Krzysztof Urbański and Augustin Hadelich impress with the San Francisco Symphony

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Krzysztof Urbański. Photo Maria Maślanka.

Krzysztof Urbański. Photo Maria Maślanka.

Davies Hall, San Francisco
October 7, 2017

The San Francisco Symphony
Krzysztof Urbański, conductor
Augustin Hadelich, violin

Penderecki – Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64 (1844)
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Opus 93 (1953)

You never know when San Francisco will prove even weirder than you think, but Fleet Week is surely a good candidate for strangeness at the symphony. The US Navy’s Blue Angels air ballet is a reliable tourist magnet when it comes to town, drawing unaccustomed crowds far and wide, and some visitors, suitably strafed and deafened, wind up at the symphony. This explains Bermuda shorts and flip flops in Saturday’s audience and a tendency to applaud in the wrong places. I’m not sure it explains an ill-tempered dowager who shouted her disapproval of the music and had to be removed. Nor did anyone, official or otherwise, manage to decode bizarre noises repeatedly emanating from, well. somewhere….I get ahead of myself. It was an interesting evening!

There is an electrifying new “master of the universe” conducting star coming into view, with all charismatic bells and whistles in place. That’s the real news. Audience fascination here has been immediate and palpable. Krzysztof Urbański is Polish born, 34 years old, tall, blond, Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony, Principal Guest in Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie, and now making his second San Francisco Symphony appearance. He’s the reason I wanted to attend this concert, and I was not disappointed. Urbański is what Esa-Pekka Salonen once referred to as a “conducting animal.“ Each wriggle in the music is reflected in the way he moves. Audiences respond to this. (Contrast with poker-faced Richard Strauss, known history’s most impassive conductor, who, it’s said, once glanced at his pocket watch during a performance and sped-up tempo to avoid missing his card game! Good thing his music was worth listening to.)

Urbański’s podium manner is far more vivid than that. It’s a balancing act, though, confidently elegant. He doesn’t over emote.You never feel like saying “get a room!” Except—I take it back—maybe most women in the audience are thinking just that, judging by their vocal reactions. Urbański’s podium movements resemble those of Vasily Petrenko, though Petrenko (a rubber-faced musical Jim Carrey) leans more toward irony and doesn’t often reflect poetic or erotic emotion facially. Urbański does. Petrenko ultimately burns brightly, but remotely in comparison.

Urbański, I note, impressively conducts from memory, which permits him the additional body freedom of nearly always being upright. I also expect he’s taken a look at pictures and silhouettes of Arthur Nikisch. Full French cuffs are visible at all times. And Urbański conducts above his head. Downbeats are like swords slashing forward in a cavalry charge, visible to all. Meanwhile, the knuckles of his left hand seem to have a life of their own, like ET’s. Viewed from the audience, Urbański reaches out to the orchestra, a gentleman handing a lady down from a carriage, tickling her palm seductively as he does so!

I you are trying to win an audience, this program was brilliantly chosen. Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is a wonderfully creepy-crawly ant-farm of a piece for strings alone, each instrument playing its own line. It’s composed without bar lines. So to see Krzysztof Urbański conduct from memory, raising and lowering dynamics with his eyebrows, making the sounds swell and roil with sign language from the palm of his hand, like a dictator mad with neurotic power, was to witness the essence of musical mastery. The Hiroshima depiction necessarily becomes loud at one point, given its subject matter, but even banging against the instruments with bows and whacking with your hands can only make a string orchestra so loud. This apparently did not console one unhappy listener.

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was about half over. The music was quiescent. Suddenly, an imperious female voice rang out from the Loge: “That’s crap!” The music continued on amid gasps and rubbernecking. A few bars later, again: “It’s Crap!  It’s too loud!” The audience was quite done with her by this time.  The music ended, and there was the obligatory “Will somebody please remove that woman….” There followed a shuffle of sorts in the upper reaches of the hall. Mission accomplished.

Urbański was visibly frosted as he turned for a bow, dipping his forehead all of a small slow inch in reply to screams of admiration from the audience, staring down the balcony with death-ray eyes. But it was the best thing that could have happened to him for the evening. From then on, he and the musicians could do no wrong and were received with wild sympathy.

As Augustin Hadelich joined Urbański for the Mendelssohn Concerto, the conductor was cheered as our lady killing hero, so to speak, setting the tone for a robust but romantic traversal of the piece. Hadelich projects a nice balance of control and communication on stage. He plays his instrument earnestly, staring at it like an owner about to reward a puppy, and produces serious dark beauty. But then he barely makes a high note and lets the audience know it’s a “whew” by thanking the firmament with his eyes and rolling his head a bit. His manner works beautifully.The audience loved him.

Somewhere in the slow movement, the evening produced another one of its strange surprises: a curious bell-like moaning sound from a hidden location back in the hall or in the street. I half expected to emerge and find the Opera House next door surrounded by fire engines. Some of the audience turned around, when this occurred two or three times, but the noise remained a mystery. (I was reminded of London’s Festival Hall, which used to boost sound electronically, until the 1970s equipment began to make unsought noises of its own at unexpected moments and had to be disconnected. But Davies has no such electronics.) Chalk it all up to Halloween a few weeks early….

The Mendelssohn was excitedly received in any case, so Augustin Hadelich played Paganini’s Caprice No. 21 for an encore, so flawlessly that the San Francisco Symphony’s concertmaster got the whole ensemble stamping their feet. The audience was beside itself. But even this response wasn’t the evening’s highlight.

San Francisco concert listeners are wary of mikes. We have experienced, after all, several decades of familiarity with our Music Director’s tendency to confuse talking about music with the music itself, so I was briefly alarmed to see Krzysztof Urbański step to the podium for the concert’s second half with a microphone before playing Shostakovich. But Urbański’s words were hilarious and charming. He had the orchestra play through a few selected passages whose themes decifer in German as the composer’s name. Then the orchestra played a passage representing Shostakovich’s soon-to-be second wife. Finally, we heard the vicious hammering that occurs when you put the two personalities together! I never thought of the Shostakovich Tenth as a love story, before, but perhaps, like so much of Shostakovich, it would also be expressed as history—-and not terribly pleasant history!

Once underway, the Symphony, I can report, was as magnificent and incandescent as I have ever heard it, flowing, powerful, biting, hair-raisingly alive.  As I took in the audience buzz, I thought to myself, “This may be our next Music Director.” Who knows when? But that day will surely come….

About the author

Steven Kruger

Steven Kruger is a former classical concert agent. For a number of years he supervised the roster of conductors at Shaw Concerts in New York City, representing such artists as Sir Andrew Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, Rafael Fruhbeck De Burgos, Jose Serebrier and Robert Shaw.

Born in New York City in 1947 to a German immigrant father and an American mother, Kruger is a descendant of 19th century Bach biographer Philipp Spitta. He was educated at Phillips Exeter and Princeton, and received his degree in Philosophy, but turned to music administration after a brief career as a military officer and as a stockbroker.

Early in his exposure to music, Kruger developed a special fondness for the British Symphonists, and as a concert agent was able to play a part in the revival of such composers as Elgar, Delius, Walton, Bax and Vaughan Williams during the late 1970s.

He continues today as an advocate for these and other 19th and 20th century neo-romantic symphonic composers, such as D’Indy, Magnard, Korngold, Schmidt and Tubin, who were at one time eclipsed by the mid-century fashion for academic music. Now living in California, Steven Kruger reviews selected concerts in Davies Hall by The San Francisco Symphony and international visiting orchestras. Since 2011, he has written program notes on demand for the Oregon Symphony, including their recent CDs, “Music for a Time of War” and “This England”. He contributes a regular CD review column to New York Arts twice a month called A Crop of Recordings and is a masthead reviewer for Fanfare, America’s most serious remaining hardcover journal devoted to recorded music.

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