piping hot Friday night. 

In the first movement, the orchestra ceded all charge for musical development to Ohlsson who ran the keyboard with the command of a conqueror. Some members of the audience hissed as some broke into applause at the end of the movement. I myself had to sit on my hands to avoid joining them! Undaunted, Ohlsson delivered an exquisite second movement, with a melody, modern, tender and passionate at its delicate and trembling center. Apparently Chopin confessed in a letter that this movement had been “inspired by his secret passion for a younger singer at the Warsaw Conservatory, with whom he had fallen in love and dreamed of…without once speaking to her.” This larghetto boasts a bel canto (beautiful song) aria style melody where Chopin was successful in altogether blurring the line between the piano and a human voice. It was heartbreaking and poetry in the hands of Ohlsson. We hear the rhythm of the Polish mazurka in the third movement, the virtuosic piano dominating the music, with the orchestra “relegated to the roles of cushion and punctuation mark.” 

The Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra was responsive to Ohlsson’s advances, a group and piano so well suited to each other. Ohlsson, a tall and genial fellow, was pure focus at the keyboard, no nonsense, no dramatics; he was in complete control, his piano seemingly outrunning every piano before and since. With the final notes, the orchestra vigorously tapped their music stands, Ohlsson, heartfelt, hugged conductor Kaspszyk as if he really enjoyed himselft, and treated the audience to an encore of Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 50 No. 3, so pleasing to the palate. 

No wonder why we want more symphonies from Brahms. For many of us, our very first introduction to classical music occurred in our first few days on the planet when our mom or dad hummed the Brahms' lullaby (Brahms Op.49, No. 4, published in 1868), a motif Brahms loved so much it showed up 9 years later in the first movement of his second Symphony. And speaking of symphonies, apparently four from Brahms wasn’t quite enough.

Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25 (orchestrated by Schoenberg) has been affectionately called Brahms' Fifth Symphony. 

One of the “Three Bs” (on the shelf with Bach and Beethoven), Brahms is often considered both a traditionalist and an innovator. Looking both backward and forward, his music is “firmly rooted in the Baroque and Classical disciplines, segueing into bold new approaches to harmony, melody and, especially, rhythm.” 

Inspiration marinated in irony gives an avant-garde zest to a conservative flavor. Though their lives overlapped by 23 years, Brahms was distinctly 19th century Romantic and Schoenberg a 20th century bully of the contemporary twelve-tone system. They were divided by 2 degrees of separation. Brahms encouraged the young composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, who was in turn the teacher of Arnold Schoenberg. Brahms was apparently impressed by two movements of Schoenberg's early Quartet in D major which Zemlinsky showed him. Thirty five years after Brahms’s death, Schoenberg wrote an essay which drew attention to Brahms's fondness for “motivic saturation and irregularities of rhythm and phrase” and later analyzed Brahms's "enriched harmony and exploration of remote tonal regions”—all ingredients which Schoenberg heaped upon Brahms’s piano quartet in 1937. 

Schoenberg was careful not to change a single note of Brahms' original chamber scoring. His orchestration simply leavens the spirit of the original, expanding one of the most splendid pieces in the chamber canon. “Interrupted climaxes developing into mounting ecstasy that belie the transparency of the original quartet instrumentation, Schoenberg’s arrangement perhaps fulfills the composer's intentions, succeeding in bringing out the symphony that was always trying to emerge from this most determined quartet.” 

The Epic or Wishful Symphony, what I am calling this work, is an ambitious piece which pulls out all the stops on melody, tempo and rhythm with a sound so big it required a larger hall; it spilled out of the doorways into the lobby and onto the street. I even found a little piece of it in the pocket of my sport coat after I got home. 

This entrée was mega delicious. The opening Allegro was laced with louds and softs with a soothing extended chord to end the movement. The second movement (Intermezzo) featured strong strings which took us on a jolly ride giving over to the different sections: brass, strings, and woodwinds. The third (Andante) was rich with passion, the full orchestra submitting to the strings and back again, a percussive blast almost heralding some sovereign or dignitary. Soaring lush light uplifted us into the final movement (Rondo) which presented with contemporary interplay featuring the xylophone and percussive section (foreign to Brahms' sound world) topped off with tempo changes bringing every imaginable mood, expressive, dramatic and fervent. Kaspszyk was consistently decisive with his baton and the Wroclaw Philharmonic supplied an abundant depth with eight double basses and 10 cellos, the orchestra’s entrances remaining clean, tight and sharp throughout the evening meal. 

And if that sound wasn’t big enough for the whistles, bravos and cheers from a stunned audience, Kaspszyk and the Wroclaw encored with Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, the gold standard for twists and turns, beautifully rendered, a most satisfying dessert.