“Voices of the Mountains” rattles Carnegie with multi-genre Polish soul

Thu Nov 15, 2018 at 2:42 pm
Conductor Marek Moś and the Highlanders Quartet were among the participants in "Voices of the Mountains," presented by Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine

Conductor Marek Moś and the Highlanders Quartet were among the participants in “Voices of the Mountains,” presented by Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine

It seemed as though more Polish than English was being spoken in the aisles of Carnegie Hall Wednesday night, as Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki-Polish National Opera brought its multimedia cultural show Voices of the Mountains to town for its North American premiere.

Over a dozen folk and classical musicians performed while black-and-white projections gave glimpses of rugged mountain scenery and traditional village life in the Tatras region, considered to be one of the spiritual centers of Polish culture.

Distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow music blurred frequently. In a particularly striking example, pianist Janusz Olejniczak accompanied singer and fiddler Sebastian Karpiel-Bułecka in a passionate folk song, then slid almost imperceptibly into Chopin’s dreamy Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2. How Polish was Chopin?  On this night, very.

The show was conceived in 2011 by Olejniczak along with Waldemar Dąbrowski and Jolanta Trykacz, the general director and executive producer, respectively, of the Polish National Opera. Since then it has played in venues from Spain to Kazakhstan.

On Wednesday, instruments and voices were amplified to easily fill the large hall. A folk music group in traditional attire, Sebastian Karpiel-Bułecka’s Highlanders Quartet, opened the show fortissimo with a folk song a cappella, their high, sinewy male voices rattling Carnegie’s venerable plaster, before swinging into lively string-band music.

Then it was all hands on deck for the Piano Concerto No. 1 by the late concert and film composer Wojciech Kilar, arranged by Jan Smoczyński for the forces available in this show: two string quartets from Poland, the Atom String Quartet and Neoquartet; the Highlanders folk group; drummer Jan Młynarski; double bassist Andrzej Święs; and Smoczyński on keyboards. (Mateusz Smoczyński, a violinist in the Atom Quartet, was credited with “reduction of the original orchestra parts.”)

Piano soloist Olejniczak deftly managed the concerto’s ever-shifting minimalist figurations: a watery burble in the Prelude, chant-like steady chords in the Choral, and presto repeated chords in the closing Toccata. Conductor Marek Moś kept his motley ensemble on the minimal straight-and-narrow, to hypnotic effect.

Since that minimalist piano concerto went so well, why not play another?  After a pause for the folk/Chopin number described above, it was on to the hard-driving Concerto for Piano (originally harpsichord) and Strings, Op. 40, by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.

The brief two-movement work began with a chant-like string melody driven by rapid piano scales, somewhat in the manner of a Chopin “small note” prelude, then shifted gears into a chattering Vivace marcatissimo, the piano part turning into a blur. (When it was over, pianist Olejniczak shook hands with his page turner.)

Then it was time for virtuosity country-style, as Karpiel-Bułecka pumped up his bagpipe for a skirling dance, played some Polish turkey-in-the-straw on the fiddle to a steady beat from his three colleagues, and finally joined them in raucous song. (Translation not provided, perhaps because there were children in the audience.)

Another Chopinesque interlude followed, consisting of Szymanowski’s Mazurkas Op. 50, Nos. 1 and 2, in a protean arrangement by Jan Smoczyński for Olejniczak and a jazz quartet consisting of violinist Mateuz Smoczyński, drummer Młynarski, bassist Święs, and Jan Smoczyński at the second piano.

After Olejniczak played Szymanowski’s melancholy dance “straight,” Młynarski began a drum solo pianissimo, gradually swelling and adding licks until he had a cadenza going that Gene Krupa might have envied. The other three jazz players jumped in, trading solos and building to an all-out climax that had the audience cheering at the end.

To wind down, idyllic mountain scenes were projected on the back wall as Mateuz Smoczyński’s colleagues in the Atom Quartet joined him center stage to play his lyrical piece Zakopane, named for the principal town of the Tatras region. A gentle mountain breeze seemed to blow through the long non-vibrato chords and the violin melody in ethereal harmonics.

The minimalist engine chugged again in the show’s closing number, Kilar’s Orawa, originally for string orchestra but opened up by arranger Jan Smoczyński into a Bartókian crescendo for all present, including a stunning vocal entrance by the four folk singers at the fortissimo climax. Conductor Moś gauged his effects and brought it all to a satisfying finish.

The players acknowledged the enthusiastic applause by encoring two numbers from the show: the evocative folk/Chopin duet of Olejniczak and Karpiel-Bułecka and the fiery Toccata from Kilar’s concerto.

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