By John Fleming
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Giancarlo Guerrero is relatively new to Poland – his tenure as music director of the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic began less than three years ago – but he has become a passionate advocate of the country’s musical heritage.
“I’ve had to become a Polish music expert, and that’s been one of the great joys of my time here,” the Nicaraguan-born Guerrero said in a recent phone interview from Wrocław. “There is a great sense of pride in Poland in their music and composers. When we perform this music, for the musicians it goes beyond just playing beautiful music – it goes almost to the core of who they are. They’re so proud of being cultural ambassadors for the country.”
Guerrero, who is also in his eleventh season as music director of the Nashville Symphony, is leading the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic in a U.S. tour, encompassing thirteen concerts in twelve cities over three weeks. Much of the repertoire is fittingly Polish, with works by Chopin, Szymanowski, and Lutosławski alongside, on most programs, the Brahms First Symphony or Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World).
Wrocław (pronounced VROTS-laff), located in western Poland in the region of Silesia, is the country’s fourth-largest city, with a population of about 640,000. Its history goes back a thousand years, and the city has long been musically notable. In 1830 Chopin played the rondo from his E minor Piano Concerto in an orchestra concert in Breslau (as Wrocław was named under Prussian/German rule), and when Brahms received an honorary degree from the University of Breslau in 1880, he conducted his Academic Festival Overture, composed for the occasion.
Various iterations of the Wrocław Philharmonic have existed since the end of World War II. It was called the Witold Lutosławski Philharmonic, in honor of the composer, for 20 years until it became part of the National Forum of Music, a post-modern multi-venue complex that was completed in 2015. The 1,800-seat concert hall has been widely praised for the warmth and responsiveness of its acoustics. Said Simon Rattle, who brought the London Symphony Orchestra there for a concert last year: “Wrocław has one of the greatest European concert halls, a joy for us all to perform in. Lucky city!”
Raising the profile of the National Forum of Music, located downtown across a plaza from the Wrocław Opera house (built in 1841), is the impetus for the U.S. tour. “The opening of the hall five years ago has really been the reason that the orchestra has wanted to make itself a bigger part of the cultural life not only in Poland but in Europe and around the world,” Guerrero said. “This is the second time I’ve taken the orchestra on tour. Last year, we went to Hamburg to play in the new Elbphilharmonie and a couple of other German cities. Touring is a big part of our long-range planning of reaching beyond the city’s borders.”
In the U.S., Guerrero and the orchestra are traveling with 100 players, and they all appeared to be on stage for Szymanowski’s Concert Overture, the lively curtain-raiser of the tour’s first concert on Jan. 10, at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, one of four stops on the Florida swing of the tour. Composed by Szymanowski under the influence of Richard Strauss, and premiered in Warsaw in 1906, the twelve-minute overture is not an especially familiar piece (I had never heard it live), but it proved to be an attractive, opulent affair, all blazing brass and cymbal-heavy percussion at the start, then transitioning into lots of sweeping, Romantic strings, the rich orchestral coloring punctuated from time to time by languid solo harp. In the last four concerts of the tour, in Arizona and California, the programs will include Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with soloist Bomsori Kim.
Pianist David Fray had to put up with what sounded like a balky instrument (a not uncommon problem for touring pianists) in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, as the opening movement was plagued by a certain heaviness in the fingering, perhaps as the result of labored action in the keys. His playing seemed like more work than it should be for a virtuoso. To his credit, the French pianist adapted to whatever the matter was and recovered nicely in the Larghetto, one of the trickier slow movements in the literature.
Certainly, he was helped by Guerrero, who maintained fine balance between soloist and orchestra, and the players, who clearly know their Chopin in a deep, instinctive way, but Fray also rose to the moment in an exquisite, almost jazzy sequence between piano and bassoon. The finale was suitably exciting, with Fray racing brilliantly up and down the keyboard, at times flipping his long hair in emphatic counterpoint to Chopin’s fleet, luminescent runs.
From the New World occupied the second act of the program, and the orchestra gave an excellent, more or less conventional account of the ever-popular work. The winds in particular distinguished themselves in Dvořák’s evocative melodies, while Guerrero brought Bernstein-like energy and flamboyance to the podium. They wound up the evening with a pair of encores, the Dvořák Slavonic Dance No. 8 and Thunder and Lightning Polka by Johann Strauss II.
Guerrero was looking forward to the Jan. 21 concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of his Nashville Symphony. The program includes the only performance on the tour of Lutosławski’s great Concerto for Orchestra, although his Symphonic Variations is being played at many of the stops. The NFM Wrocław Philharmonic is especially good in their onetime namesake’s music, as demonstrated by its performances in a superb series of seven CDs of the composer’s complete works, Lutosławski: Opera Omnia on the Accord label.
With the Nashville Symphony, Guerrero has made his mark by championing American music, with CDs of works by Joan Tower, Michael Daugherty, Jonathan Leshnoff, John Harbison, Richard Danielpour, Jennifer Higdon, and others for Naxos (whose North American headquarters is in a Nashville suburb). He has had success bringing American music to Wrocław, including a 2019 performance of John Adams’ Harmonielehre. On May 22, Guerrero will be back at the National Forum of Music to lead the orchestra in Stephen Paulus’ Grand Concerto for Organ and Orchestra, with Paul Jacobs as soloist.
John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.