The fast-rising Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski comes across like a breath of fresh air on the symphonic front, even though he looks like a boyish prospect sent to do a man’s job.
His airy conducting technique is full of whimsy and sensitivity. His fingers are as expressive as a mime, or some lead dancer in a Russian ballet. And when his arms fly up toward the sky, it reads like a bid for divine intervention to produce exuberant music that is, well, simply divine.
Urbanski, 35, is quite simply one of the hottest unknowns turning up on the S.F. Symphony podium these days.
He leads all of his music by memory. And verbally, he gives dazzling intros to very modern pieces of the Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, with precise instructions to players like “And now, play starting four before rehearsal mark 63.” I have never heard a better verbal intro, peppered with live musical examples.
His derring-do convinced a public wary of a challenging and intricate 28-minute piece out of Eastern Europe, earning ovations as he led the opus Oct. 21 at the S.F. Symphony.
The augmented orchestra (eight percussionists, two harps, etc.) played the socks off the work like true believers straight out of Warsaw, responsive to his cuing and spontaneous gestures.
In his three-movement work, the late composer (1913-94) was inspired most by Bartok and his evolved neoclassical style, using strict structural elements like inversions and passacaglia. It’s basically tonal, its deft, will-o-the-wisp notturno middle movement producing “glittering stars in the sky” (per Urbanski). It contains the thematic seeds for the finale longer than anything that came before in a mysterious efflorescence.
The conductor added, the concerto is “like mathematical equations—but SO beautiful!”
Its freedom and whimsy won ovations (as did his talk) despite its essential sonic severity.
Stepping in for the canceling Sol Gabetta, young cellist Joshua Roman showed an attractive, intimate singing tone for the Dvorak Cello Concerto, bringing forth every ounce of ardor and affection in the slow movement. He added a pensive Sarabande movement from the Bach Cello Suite No. 3 as encore, supremely sensitively.
In between, the orchestra played one of the last works by Mozart, the “Magic Flute” Overture, contrasting the frivolous Papageno music with the stately masonic music of Zarastro.
MUSIC NOTES—Witold Lutoslawski had himself conducted this work in guest podium appearances some 30 years ago….The orchestra this night was in top form, suggesting that, if and when Music Director MTT decides to retire some five or more years hence, Urbanski will be on the list of potential candidates. He has been music director of the Indianapolis Symphony since 2011, and is also principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony. This is the second season appearing here for both Roman and the conductor.
San Francisco Symphony under guest Krzysztof Urbanski, with cello soloist Joshua Roman, Oct. 19-21, Davies Hall, S.F. For info: (415) 864-6000 or go online.