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Review: Urbański conducts program No. 18

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Krzysztof Urbanski, music director designate, of the ISO.
  • Krzysztof Urbanski, music director designate, of the ISO.

3 stars

ISO Classical Series program No. 18; Hilbert Circle Theatre; May 20-21.

For nearly two seasons the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has been barraged with one guest conductor after another, each spending two to three weekdays honing our players into performance-grade Friday-Saturday (and sometimes Thursday morning) concerts. The variation in what these touring conductors got from the orchestra has been rather astonishing.

Some, playing standard stock-in-trade works, had trouble keeping the ISO together and failed to convey a vision of those selections while others — in those same few days — made them sound as though rendered by a top-rated ensemble. Then each of these conductors departed Indy — presumably to do their magic elsewhere; it was an "in and out" thing every week.

But now we have our new guy — our music director designate — who's contracted to stay with us, to impart his vision of each selection he directs by working over extended time intervals with our players, to (hopefully) get to know them on a first-name basis and to hone everything they are capable of, musically sharing with us to the limit of their collective talent.

Krzysztof Urbański, 28-years-old, made his well anticipated, much hyped debut with "his" new orchestra and our old, familiar one this weekend. His "vision" was there—in spades; his players' execution of it often was not.

First, as much as I like discussing the music, this weekend was all about Urbański — Urbański conducting three standard repertoire works: Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, Op. 26 and his Symphony No. 4 in A ("Italian"), Op. 90, with the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47, sandwiched between. Guest soloist Barnabas Kelemen, 2002 gold medalist of Indy's Violin Competition, returned here after a several-year absence for the Sibelius.

First the big plus: With quick, precise baton and left-hand motions, our director designate achieved remarkable dynamic shaping throughout the evening. He brought out the woodwinds as few previous conductors have, allowing them to sound in perfect balance with the strings throughout. He made the "louds" really loud, the "softs" really soft and the "in-betweens" rendered in delicate shades of gray. All the players followed Urbaǹski's dictates beautifully in matters of dynamic control.

About the tempos: While the Hebrides Overture was taken somewhat more slowly than I'm used to it, some of the phrasing failed to be cleanly articulated. The Sibelius presented a mostly orthodox pacing, with lots of energy imparted to the hypnotizing rhythm of its final movement. Finally, Urbański took the two outer movements of the "Italian" Symphony as fast as I've ever heard them — too fast for the orchestra to hold onto the reins — especially the final "Saltarello" movement.

The flutes hung on for dear life trying to execute their marvelously conceived figurations. A 1950s recording of this symphony by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell provides the standard-of-perfection for which others should work toward achieving when attempting this fleet a tempo. I think Mendelssohn would have been astounded.

As for the "Italian's" middle two movements, Urbański's choice of moderate tempos was perfect; we could enjoy, without distraction, his already vaunted dynamic sense.

Kelemen's account of the Violin Concerto disappointed, for one all-encompassing reason: His vibrato was both excessively wide and, in the last movement, too fast—almost like a buzz rather than a singing line. With his left hand wavering on the strings, he visited "next-door-neighbor" pitches that Sibelius had not written.

Kelemen did show technique and musicianship in abundance, as befitting his gold-medal status. But with Hilary Hahn or Gil Shaham or Midori playing in his stead, we would have heard near tonal perfection.

And so, starting this September, Urbański begins his ISO tenure. What I would especially like to hear is his recasting of Mendelssohn's "Italian" within, say, two years. By then we should really have learned what this highly lauded, young, music director has brought to "his" and "our" orchestra.

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