Penderecki concert with a taste of Lutoslawski

Krystian Zimerman, Philadelphia Orchestra
The Philadelphia Inquirer

The Philadelphia Orchestra would seem to be evolving a tradition of cryptofestivals. Last season, the orchestra held a Leonard Bernstein celebration that was more significant for having two Jennifer Higdon premieres. Now, "Happy Birthday Penderecki" - a special talk-and-play Access Concert to celebrate Kryzsztof Penderecki's 75th birthday on Tuesday at the Kimmel Center - came with the Piano Concerto of Penderecki's late countryman, Witold Lutoslawski (whose Concerto for Orchestra also began the current season).

I'll take what I'm offered: The 1988 Piano Concerto is one of the best works of its kind, and was performed by the beloved Krystian Zimerman, for whom it was written. But why only one night? Why bring in such a great artist through the side door? Why was the piano so out of tune?

In any case, the concert was as good as it was odd.

The Lutoslawski Piano Concerto is charmingly derivative yet completely original, occasionally recalled Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 with its chord structures and pastoral qualities, Olivier Messiaen when the pastoral qualities turn into bird life. The composer's meticulous sense of integration incorporated everything into his relatively genteel brand of atonality.

The extended cadence was electrifying under Zimerman, who brings an insistent robustness to every voice in any given chord, so that even if you're trying to make your way through this dense piece by listening to the outlines, you get a lot more than that. The audience cheered. But think of what could have been achieved with a better piano and more rehearsal with a master logician like chief conductor Charles Dutoit.

The Penderecki portion of the concert featured the Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Three Cellos and Orchestra (already discussed in recent days) with a fine, lucid analysis by Philadelphia composer Cynthia Folio that cleverly began by analyzing the "Happy Birthday" tune. The audience seemed to have a quantum leap in appreciation. The three cellists were in even more keen form than last week: Daniel Müller-Schott with his even, vigorous bowing arm, Ha-Na Chang with her rich tone, and Arto Noras with his cultivated poetry.

Also, pairing Penderecki and Lutoslawski showed how musical edifices are built on functional thematic material that supports the structure rather than charming the ear. Maybe you can't walk out humming the structure, but it stays with you. And isn't humming overrated?