The Gaillard was jam-packed Monday evening for the Charleston Concert Association's season-opening salvo, courtesy of master conductor Antoni Wit and his wonderful Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra.
This is the third major Eastern European orchestra the CCA has brought to Charleston in recent years (the others being the Hungarian National Philharmonic and the Czech Philharmonic), and all three are first-rate.
The program got off to a rousing start with Orawa, an arresting piece by contemporary Polish composer Wojciech Kilar. The colorful music, for strings only, evokes the regional flavors of the Carpathian mountain border region through which the River Orawa flows.
I'd describe its style as a sort of interrupted minimalism with repetitive themes and kinetic rhythms bouncing back and forth between small clusters of instruments and the entire orchestra. Subdued passages were punctuated with startling outbursts. Its pentatonic modality kept dissonance to a minimum while lending the music a primitive feel.
I haven't seen so many stringed instruments onstage since Spoleto — and their massed sound was lush and creamy. The piece ended with a lusty vocal shout from the players, prompting a gush of ecstatic applause. So much for the widespread and misguided notion that today's composers can't write crowd-pleasers.
Speaking of crowd-pleasers, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 is perhaps the most popular work of its kind. And no wonder: It overflows with gorgeous melody, nail-biting excitement, and staggering keyboard fireworks. Joining the orchestra for a memorable go at this beloved warhorse was Ukrainian virtuoso Valentina Lisitsa.
She's a tall, blond beauty — and a formidable piano presence. There was an authoritative, muscular power to her playing that eludes many female pianists. Yet she brought feminine grace and smoothness to several virtuosic passages that many tend to bulldoze their way through. Her slower moments were models of aching yet unforced emotion.
She took some risks, and not all of them paid off. She tore into the first movement's fearsome, thundering octave passages with reckless abandon — and left more than a few missed notes and some brief stretches of sloppy passagework in her wake. Still, the net effect was electric.
After intermission, the full orchestra got to shine in Tchaikovsky's final, searing Symphony No. 6, the Pathetique. It was written in a burst of good spirits and creative energy just before the final fit of despair that preceded his untimely death. Some say it was a scandal-induced suicide (he was gay).
The first movement is mostly a somber affair, with episodes of melancholy and sad sweetness alternating with passages of tense, fearful foreboding. The WP's singing strings did yearning justice to the saccharine main melody before the movement diminished into its depressive ending. But Maestro Wit never let the going get maudlin or overwrought.
But not all was grief and misery. The flowing second movement is a lilting quasi-waltz (in 5/4 time) that sports a sort of gentle, somewhat limping gait; it got a graceful and elegant reading. The mellow woodwinds and blazing brasses sounded glorious in the third movement's snappy, happy march.
The slow, wrenching finale took us back to the opening mood and put it on steroids. In all of Western music, there's very little that can match its sense of anguished heartbreak. Again, Wit and company plumbed its soul-rending depths to perfection, leaving their stunned audience to wallow in the wretched, rock-bottom gloom of the final soft chords for a few silent seconds before the applause stuttered and swelled to a screaming standing ovation.