I, Culture Orchestra, Usher Hall, Edinburgh – review

Every country could do with an Adam Mickiewicz Institute. The state-funded Polish foundation, a relative newcomer on the international scene, propagates Polish culture on a scale unmatched by any other agency in Europe, the US or China, giving Polish theatre and music a far higher profile than was the case 20 or 30 years ago. That’s no bad thing, as Poland’s cultural heritage is still relatively little known.

One of the Institute’s initiatives is the youth-based I, Culture Orchestra, which aims to foster “positive change in the cultural and social development of eastern Europe and the southern Caucasus”. That’s a laudable goal but there’s plainly some way to go: although the ensemble comprises young musicians from across the region, by far the greater number are Polish, with correspondingly skewed repertoire.

Edinburgh heard I, Culture play two symphonies that commemorate human suffering in war. It seemed a nice idea on paper but it didn’t make musical sense, because it propagated the same extra-musical message twice in quick succession without compensating contrast. But it served the Institute’s agenda, because one of the composers was Polish – Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary falls this year.

His Sinfonia elegiaca, a short “simple symphony” on a slow-fast-slow design, works well enough on its own modest terms, but is smothered next to Shostakovich’s Seventh, the “Leningrad”, as it was here. Panufnik’s symphony made for a lightweight first half and exposed unevenness in an ensemble, now in its fourth year, that clearly needs more time to integrate differing national styles and levels of experience (the age range is 18 to 28). I, Culture is strong on conformity, weak on expressive intensity – through no fault of the conductor, Kirill Karabits, who is an expert technician and a fine, unshowy musician.

Both symphonies needed to be played with soul – that indefinable but essential quality that shows us whether an orchestra understands what the music is saying behind the notes and has absorbed it into its collective psyche. For all their undeniable competence, these young musicians haven’t yet got the message.


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