Marin Alsop conducted the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in a colorful program with a Slavic twist in Katowice on International Women’s Day. While the day of observance has been around for a century, it’s only been 14 years since Alsop became the first woman to be appointed music director of a major US symphony orchestra (the Baltimore, in 2007). Alsop enjoyed a successful career with Baltimore before her resignation was announced last year, and she currently serves as Music Director of the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Director of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Marin Alsop
© Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

Monday’s tidy little concert, all wrapped up in less than an hour, was a tribute not just to women, but also to Alsop herself, a first-rate conductor by any standard. She led the program with vigor and aplomb, infusing the players of the Polish orchestra with energy that awakened the senses and echoed within the heart.

While the program was essentially “all modern”, it took an inverted pyramid approach, starting off with the most challenging work, Stanisław Skrowaczewski’s Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra, followed by Two Composers, Four Hands for Double String Orchestra, a sweeter sounding selection for strings by contemporary British composer of Polish ancestry, Roxanna Panufnik. The program concluded with an even softer side of modern, Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, a jaunty reworking of themes he composed as a lad.

Piotr Pyc plays Skrowaczewski
© Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

Piotr Pyc gave a mesmerizing performance in the English horn solo in the opening work. Composers: please write more for this captivating instrument, with its impressive range, chocolaty depth, and timbre so similar to the human voice. Pyc was absolutely amazing in bringing out the very highest and lowest tones with lissome grace. The intonation and phrasing were spectacularly good, and it was a thrill just to see this instrument – usually hidden beside the oboes – front and center, with its silvery keys gleaming boldly under the house lights.

The work has an interesting integration and structure, flirts with atonality, and occasionally indulges in a mean, but short-lived dissonance. At one point, notes exploded like corn in a popper, ricocheting off each other. What a wake-up call at the very beginning of a concert!

Marin Alsop conducts the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
© Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

Panufnik’s enigmatically titled work provided an interesting stepping-stone as the program unfolded. The two composers honored in this enigmatically titled selection are Witold Lutosławski and her father, Andrzej Panufnik, but I’m not sure if the four hands are theirs. This serenade-like work affectionately exploits the resources of an all-string section, from glissandi that shimmer like butterfly wings to whole sections whispering like intimate conversations. Like her father, Panufnik is a very highly respected composed in the UK; she deserves to be heard more widely.

The program concluded with the familiar Prokofiev Classical Symphony. Alsop presented the youthful themes with enthusiasm and tenderness, bringing out the colors of the orchestra, which, after the all-string selection, sounded so full of woodwinds, rising like spring birds, their bright notes dancing in the air.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream