Friday, January 25, 2013


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A fierce talent with his own vision of the music.

Orchestras around the world are struggling to attract younger audiences to hear music that is regarded as decidedly unhip by the digital generation. The Cleveland Orchestra addresses that problem with innovative programming and marketing that has been strikingly successful in taking the music out to neighborhoods and bars and city schools. Another approach is to feature young artists with something fresh to say. Several who performed in Prague recently offered dazzling demonstrations of just how vital classical music can be.

Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański, 29, is what Stateside critics would call a “phenom” – winner of the 2007 Prague Spring conducting competition before he graduated from the Chopin Music Academy in Warsaw, currently holding positions with orchestras on three continents, including music director of the Indianapolis Symphony. Even more remarkable, he’s accomplished all this with a distinctly different attitude.

When I’m onstage, the music is what’s important,” he said in an interview before his debut with the Czech Philharmonic last week. “I don’t think about what the audience might like or not like. There are ways to do the music that I’m sure would help me achieve success more easily. But there are much more important things than my career. I’m trying to be true to the music, and the way the composer wanted it played.”

Urbański was as good as his word, striding confidently onstage for the first of three concerts and opening with a formidable piece: Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, a maelstrom of special effects that sounds like time and space are warping as thousands of souls go up in radioactive flames. Despite the orchestra’s well-known distaste for modern music, Urbański drew out a finely detailed version of Hiroshima, riveting in its intensity.

He deferred to the orchestra on Dvořák’s Cello concerto in B minor – no one is going to come into their home hall and tell the Czech Philharmonic how to play Dvořák – focusing mainly on tempo and dynamics, and keeping the volume down to open up space for the soloist, Sol Gabetta. She played the piece with heartfelt warmth, if a bit too staccato by Czech standards. More impressive was the encore she served up with support from four cellists in the orchestra, a lovely, delicate rendering of Pablo Casals’ arrangement of The Song of the Birds. (A thematically fitting choice as well, as Casals often played it to promote world peace.)

The showpiece of the evening was the concluding work, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. For this the orchestra deferred to Urbański, who has studied the piece extensively and knows it in a way that few conductors do. His control of it was masterful, never veering into the emotional frenzy that Shostakovich often invites, instead keeping it clear, razor-sharp and expertly crafted throughout. Urbański showed that he could build tension and volume when he chose to, but it was his stylish interpretation that was most impressive. If there was a weakness, it was a lack of the fire that typically characterizes Shostakovich – a result, perhaps, of Urbański’s ultratight control. In the interview, he acknowledged that he is still learning how and when to loosen up and “let the music breathe.”

The conductor is a show in himself, working without a score or even a baton much of the time, crafting 3-D sculptures in the air with his hands, grimacing fiercely as he pulls what he wants out of various sections of the orchestra. A raw but exceptional talent, Urbański packed the house the rest of the week.

The Prague Philharmonia lies at the other end of the orchestral spectrum – young (average age of the musicians: 34), open to new ideas, and unfailingly enthusiastic about everything it plays. The ensemble is led by Chief Conductor and Music Director Jakub Hrůša, a rising Czech star whom Cleveland audiences had a chance to see in his debut appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom this past summer. Hrůša, 31, is a big fan of American pianist Jonathan Biss, who at 32 has compiled an impressive set of Beethoven and Schumann recordings and is touring this season to promote the latter, with whom he is unabashedly infatuated.

Poetry at the keyboard.
My feelings for Schumann’s music go beyond love, though there’s also plenty of that: silly as it may sound, I feel somehow protective of him,” Biss writes on his website. “This is first of all because his music is so deeply personal and achingly vulnerable. But equally, it comes from my sense that he is subject to a remarkable number of misconceptions. I want to show Schumann’s music exactly as it is – deeply poetic, fragile, obsessive, evocative, whimsical, internal.”

Biss made a convert of this critic with his rendition of the composers Piano concerto in A minor, which was at once distinctive and respectful. Biss doesnt play the piece so much as inhabit it, following its lyrical flow with great sensitivity, connecting with its open heart and lush romanticism and letting the music speak for itself. Thats not easy to do, particularly given the light touch this piece calls for if one is to preserve its delicate character. With equally nuanced support from the orchestra, Biss struck an elegant balance between technique and expression not only in the concerto, but in his encore, a brief and wonderfully dreamy excursion into Schumanns Kinderszenen – #13, Der Dichter spricht.

Biss will be continuing his Schumann crusade in the U.S. and Canada throughout the spring, and is well worth seeing.

The program opened with Bergs Lyric Suite for Strings, a 1925-26 work utilizing Schoenbergs twelve-tone technique that seemed not to be in Hrůšas wheelhouse. Though carefully crafted and well-played by a 24-piece ensemble, it lacked detail and bite. That music should have a sharper edge, and if some of the chords sound wrenching...well, thats the idea. Hrůšas version was competent but rather too polite and polished, at least for this critics tastes.

Making a small orchestra sound big.
By contrast, his handling of the closing piece, Beethovens Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), was a masterful demonstration of how to bring to life a grand work with a relatively small orchestra – in this case, just 37 players. That necessarily means a compact sound, which would seem to preclude serious depth. But Hrůša has fingertip control of the Philharmonia, and was able to create and modulate rich dynamics, lending the music surprising grandeur and sweep.

He struck a brisk tempo in the first movement, contrasting light and dark tones and developing a clean, crisp sound, particularly in the strings, which were radiant. The drama in the second movement was perhaps a bit overblown in the brass, though not to Hrůšas ear – he made a point of singling out the three French horn players for extra bows afterward. The third movement had a buoyant, playful quality that didnt quite carry over to the final movement, which thundered to a pulsating, satisfying close.

The audience responded with extended applause, then flooded the conductor's room to offer Hrůša congratulations. Notably, the crowd was a mix of both old and young admirers – another indication of the energy that young performers can bring to a staid art form, and the excitement they can generate even in a very traditional part of the world.

For more on Krzysztof Urbański:

For more on Jakub Hrůša:

For more on Jonathan Biss:

For more on the Prague Philharmonia:

Urbanski photo: Ole-Einar Andersen

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