Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which gave a memorable Strathmore Hall concert on Friday night, might be the most listened-to orchestra you have never heard of. The orchestra -- formed at the turn of the 20th century, emerging through war and recovery to become Poland's most elite group -- is a favorite with the budget recording label Naxos. Producers love the low fees. Buyers eagerly accept the lesser-known in exchange for subterranean prices. The result: huge sales with millions of Philharmonic recordings filling collections.
As the evening of two Tchaikovsky chestnuts (made new) and a piece by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (played resplendently) demonstrated, the Warsaw gives no ground to more starry European orchestras in terms of quality. The musicmaking is smooth and natural, emerging with a burnished elegance. Longtime Artistic Director Antoni Wit, looking very much the part of the patrician maestro with gray hair and noble bearing, has preserved an Old World sound. Silky strings, earthy woodwinds and molten brass link to the past.
The orchestra is unparalleled in the scores of Polish contemporary composers who make up the "Polish Renaissance." Kilar's "Orawa" is a folk dance refracted through the lens of musical minimalism. The orchestra brought poise and accent to the contrasts between the churning small instrument groups and pulsing, larger orchestral outbursts.
The group also drew on warm ensemble and responsiveness in the crowd-pleasing Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. Valentina Lisitsa from Ukraine was the fine soloist in an account that was, thanks to precise balances and the soloist's use of a mellow-toned Bosendorfer piano, more somber and carefully wrought than steely and thunderous. Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony paid a debt to Mozart in its open textures, while presaging Mahler with its power and pathos.
-- Daniel Ginsberg
City Choir of Washington
For 40 years, Robert Shafer has been conducting choral music in Washington, often to great acclaim. As the second season of his 90-voice City Choir of Washington opened with a performance of Handel's "Israel in Egypt" at Schlesinger Hall in Alexandria, he showed off his impressive skill and infectious grasp of the epic. But, as is often the case, a bit of a sophomore slump was in evidence.
"Israel in Egypt" embodies the drama of the Israelites' release from the bondage of the pharaoh -- from a cataloguing of plagues inflicted by Jehovah on the Egyptians to the crossing of the Red Sea, culminating in exultant praise of the Lord. The work is almost entirely about the choir, with diverse, challenging choruses giving voice to texts from Exodus and the Psalms.
City Choir has a clean, cohesive sound, well suited to the many shifts in color and dynamics in Handel's behemoth. But when the singers came to midrange, less exciting sections of the work, their voices tended to blur and tone became fuzzy. Entrances, particularly among men, could have been more confident.
Among the soloists, Danielle Talamantes's silvery soprano sounded fragile, and not up for competition with an orchestra that should have been toned down. Countertenor Jay Carter displayed fresh, focused sound and stylistic command, but there were intonation issues in his final solo. Tenor Robert Petillo sang compellingly, but lacked consistency.
The highlights of the piece, however, were as effective as ever. Galvanized by Shafer, City Choir imbued Handel's complex fugues and double choruses with emphatic energy, precision and palpable emotion.