Music review: Young conductor impresses with L.A. Phil at Bowl

Krzysztof Urbanski conducts the L.A. Philharmonic in his West Coast debut at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

At 31, Gustavo Dudamel is no longer the youngest music director of a major orchestra. Krzysztof Urbanski is, at least for now.

The 29-year-old Polish conductor, who made his West Coast debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Tuesday night, is supposed to begin his second season with the Indianapolis Symphony next week. But the orchestra is in stalled contract negotiations with its players, and the Sept. 14 opening concert is threatened.

This, instead, seems the moment for Indianapolis to do a Dudamel. Urbanski gives off a dashing rock star vibe and resembles a young Herbert von Karajan on the podium, and were the orchestra to throw every imaginable resource behind the band, perhaps the town would find more reason to support it.


PHOTOS: 2012 Hollywood Bowl highlights

The Hollywood Bowl is hardly a fair place to judge a young conductor. There can be so little morning rehearsal time that just reading through the full program is barely feasible. Amplification, even when it is well done (as it was Tuesday), changes balances. And by September, the orchestra’s spirit can sag. Just watch how quickly the players head for exits the second the show is over.

And yet, when a young conductor can triumph over these odds — as did Simon Rattle, making his U.S. debut here while still a teenager, as a young James Levine did in the early ‘70s and as a 24-year-old Dudamel, himself, did for his first concert in the U.S. in 2005 — then you know you have something.

Urbanski made a statement from the very start of the evening. Coming on stage in a tight black suit and spiky haircut that could easily get him past the bouncers of any hip club in the city, he conducted Stravinsky’s spiky arrangement of the national anthem, slightly throwing off those among 6,500 present singing along, but also conveying a feeling of freshness.

He was not, however, without competition for attention. The evening’s splashy soloist was Denis Matsuev in Prokofiev’s splashy First Piano Concerto. Winner of the 1998 Tchaikovsky competition, Matsuev has been nicknamed “the Siberian bear.” Slightly bear-like he may be, but one with the fastest paws in the Arctic and maybe anywhere else.

He’s a Russian banger, perhaps, but with glittering cascades of sound that impart terrific sparkle. And that meant nonstop fireworks in an early score Prokofiev had written to show himself off. Urbanski found an excellent balance for the orchestra, allowing Matsuev his prominence, but offering exquisite accompanimental phrasing.


In an unusual, but smart, move, Matsuev then followed the relatively short concerto with a piano solo — two selections from Stravinsky’s “Petrushka,” setting off a whole new round of amazing percussive fireworks. Nor was there any stopping him. Matsuev returned for an encore, his own outrageously and irresistibly flashy arrangement of “Largo al Factotum” from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.”

Urbanski’s big piece was a very big piece, Shostakovich’s intensely serious 53-minute Tenth Symphony. He led the score from memory and with commanding control and concentration. Though of slight build, he has long arms, large hands and uses a long baton. All of that makes it seem as though he can almost reach out and touch the players to shape their sound. His baton work is rhythmically sharp, but his left hand remains suavely expressive.

No real interpretation may have been possible under Bowl circumstances, but Urbanski unhesitatingly entered into Shostakovich’s darkest corners and just as unhesitatingly released the score’s shocking violence. But he did not allow for vulgarity. A suave Shostakovich Tenth is both rare and refreshing.

Urbanski has already caught the attention of the music world, especially in Europe. He is on the radar of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. The Indianapolis Symphony would be crazy to blow the opportunity Urbanski presents. If it does, someone else will snap him up in a second. I would if I ran an orchestra.