ISO Classical Series Program No. 1; Hilbert Circle Theatre; Sept. 16-17.
Approaching age 29 in about a month, Krzysztof Urbański, in his third appearance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at the Circle, for the first time showed his potential as a podium master, a consummate artist, a music director to be envied. On Friday, he wowed his medium-sized audience with startling views of two works, and a masterful account of the one in between: the ever-popular Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. in B-flat Minor, Op. 23. Veteran pianist Garrick Ohlsson easily held up his end of the bargain in their disparate-aged collaboration.
Though this was the de-facto opening night for the ISO's indoor fall season, it came two days before the festive, pomp-and-circumstance Opening Night Gala, mixing part of this program with ISO Pops offerings, in which Urbański shared the podium with Pops conductor Jack Everly. Given that this Gala had previously always been presented on the ISO's true opening night, it might have been semantically more apropos to have called it the Season Gala, at least this year.
Urbański began his Friday/Saturday program with Mikhail Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla (1842), a light, popular concert opener and possibly Glinka's most often performed piece — classical in structure with a hint of Russian-ness. True to what he had done last season with Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony, our music director played it as fast as I've ever heard it. This time, however, he and his players had the mutual measure of each other, the ten-minute piece coming across as energized and energizing. In short, it worked, while the "Italian" didn't—quite.
The B-flat Minor Concerto, arguably the most popular in the world, contains a microcosm of what makes Tchaikovsky an enduringly great composer: a plethora of dazzling tunes contained in a taut, dramatic structure with a masterful use of solo instruments peeking out of the fabric of its three movements. Unlike so many repertoire concertos, its sparkling orchestration enjoys an equal partnership with its solo-piano writing. It had its world premiere in, of all places, Boston in 1875, with Hans von Bulow at the keyboard. Its audience raved and the critics picked it apart. Does that happen with today's new works?
Both Ohlsson and Urbański fully realize the partnership inherent in Tchaikovsky's score with a perfect dynamic balance between piano and orchestra. Taken throughout at a deliberate tempo, Op. 23 was given as revealing a performance as I've recently heard, with precise entrances and commanding piano work, never covered, yet never pounding. Already a hallmark of his conducting, Urbański dynamically shaped his players' execution with great precision—a performance deserving of its thundering ovation. Equally so was Ohlsson's encore, Rachmaninoff's famous Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 3 No 2 (a "must learn" student piece for those who study the piano long enough).
Urbański's "piéce de resistance" in this all Russian program was a work he had learned recently and conducted Friday for only his second time — the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47. Instead of wading through this most popular symphony, of the 15 the Soviet composer wrote, with the uncertainty of a novice, he memorized the score (as is his habit) and proceeded to follow its every nuance, unaffected by tradition — and made it work. In particular, he made the hollow triumph of the last movement as "hollow" as I've heard it, emphasizing its discords for their intentions: to satirize the alleged victory paean Shostakovich wrote to satisfy his (and everyone's) "boss," Joseph Stalin. Luckily for Shostakovich, Stalin missed the "point."
I have to mention Urbański's account of the symphony's third movement, one of the most heart-rending Largos in the symphonic genre. And once again it was our conductor's control of its dynamics, from whisper soft to medium loud, that made it a moving testament to the composer's tortured spirit.