Making the Planets Shine in Indianapolis by Curtis Rittenhouse

By on March 21, 2012

Kyzysztof Urbanski

Last year the Gramophone published an issue looking at the most promising up-and-coming young conductors around the world. Afterwards a reader wrote protesting the omission of Kyzysztof Urbanski, indicating he was a person to watch. Polish-trained and active in Eastern Europe, Japan and Scandinavia, Urbanski was named the music director of the Indianapolis Symphony two years ago, starting in the fall of 2011. The Gramophone is the bible for classical music lovers, a finely written publication by respected experts, but with a definite pro-British slant that can border on the hilarious. London is the crossroads of the world for classical music and has been since the end of World War II. The editors of the Gramophone may be forgiven for thinking that if a candidate has not shown up there he might be ignored. Urbanski has had little exposure there to date. I suspect that is about to change.

Last Friday night I elected to check out the Polish wunderkind and see for myself if there was anything to the writer’s assertion. He is at 28 the youngest music director of a large American orchestra. He is confident, energetic, with a thick mop of hair that looks like it had done battle with a brush and won. He conducted a program that included Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the unfamiliar second violin concerto of his countryman Karol Szymanowski and The (very popular) Planets by Gustav Holst.

The Barber was taut without being either tense or gluey, free of any interpretive eccentricity. It has an unfailing effect on any American audience and did that night. The surprise highlight was the violin concerto with concertmaster Zachary de Pue, another twenty-something performer who looked like the conductor’s cousin, meeting all the technical challenges of the post-romantic exercise easily. Urbanski put the idiosyncratic post-romantic music across quite convincingly. Take away the dark suits and the two could pass as members of a rock band. Urbanski conducted from memory and did a lot with the fingers of his left hand in conveying expression to the orchestra.

Finally there was the Holst, a sure-fire showpiece for orchestra and conductor. It is hard to think of a major conductor of the past fifty years who has not recorded it. The composer varies each of the seven movements. (No Earth or Pluto) Only the middle movement Jupiter suggests the composer’s native England. Mars, the first planet was suitably martial and menacing Friday night. Mercury skittered around the stage in fine fettle. For a performance to succeed Jupiter must succeed and it did in Urbanski’s knowing hands. The final fade away of Neptune with its wordless women’s chorus had the desired effect. The orchestra played committedly, leaving aside a few raw moments and a couple of mishaps that did not detract from the effective performance.

It is ironic that at a time when symphony orchestras are struggling with aging audiences and declining revenue, so much young talent is coming to the fore. Think of Nezet-Seguin in Philadelphia, Dudamel in Los Angeles, with Vasily Petrenko visiting from Liverpool, Vladimir Jurowski coming from London and other under-40’s making the rounds. Actually the state of most Americans orchestras is very strong with Alan Gilbert, the native son in New York; Michael Tilson Thomas a success in San Francisco; the coveted Riccardo Muti in Chicago; David Robertson in Saint Louis; Franz Welser-Most in Cleveland; Manfred Honeck in Pittsburgh; and Marin Alsop in Baltimore naming just a few.
America has an embarrassment of riches. If it can just hold onto its audiences. Fifty years of dreary academic new music has taken its toll. Luckily that situation has been changing and much new music is more interesting to the ear.

Meanwhile add Kyzysztof Urbanski to that list of up-and-coming conductors deserving attention. Even Gramophone editors might benefit from an out-of-town trip, going to hear him at home and getting a slice of Hoosier cream pie in the bargain. Enthusiasm pays dividends, in music-making and reporting.

Curtis Rittenhouse

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