Much has been said about a generation of young conductors on the podiums of many of America’s orchestras today and of the misleading child prodigy syndrome that never fails to generate buzz. But the real conversation is not as much about personality as it is about performance; with that, Saturday’s Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) concert at Hilbert Circle Theatre—the second over the weekend—satisfied the demands of high expectation while squelching any lingering apprehension concerning the hype.
If you add up the ages of Music Director Krzysztof Urbanski, who is in his eighth season with the ISO, and soloist Jan Lisiecki, you still fall short of the average concert goer’s number of trips around the sun by about five years. But I don’t want to dwell on how young—young for classical music, that is—they are; the merit, as I suggest, was rather in the nuanced, lively, and organic performances of Grieg and Brahms by this incredibly talented pair and the dynamic ISO.
A staple of the repertoire, Grieg’s concerto is structured with clarity, even if anchored to a standard-issue form. Its genius, though, Lisiecki commented during the pre-concert talk, is in “how simple it actually is.” The young Canadian made his orchestral debut at the precocious age of nine; he might be judicious in his aversion to his former "child prodigy" branding, which he has voiced, but his wizardry on the keyboard surely shows the earmarks of an innate gift.
There is a distinctive affinity between Urbanski and Lisiecki, who have collaborated before: taking the tempo on the brisk side, conductor and soloist imparted coherency and completeness to the back-and-forth between orchestra and piano. Urbanski, 36, would often throw glances at his collaborator from the corner of his eye; their rapport was expressed in rhythmically interlocked interchanges between piano and orchestra throughout.
The first-movement cadenza encapsulated the stylistic sensibilities of the 23-year-old pianist; during the swift runs up the scale, he would attack the lower notes with a softness of touch that allowed him to gradually rise in loudness and pace. The delicacy of his right-hand trills, sustained with the pedal just long enough, created a dreamy mood. And in the louder outbursts with full orchestra, he gave off a tremendous sense of drama and poignancy.
In the fast-paced third movement, which uses Norwegian folk dances, Lisiecki took on an inexorable drive: with waves of blond hair flicking up and down, forehead perspiring, and torso hunched over the keyboard—especially as both hands landed on plangent block chords—his emotional resonance with the piece elevated the simplicity to which he had alluded into a musical narrative shaped by contrast and dramatic interplay with the orchestra.
In louder passages, Urbanski tended to push dynamics a little over the top, which overwhelmed the general sphere and muffled Lisiecki in the middle register. But any trace of excess was smoothed out in the sprightly performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Conducting from memory, Urbanski animated the lengthy piece with an intuitive appreciation for balance and direction. His high point was in bringing out textures that weave together and inner voices that would otherwise lie dormant, especially during Brahms’ characteristic development of short melodic ideas.
The conductor steered the orchestra with compelling consistency. Ethereal woodwinds, especially flute, commanded my attention in the first two movements, while principal horn Robert Danforth was particularly prominent all through the Grieg and Brahms.
A bowtied Urbanski proved to be a supreme showman in his element, embodying the emotive qualities of the interpretation. He would mirror, on tiptoe, the sudden outbursts with full strings in the third movement; with broad arm motions he shaped the orchestra’s swells and wanes, which felt natural and organic—the orchestra breathing as one. Urbanski’s distinctive sound was surely enhanced by the seating arrangement: he had the violas to his immediate right in the outside, and the basses all the way in the back, lined up horizontally. This brought out a well-proportioned sound from the orchestra; woodwinds over plucked cellos in the third movement, for one, stood out to me as something I hadn’t appreciated before.
Something of a misfire was the concert-opening Polymorphia, by the conductor’s fellow countryman Krzysztof Penderecki, 84. The 1962 avant-garde piece explores and exploits the possibilities of sound from string instruments, calling for techniques that are foreign to standard practice. Urbanski inaccurately introduced Polymorphia as “film music,” in reference to its use in Kubrick’s classic The Shining, though its premiere predates the film by some 20 years. But Shining or no, the disquieting bizarreness from all the plucking, thwacking, tapping, and sliding on the fingerboards just didn’t come through.
Still, the spirit for lending freshness, however transient the nuances, to oft-programmed repertoire—the ISO last played the Brahms just about a year and a half ago—even if at the expense of unperformed new music by composers of Urbanski’s generation, still makes a trip to the symphony worthwhile.