Young Conductor Soars With Orchestra’s Legacy In Tchaikovsky Triumph

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The emerging Polish conductor Anna Sułkowska-Migoń led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a knockout performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. (Photo by Jessica Griffin)

PHILADELPHIA — Legend has it that at the height of Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra tenure, recording executives could phone him up for an emergency Tchaikovsky 5 taping and have it delivered within days. If it’s not true, it should be, because that story indicates what Tchaikovskian blood courses through the orchestra, enabling the emerging Polish conductor Anna Sułkowska-Migoń to have a knockout performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony at her debut series of concerts, heard Jan. 13 at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center.

Though the safe composer of choice for important conductor debuts is Dvořák these days, Sułkowska-Migoń’s program, in contrast, included Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto No. 2 and Feliks Nowowiejski’s overture to The Legend of the Baltic, neither of which hang together well without special skill. And though the Tchaikovsky Fifth rarely fails to thrill audiences, tempo changes are tricky. Not every conductor can convey the simultaneous extremes of despair and triumph that appear in endlessly varied guises — as she did.

Anna Sułkowska-Migoń (@Joanna Gałuszka)

Winner of the La Maestra conducting competition in 2022 and now making the rounds with good second-tier orchestras, Sułkowska-Migoń, 26, did play it a bit safe with somewhat conventional Tchaikovsky tempos in what was one of her most high-profile engagements yet. What distinguished the interpretation was special concentration in opening moments of each movement, especially the first two. The most microscopic changes of instrumental texture were apparent so that listeners heard ever more precisely the starting points of each movement, all with subtle phrase readings and achieved without stretching the shape of what’s on the page.

Her conducting technique has a solid, clear right arm that sets tempo and rhythm, with a less-busy left arm shaping phrases. She didn’t micro-manage but just let the orchestra play, especially in the all-important solos such as the famous second-movement horn turn (typically well done by Jennifer Montone). The third-movement waltz had both grace and foreboding undercurrents. Without pause, she dove straight into the ebb-and-flow ferocity that’s necessary in the final movement.

Did Sułkowska-Migoń simply turn the orchestra’s ignition key and let it drive itself? Well, what would the concert be if the Tchaikovsky performance in any way obscured the famous Philadelphia Orchestra imprint? It’s no easy trick to maintain a high level of orchestral engagement in such well-trodden musical territory.

The two other composers, far less known to American audiences, weren’t best represented by the pieces on the program. Zhao’s Pipa Concerto No. 2, for one, was a last-minute replacement for the postponed premiere of the Du Yun’s Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra (Ears of the Book), which will be unveiled by The Knights Feb. 29 at Zankel Hall in New York. Zhao’s concerto was a pleasing substitute. The composer (b. 1945) made his name writing scores to prestige films such as Farewell My Concubine but has also written a number of Westernized concert works, such as his Cello Concerto, that slot easily into the modern symphonic repertoire.

The very nature of the solo instrument in the dependably effective Pipa Concerto No. 2 (premiered in 2013 with Wu Man as soloist) dictates an East-meets-West vocabulary. The one-movement work presents a series of themes, many having delicate-as-blossoms lyricism, that are more-than-credibly developed, often introduced by the orchestra and then taken up by the pipa in its distinctive manner of sustaining soaring, cinematic themes with the warp-speed repeated plucking of a given note. Some of the piece’s tropes include a recurring out-of-left-field pastoral flute commentary. Most dramatic are the stinging orchestral dissonances leading to a virtuoso cadenza, suggesting an inner narrative (not elucidated in the program notes) taking precedence over well-rounded concerto form.

Wu Man was the soloist in Zhao Jiping’s Pipa Concerto No. 2, which was written for her, with the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Anna Sułkowska-Migoń. (Photo by Jessica Griffin)

This romantic, neo-tonal Western classical-music idiom can sound second-hand to American and European ears but seems to speak directly to the Asian audience, especially with Chinese orchestras that give the agreeable, deeply conservative music extra ounces of sincerity. That mattered less in Philadelphia with the in-person impact of Wu Man, the charismatic soloist, with her ability to make a single note speak volumes, plus exhilarating glissandos achieved by running her hand up the instrument’s fingerboard.

Nowowiejski (1877-1946) was, as the conductor explained in her charming pre-performance comments, quite succcessful in his own time (often with large-scale oratorios) but was subsequently forgotten amid the shifting political and artistic winds of the two world wars. The 1924 overture to his opera The Legend of the Baltic feels like Nowowiejski’s answer to Sibelius’ Finlandia — a big, brass-centric, seemingly patriotic work that is effectively communicative but whose brief middle-section interlude with celesta and harp is the only hint at this composer’s more distinctive imagination. Nowowiejski was roughly 20 opus numbers away from the more recklessly polytonal concertos he later wrote, and hopefully those will be part of Sułkowska-Migoń’s crusade to rediscover his music.