Following the National Anthem, Robertson ignited the new season with the Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994). Completed in 1954, the Concerto is already 58 years old, but it remains fresh and vibrant, redolent of the creative, yet often unrealized, promise of the iconoclastic composers of the 20th century. Lutoslawski’s music is original and innovative, yet melodic and rhythmically phrased. Listeners who are uncomfortable with contemporary music may find this a wonderful piece by which to increase their appreciation of the style. One got the feeling that Lutoslawski’s desire was not to shock the audience so much as to show them a new way of expressing melody and emotion, perhaps somewhat as did Bartok and Prokofiev. It was almost as though the waves of sound coming from the orchestra, some like mini-tsunamis, others like a quiet surf, bore the listeners across a sea passing by landscapes of lands not yet visited, but perhaps dreamed of.
The second work on the program, also the creation of a Polish composer, sprang from the prolific pen of Frederic Chopin, the Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, with Polish-born pianist Emmanuel Ax as soloist. One of the great masterpieces of the Romantic era, many lovers of this work are scarcely aware that it was completed in 1829, when the composer was only 19. His too-short life would close in 1849, only 20 years later, but his imprint as a Romantic, and a musical innovator whose ideas perhaps are still not fully comprehended, will linger forever.
Although most concert-goers have heard this concerto many times, nevertheless Ax managed to impart a dramatic and sparkling spontaneity to the performance that eliminated any possibility of a routine or hackneyed delivery. Ax played with perhaps more force than would many performers, but we know from Chopin’s own accounts that he wished his own playing could be more forceful and that the pianos of his day could have produced deeper and more resonant sounds. Ax brought particular refinement to the middle movement, generally believed to have been intended as a love song, taking great care to outline Chopin’s remarkable twisting harmony that have grabbed the heartstrings of generations of listeners. Likewise, the concluding movement fully embodied the capricious spirit of Polish folkdances, and there was no shortage of musical fireworks near the end.
The concluding work on the program was a musical journey like no other. Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, first performed in 1924, captured the beauty and glory throughout history of Rome as no photograph ever could. The four movements give us soundscapes of children playing, Christians treading lightly through the catacombs, the peace of nature in a forest, replete with a recording of the song of a nightingale accompanying the orchestra, and the imperial grandeur of the Roman army marching along the Appian Way.
Robertson chose to station brass players in the balcony for the concluding movement, in addition to those who remained onstage. The result was a “sense-surrounding” performance that completely enveloped the audience. The relentless, thundering pounding of the soldiers’ feet as they marched was echoed in an unstoppable swell from the orchestra. This was music at its most visceral.
Opening weekend at Powell Hall journeyed through love, war, nature, human longings, history, modernism, introspection, and numerous other vicissitudes of life on our planet. A great harbinger of things to come, and a reminder of what we cherish in music.