Arts » Classical Music

Mighty maestro: ISO's Krzysztof Urbanski


  • Illustration by Ryan Alvis.
  • Krzysztof Ubanski.

The author is dead; we killed him a long time ago, knocked him down with a paving stone in Paris or Chicago. We took out the film director too; it became about the genius of the system that produces films, rather than that of the auteur himself.

The same rules should apply to the conductor of an orchestra, right? How much can he — and it’s still usually a “he” — really communicate with a dramatic swipe of the hand, an eccentric tempo, an unusual programming maneuver?

So many factors play into the way that the great beast known as the symphony orchestra operates — from, in the case of Indy’s symphony orchestra, an endowment that must sustain it through a double-dip recession; to a CEO who may or may not quit without much public warning; to a cast of players who might be on one-year contracts or nearing retirement age.

And yet — and here’s the thing of it, the reason why we still sneak a look at author photos on the inside flap, why a Tarantino still has a cult — we still want to associate a person with a work of art. In the case of the conductor, we’re magnetically drawn, to the magician who can draw music from the ether, to the performer who is at once mime and ballet dancer and traffic conductor, to the brilliant mind that can hold great swathes of eighth-notes and accent marks, crescendi and fermata, in his mind, often without a score.

This profile will discuss, in due time, all the things that Krzysztof Urbanski — the 29-year-old music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the youngest person to hold such a position with a major American orchestra — has done and will do behind the scenes. We’ll get to the volcanic eruption that forced him to spend a little extra time in Indy — and was essentially the catalyst that eventually led to his being hired last yeay by the ISO. To the conductor’s prodigious memory, which would seem to be photographic, though we wouldn’t attempt such a diagnosis. To his no-nonsense rehearsal style, which threatens to leave the slothful in the dust. But for now, let’s take a look at the man himself.

Maybe he’s at a rehearsal, clad in his uniform of tight black shirt and tight blue jeans (with stylish flare at the ankle), his tousled, moussed hair cutting his way through the world like a spiked helmet, striding before his new battalion with a brusque, no-nonsense hello, followed roughly two seconds later by “let’s play” and the cue for the first notes.

Or maybe we see him in performance, with an elegantly cut tuxedo bringing out the striking looks we expect from, say, concert pianists or violinists — but not music directors, who more often than not have long since passed the half-century mark, as well as the point of caring a lick for their looks.

Let’s watch his hands: The right one keeps time, naturally, sometimes holding a baton, sometimes not. Ah, but that left, ever so softly caressing a line from Barber’s Adagio for Strings, punching out that martial brass fanfare from Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.”

Pull back to see how he crouches, urging every restraint upon the orchestra, at a pensive, delicate moment. See how the quietude is only that of the beast preparing his attack. His face snarls as he squeezes a high-altitude phrase from the violins, the sheep transformed into werewolf.

This beast has been elusive thus far this season: After beginning his four-year term as music director in September with two weekends of concerts and a society page’s worth of public appearances, Urbanski again headed overseas to honor prior commitments. But this March, Urbanski has returned for two weekends: last week’s program headlined by Holst’s The Planets (a five-star affair, according to our classical critic Tom Aldridge), and a March 29-31 program consisting of music by Smetana, Elgar and Wojciech Kilar.

And from here on out, Urbanski will be a much more familiar face in town; not only are he and his wife currently considering several local residences, but he will gradually conduct a greater number of concerts with each future season.

September song

It’s September 2011; Urbanski has only been on the job a week or two. He’s probably too busy to do a lot of the extracurricular things associated with being the new music director, but the job demands a certain accessibility. There’s the fundraising mixer at what was formerly known as the Hilbert Mansion, or Le Chateau Renaissance, now the property of Lucas Oil baron Forrest Lucas. Urbanski and his wife Joanna, whose head of tight platinum blonde curls is just as impressive as her husband’s spiky thatch, stand beside former ISO music director Raymond Leppard, greeting donors on a patio made from the finest stones in all the land, presumably carted to this authentic French country estate by authentic French peasants.

Leppard’s presence is significant: He’s been an Indianapolis resident since he was appointed in 1987 and has remained here in his retirement as conductor laureate. He might be contrasted with Urbanski’s immediate predecessor, Mario Venzago, who was less involved with the life of the city, retaining a home in Germany, and who left his position in 2009 under contentious circumstances.

A few days after the fundraiser, between meetings and a few hours before the night’s concert, Urbanski’s schedule allows a half-hour or so for an interview. As he rushes down the hall to his office, his wife grabs him for a milli-second, pointing excitedly to their picture on The Star’s society page.

Krzysztof isn’t visibly impressed; now’s not the time, perhaps. His office looks like that of a new employee; shelves are empty but for a few knickknacks, notably a racing helmet inscribed with Urbanski’s name; one assumes he inherited from his predecessor the generic, classical-themed posters on the wall. On the coffee table are the score to Orff’s Carmina Burana, which he’ll conduct tonight, as well as an ISO photo directory; less than two weeks into his tenure, Urbanski is working to commit both notes and names to memory.

Urbanski has a kind of sparkle about him, a restlessness and energy that’s catching; one wouldn’t guess he’s working on two hours of sleep today, a victim of jet lag and an ill-timed 5:30 a.m. call from overseas. His English is quite good, but for some grammatical inaccuracies; one gets the sense his mind is racing ahead of his words, and his hands and face wind up being his most expressive tools of communication. He conducts his words, grabbing and pulling them from the air, as he does phrases from an orchestra, an ingratiating smile and twinkling eyes accenting the performance. A grand piano sits open across the room, waiting to punctuate an idea.
With the ISO running a marketing promotion this fall that prices all tickets at $28 to celebrate the approach of Urbanski’s 29th birthday, questions about Urbanski’s age are sort of unavoidable. How, then, does his relative youth factor into the equation?

It simply doesn’t, Urbanski contends: “What matters is your approach to the music, the way you work; when you’re a professional, age doesn’t matter. For me, I’ve just become used to being the youngest person on the stage. Frankly, I started my professional conducting a few years ago, and I remember thinking then: They’re so much older than myself. How am I going to tell them that their intonation is bad? But right now, nothing can stop me; I’m not feeling limited in any ways by being 28 years old.”

To be exact, Urbanski started his professional career in 2007, when he simultaneously graduated from the Chopin University of Music in Warsaw and was appointed assistant conductor for the Warsaw Philharmonic, whom he conducted for the first time as part of the graduation ceremony. His career path wasn’t exactly pre-destined; without musicians in his family, he still dreamt of football stardom when a friend taught him to play a few notes on a keyboard during grade school. Hooked, he followed the friend to music school, taking an entrance exam at age 12.

“But I didn’t pass the exam because they said I had no talent at all; possibly, they were right,” Urbanski says, delivering the aside with a smile. “But I was very stubborn, and my mother realized that I was desperate and had to go to music school, and she managed to put me there.”

Urbanski initially wanted to become a composer. At 15, he put together a group to play some of his music; his first conducting gig came about out of necessity, when the band told him it would be easier to play his work if someone could set the tempo. “Obviously, I had to lead the rehearsals, and I decided to lead in the concert,” Urbanski says. “This was my first time holding a baton — though it wasn’t a baton, it was a chopstick, because it was the only thing I had!

“It was then that I realized, luckily or not, that I have completely no talent for being a composer. So, standing there holding this chopstick, I realized this was what was left, that I would be a conductor in the future.”


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