The National Philharmonic marked the 100th anniversary of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s birth by giving what was billed as the local premiere of one of his landmark works, “Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux,” on Sunday at Strathmore.
It is a puzzling work, requiring two conductors to coordinate masses of semi-improvised sound from, on one side of the stage, an instrumental wing of winds, brass, two pianos and percussion, and, on the other, a whispering, moaning, keening and shouting small chorus, combined in a technique the composer called “aleatory counterpoint.” This may sound like chaos, and it was at times, but the music is carefully constructed to follow the tragic contour of Michaux’s hallucinogenic poetry, a story of troubled thoughts, a surreal battle punctuated with neologisms and melancholy resignation.
The achievement of the Lutoslawski piece was made possible, perhaps, by pairing it with a middling performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The Nazi associations of Orff, and of the piece itself somewhat less concretely, are enough to make me queasy, but that has done surprisingly little to dampen the popularity of this salacious, hypnotic, brutish cantata. On the positive side, tenor Robert Baker had an operatic, even campy turn as the roasted swan, and Audrey Luna brought innocence and flute-like clarity to the amorous sighs of the soprano solos in “The Court of Love.” On the negative, conductor Stan Engebretson had some trouble keeping all of his forces on the same rhythmic page, and there were too many disagreements of intonation across the board, most notably as the baritone soloist strained, unsuccessfully, for the part’s highest notes.
Downey is a freelance writer.