Davies Hall, San Francisco
Friday, January 15, 2016
The San Francisco Symphony
Krzysztof Urbański, conductor
Emanuel Ax, piano
Beethoven — Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Opus 73
Dvořák — Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Opus 95
This was an old-fashioned program — the kind audiences like. Two grand and tuneful symphonic works. A venerated pianist. The debut of a young matinee idol conductor. And last but not least, total absence of any threatening nouvelle cuisine for the ear. So how did it go, this debut? Because it turned out to be quite a successful evening….
We were almost late to the parade here in San Francisco, as it happens. Polish born Krzysztof Urbański has been Music Director in Indianapolis for seven years. He’s already conducted in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington. He’s Principal Guest at the North German Radio in Hamburg and Music Director in Trondheim. More orchestras are in the offing. He is doing the rounds. He has been discovered… now our turn.
The teenage young man going on thirty-five who entered stage left did not disappoint. Like Vasily Petrenko — so popular here — Urbański is tall, slim, handsome and blond. Psychologically, Petrenko is a Jim Carrey mime on the podium, all rubber face and body-wriggle. Urbański seems more aware he is good looking and determined to make it work for him. He sports one of those explosively tousled hairdos, vaguely avian with a rear cowlick styled by hand grenade. He holds his hands high-up in front, feet together, like the famous silhouettes of Arthur Nikisch. Only white gloves are missing. At critical moments you catch Urbański presenting his profile just so to the audience, as an arm hang-glides serenely and two or three fingers flick a cue banking to windward. I may do a disservice describing him this way, though not to the female members of the audience. But as Thomas Mann illustrated in Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the line between art and fraud is a fine one.
In point of fact, it’s hard to assess conductors leading an Emperor Concerto or the Dvořák New World Symphony. There isn’t much room to do something unusual in the music — you might call that an odd byproduct of its near perfection. Not so much interpretation is needed — or desired. The Emperor (only so designated outside Europe) is neither combative like the Third Concerto, nor so gentle and tentative in spirit as the Fourth. Indeed, once up and running it glides…that’s its regality in a nutshell. It’s a Buick. The concerto is above the fray. Its melodies are long-limbed. The slow movement is a luxurious dream — utterly serene. And Beethoven’s Finale frolics with the dignity of a king.
Emanuel Ax, impressively lyrical in his SFS recorded concerto cycle thus far, gave us a classic solid reading. Urbański proved a sympathetic accompanist, with a special interest in sharp timpani and inner-voice brass, bringing an occasional extra fillip of energy to the orchestra. The audience seemed to appreciate the contrast of generations: Ax solid, secure, sheepishly pleased at the acclaim; Urbański proud as a spark. As the first half wound down, Ax left us a bewitching Chopin Second Nocturne encore, small rotary-brush fingers nimbly and astonishingly belying the pianist’s considerable size.
I was reminded, hearing the New World live again, what a beautiful and intuitively composed work it is, melodic and warmly-breathed, effortlessly cyclical at just the right moments, and deep and lonely as the American continent itself. The symphony is in many ways, of course, Czech. Its great brass theme in the Finale could be nothing else. Beethoven’s Ninth is in there, as well — the slow introduction followed by explosions — the jangle of the Scherzo (and a nod at Brahms for his triangle in the Fourth Symphony) — and of course the Americana of Goin’ Home, in actual fact a quasi-spiritual. Perhaps unconsciously, though, Dvořák’s music now reveals a looser psychological geography. The big sky of America may have made its mark. There is more Wagnerian expanse to it now. But instead of reflecting some claustrophobic erotic obsession hard for a healthy person to call his own, Dvořák’s New World Symphony mirrors the lonely heart of a happy man far from home. What must Dvořák have thought of our great expanses, of Iowa as seen from the returning winter trains of his adventure? There is so much “air” in the music.
Urbański made the most of this. He seems to have a talent for wind legato, tremolo and breathless quiet. This surely explained the unusual effectiveness of his conducting here. Urbański is known to be something of an orchestral disciplinarian — a rare reputation to have at that age — so one withholds judgment as to how all this is achieved. But achieve it he did. Dvořák’s New World may seem very “old world” in our time. But as presented here in a fine debut by a conductor on the rise, it very much belongs to ours.