Saturday, September 19, 2015

Krzysztof Urbanski reaches a personal milestone with his first ISO Mozart symphony performance

Last spring when Krzysztof Urbanski's fifth season at the helm of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was announced on the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage, he spoke respectfully and with a tinge of awe about his decision to program his first Mozart symphony since becoming the ISO's youngest music director.

Having engaged major concert artist (also a native Pole) as the guest soloist featured in that audience
Krzystof Urbanski seemed to get what he wanted out of his long-delayed ISO/Mozart debut.
magnet Beethoven, Urbanski placed Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor after intermission in his first appearance on the podium here since June. (The program will be repeated at 5:30 this afternoon.)

The great G minor couldn't have sounded better. The first movement established the work's tragic cast, with its main material immediately introduced in a manner both tentative and assertive. That sounds contradictory, but it's part and parcel of this symphony's emotional depth and complexity. Urbanski showed no signs of wallowing in the emotion, however: the counterpoint in the development was clearly defined and sensitively impelled.

The Andante never sagged under its expressive weight. The lower strings buoyed up the performance, allowing the repeated two-note "sighs" to hover plaintively above. Played this well, the music could be imagined as representing Don Giovanni in a penitent mood, if that maculate hero had ever been in such a mood, with the ghost of the slaughtered Commendatore as confessor. That's how profound this performance struck me; it was at the pinnacle of all Mozart performances here in recent memory.

The modern fashion for playing minuets in classical symphonies favors a brisk tempo. Urbanski interpreted this movement against that style. The somber nature of the work made the slow pace feel  just right, and it helped set off the work's only excursion into the major mode in the Trio section.

The finale followed suit, sprightly and energetic but colored with Mozart's deepest thoughts. If it's not the tour de force of the "Jupiter" Symphony finale (No. 41), it is nonetheless uncommonly skillful in its layout, with the extra quality of genius saturating every measure. Urbanski and the ISO were equal to its demands.

Since the annual gala concert looms at the end of the week, the Classical Series opener was properly focused on just two masterpieces. The concert's first half consisted of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat ("Emperor") with guest soloist Emanuel Ax, who always goes over well here. He apparently enjoys what he's doing and he does it well. His avuncular appearance, topped by a tousled Bernie Sanders head of white hair, completes the picture.
Emanuel Ax played with elder-statesman assurance.

Indianapolis last heard the  "Emperor" about a year ago in another season-opening concert, as the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra welomed Sean Chen as the guest soloist. Chen's performance was more pointed and crisper, in some ways, but I liked the autumnal, even rhapsodic glow that Ax imparted to the solo role Friday night.

Urbanski's astute management of the accompaniment suited Ax's concept. The orchestral tuttis sustained and extended the warmth and stateliness of Ax's playing. The hushed introduction to the Adagio displayed the control and unanimity of the strings as concertmaster Zach De Pue and Urbanski have developed their rapport. I was also admiring the floating lyricism of solo clarinet and flute until the latter moved prematurely downward, producing brief, unwelcome dissonance.

The finale sprang to life immediately and kept its romping, yet poised, spirit intact. Despite decades of warning about cell-phone noises, such an intrusion almost ruined the soft duet of piano and timpani right before the full-orchestra sweep to the double bar. Otherwise, it should be mentioned that Friday night's was an unusually attentive and appreciative audience. After a sustained ovation, Ax offered an enthralling encore: "Des Abends," one of the Opus 12 "Fantasy Pieces" by Robert Schumann. And at concert's end, it was evident that Urbanski had gotten what he wanted from his orchestra — and the audience seemed to agree.

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