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November 23, 2008

Impressive orchestra, conductor, pianist; lousy piano

The Warsaw Philharmonic breezed through the region over the weekend, stopping by North Bethesda for a concert presented by the Music Center at Strathmore Friday night and reaching impressive peaks in a mostly-Tchaikovsky program.

Before turning to the Russian composer, the orchestra’s general and artistic director conductor, Antoni Wit, led the dynamic string section in a diverting piece of contemporary Polish music, Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa, from 1986. Propelled by infectious minimalist motor rhythms, with an extra kick of folk dance idioms, the score creates all sorts of effective colors and nuances as it builds toward its vigorous close — capped by an earthy "hey" shouted by all the players (I wasn’t entirely convinced by that bit).

Valentina LisitsaTwo of Tchaikovsky’s most pervasive works filled the rest of the evening. The Piano Concerto No. 1 provided a terrific vehicle for Russian-born Valentina Lisitsa. Since the first time I heard her years ago, I was struck by her almost nonchalant virtuosity. Octaves faster than the speed of light? No problem. Thunderous tone you can hear in the next county? Piece of cake. But Lisitsa is not just a technical powerhouse. She can be a marvelous phrase-sculptor, too.

Her talents are tailor-made to the Tchaikovsky concerto. If only the same could be said of the piano provided for this occasion. A Bosendorfer grand can sound like the Rolls-Royce of keyboard instruments; this one suggested more of a Yugo. It was baffling that such a clunker was allowed onstage.

Still, Lisitsa proved undaunted. The velocity and vitality of her playing in the work’s most bravura passages was often astonishing. Folks who take a dim view of pianistic speed would have been appalled; those who fret over an occasional dropped note would have tut-tutted, too. But I loved the way she tore into the music, finding fresh ways of articulating as she went. And the lyrical side of the concert was hardly slighted; beautiful things happened in the songful portions of the middle movement.

Wit’s smooth partnering assured a tight, committed response from the Philharmonic, which, aside from a few uneven entrances and iffy horn notes, also shone in the Pathetique Symphony. The conductor’s knowing way with this familiar score yielded a passionate, but always under-control, performance. The opening movement had a deeply expressive weight, and tremendous drive after the explosive midway point. The march galloped along mightily. The most affecting moment came right at the end — a long, poignant diminuendo from the basses. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that done so well, so communicatively in a live performance.


Posted by Tim Smith at 2:07 PM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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