WARSAW, Poland — The woman welcoming members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to the Fryderyk Chopin Museum was more than a little happy to see them.
“I have been waiting 20 years for you to come to Poland,” Monika Strugala, the Fryderyk Chopin Institute’s VIP projects coordinator, told the 30 or so visitors clustered at the bottom of the stairs Sunday afternoon. “This is my dream come true.”
A bit later, upon realizing that a visitor who’d been asking about the museum’s electronic displays was CSO concertmaster Robert Chen, she squeezed his shoulders and said, “Hi, we’re so happy you’re here.”
“We’re happy to be here,” Chen replied.
Others in town shared Strugala’s enthusiasm as the CSO made the Warsaw Philharmonic the first stop on a 2-1/2 week European tour that includes performances in Luxembourg; Geneva, Switzerland (another first-time CSO appearance); Paris; and finally Vienna, Austria, where the orchestra will remain for a week-long residency that includes four concerts.
“Finally it happened,” Warsaw Philharmonic director Wojciech Nowak said in the lobby before Monday night’s concert. “People are very excited because they know the quality of the orchestra. In America it’s the best orchestra of the moment.”
CSO tickets at the Warsaw Philharmonic, a relatively small hall with about 1,100 seats, sold out within an hour, Nowak said. “We could have easily done more concerts,” Nowak said. “Vienna can afford it. We can’t.”
Strugala was working at the Warsaw Philharmonic two decades ago when, she said, she first approached Vanessa Moss, now the CSO’s vice president of orchestra and building operations, about the orchestra visiting the world’s only city known to have more Polish inhabitants than Chicago. She tried again in subsequent years, but the pieces never fell into place.
Yet two years ago it was Moss who called Strugala, who had since joined the Chopin Institute but was still close with her Warsaw Philharmonic colleagues. Music director Riccardo Muti has made a priority out of visiting European capitals as well as cities new to the CSO, so Warsaw fit that double bill. Plus, Moss noted the “many fantastic composers” from Poland who have been in the CSO’s repertoire: Henryk Gorecki, Krzysztof Penderecki, Karol Szymanowski, Witold Lutoslawski.
“We’d never been here, and it’s crazy when you think about Chicago and its Polish population,” Moss said on the bus ride to the Chopin Museum.
The cultural exchange of a tour goes in more than one direction. The CSO traveling party of 180 — including musicians, some spouses/partners, staff members and patrons — arrived in Warsaw over the weekend and immediately began immersing themselves in the city, whether that be visiting museums dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising or Chopin, hiring guides to take them to significant sites in the tragic Jewish history here, strolling the city or sharing pierogies and nightcaps of Slivovitz.
Violist Max Raimi, who took the tour of Jewish sites, said traveling to Poland was a loaded proposition for him given the tales of anti-Semitism from his grandfather, who grew up in a small Polish town. But he was glad to perform in Warsaw, this Warsaw, now.
“It’s really important for this part of the world to be part of the larger cultural world,” he said.
Warsaw has been rebuilt almost completely since the Nazis leveled it and killed much of the population during World War II, with the Soviets then ruling until democracy prevailed in 1989. There’s the quaintness of the recreated Old Town, with its colorful throwback buildings and large plazas; the wide walkways, planters and elegant shops of Nowy Swiat (New World); the massive Stalin-built Palace of Culture and Science skyscraper that looms over the City Centre; the anonymous Soviet high rises lining wide roadways; and an influx of modern, architecturally funky glass towers being built all over the city.
As part of the orchestra’s ongoing Citizen Musician initiative, CSO principal second violin Baird Dodge performed in a suburban home for the blind Sunday with violinist Anthony Devroye (a substitute player on this tour) and four young Warsaw musicians. Afterward children took Dodge by the hand, showed him their rooms and delighted in handling his violin.
To Dodge, who arrived at the home via taxi from the airport, the visit was a welcome antidote to the usual tour grind, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to community interaction given the needs to prepare for performances while dealing with jet lag. “We tend to almost be racehorses with blinders on,” Dodge said. “It’s almost isolating in itself. Hopefully you’re bringing something of value to them (because) music is universal.”
After the orchestra’s rehearsal in the hall Monday, a quintet of other CSO musicians performed for about 100 patients, parents and medical staff at a Warsaw children’s hospital. One girl wanted to know whether J. Lawrie Bloom’s bass clarinet was taller than she is. It was.
“Even just visiting a hospital, a space we wouldn’t normally see (on tour), it lends a little more depth, getting to know the people,” assistant concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu, whose Civitas Ensemble also performs at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, said on the bus ride back to the hotel.
Music is a prominent element of this city. The crosswalks in front of the Palace of Culture and Science are in the shape of piano keys. There are also pianos on some sidewalks, a girl playing one here, a young man playing one there; what looked like a young brother and sister playing accordions for money across the street from one another; a middle-aged man grinding the crank of a stand-up music box in the Old Town, and a cluster of Polish teens breakdancing to C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” nearby.
Even in the hotel where the orchestra is staying, all of the conference rooms and ballrooms are named after famous composers and operas.
“People in Poland are still really sensitive to renowned artists and the best orchestras focusing on classical music,” said Robert Rusiecki, Poland’s deputy consul general in Chicago.
“When I was here during Communist times, even then, when the economy was disastrous, they still managed to keep culture alive,” Stephen Mull, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, said at a Sunday evening reception for the CSO at the U.S. Embassy. “The Philharmonic was always sold out; the opera always did great. I mean, you could tell they didn’t have as much money to put into nice matching costumes and sets, but the quality of the musicianship and performances were there always.”
Even now, though, coming up with the money to lure a major orchestra can be tricky.
“When I first worked in Poland back in the ‘80s, there was actually a lot of funding to do cultural programming,” Mull said. “What was then called the U.S. Information Agency would often bring jazz groups, orchestras to come perform behind the Iron Curtain. And since the end of the Cold War, people kind of think, well, American culture’s won, so these things happen now really more because of private funding and private efforts.”
So although the embassy helped with promotion as well as setting up some of the Citizen Musician events, it took an alignment of corporations — including LOT Polish Airlines, Boeing and the Polish energy company Orlen (as well as the CSO’s international sponsor, Bank of America) — to fund this inaugural CSO visit.
“It took a while for (the country) to open up and to be able to support this,” said Moss, noting that this time “there was just a clear and strong expression from Warsaw that they could make it happen.”
Another Polish composer with ties to the CSO is Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary is being celebrated this year and whose 10th symphony was commissioned by then-CSO music director Georg Solti to premiere in 1990 as part of the orchestra’s centenary. Panufnik’s “Concerto in modo antico,” which incorporates old Polish melodies in a suite initially composed as film music, was the first piece on the program for the CSO’s Warsaw Philharmonic appearance Monday night after debuting in Chicago earlier this month.
That Panufnik resurrected the country’s musical history in a concerto written after World War II only adds to its significance today, Muti said.
“We Americans are bringing you the memory of a great past,” he said. “It’s an homage to Poland. It would have been more obvious to go to Warsaw and to start the program with a showpiece — boom boom boom — to show the (orchestra’s) muscles. But we start in a delicate way saying, ‘We love you.’ That is the meaning.”
That message was not lost on Strugala. “To have Chicago, the best orchestra in the world, to perform Panufnik is like a big gift to the Polish culture,” she said.
Outside the hall Monday night, some would-be concertgoers held signs seeking tickets. Inside, Lady Camilla Panufnik, the composer’s widow, who also attended the Symphony Center concert, was eagerly taking her balcony seat next to the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra music director Jacek Kaspszyk.
Muti made his entrance alongside CSO principal trumpet player Christopher Martin, the Panufnik concerto’s featured soloist, and the orchestra brought out the piece’s warmth and rich melodies to an enthusiastic reception from the refined audience (well dressed, silent between movements). Stravinsky’s “Suite from ‘The Firebird’” then delivered the fireworks, with concertgoers literally bouncing up in their seats when the orchestra exploded into the “Infernal Dance” section.
In these two pieces and the concluding Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, Muti used the room’s intimate acoustics to his advantage, keeping the playing clear while covering the great range of dynamics. A prolonged standing ovation would have ended the evening had not Muti turned to address the audience and noted that the orchestra had begun the program with a tribute to Poland and now would end with something from his Italian homeland. A rousing selection from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco” and more standing cheers closed what clearly was a triumphant night.
Before seeking out soloist Martin backstage to share her praise, Camilla Panufnik gushed over the performance of her husband’s work. “It was with such warmth and such drama,” she said. “They really are the greatest orchestra.”
Muti visited a small Bank of America reception in the hall and repeated a line heard many times over the past few days: that Chicago boasts the largest Polish population of any city outside Warsaw.
“In a way then,” he told these concert supporters, “we can consider this home.”
For continuing coverage of the CSO’s Europe tour, go to chicagotribune.com/cso-europe.