Urbański leads NSO in a frenzied yet thrilling bacchanalia

Thu Feb 09, 2023 at 11:49 pm

Krzysztof Urbański led the National Symphony Orchestra in music of Kilar, Prokofiev and Stravinsky Thursday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Krzysztof Urbański has brought an electric program for his first guest appearance at the podium of the National Symphony Orchestra since 2019. The Polish conductor unleashed a concoction of exotic locales, pulsating dance, and bloodthirsty violence in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Thursday evening. The taut, thrilling selection featured music by Wojciech Kilar, Sergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky, all of which he conducted from memory.

Urbański, who stepped down as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2021, now serves as principal guest conductor of the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. In his NSO visits over the years, he has often chosen to introduce new scores by Polish composers to the NSO, and this time was no different, with Kilar’s wild dance piece Krzesany.

Known for his tense, urbane film scores (for Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, among many others), Kilar evoked the rhythms of the Polish folk dance referenced in the title, but also the bloody violence of a bullfight he witnessed on a visit to Spain. With a vast orchestration, Kilar contrasted massive clusters of stacked dissonance, first in the strings and then in the brass, with lush neo-romantic harmony in softer, chamber-sized groupings.

At times the score devolved into noise, with shrieking glissandi and ear-shattering percussion. Driving rhythms, reminiscent of Stravinsky’s motoric motifs, created energetic patterns, ultimately breaking into a folk dance, jarring in its straightforward tonal harmony and plain meter. A wave of cacophony built and crashed over this music, fueled by the strikes of six percussionists and two timpanists, as well as the Concert Hall’s pipe organ. The final decibel level was added by the brass section, who stood up dramatically to fill the hall with sound.

Some respite for the ear came in the smaller orchestra fielded for Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Francesca Dego made her Kennedy Center debut as solo protagonist, having already performed with the NSO in a Wolf Trap concert in 2021.

Francesca Dego performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Davide Cerati

The Italian-born violinist brought out the wolfish side of her Francesco Ruggeri violin (Cremona, 1697) in the gloomy first theme of the opening movement. Running notes impressed with speed and accuracy, but intonation often soured in the more challenging double-stop passages.

In the sweeter second movement, Dego’s tone on the E string did not quite glow, and she had difficulty bringing out a full bravura sound in the upper range when faced with a larger orchestral palette. Here and in the third movement, Urbański skillfully guided the orchestra back on track when his soloist made sudden shifts of tempo. Spanish dance returned to the program in the satisfying finale of this concerto premiered in Madrid, with its clack of castanets. Dego sounded much more confident in her flashy encore, Grażyna Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice, a Paganini-like tribute and another nod to Poland, further tying the evening’s program together.

The orchestra returned to the vast scope of the opening Kilar piece on the second half, handing in a ferocious account of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. From principal bassoonist Sue Heineman’s melodic opening solo, Urbański gave the peeping, squawking woodwinds of the introduction adequate space to sound their early spring calls. Urbański’s confident gestures and measured but rock-solid tempi galvanized the pounded rhythms of the “Augurs of Spring.” The plush harmony of the “Spring Rounds” section had a velvety smoothness, with crashing percussion and blaring brass heralding technicolor climaxes of sound.

Urbański took his time with the second half of the score, seeking intensity in the deliberate layering of waves of sound. The “Mysterious Circles” hypnotized with its luxuriant repetitions, a sense of menace bristling under the melodic fragments evoking children’s games. The methodical pacing, especially from the “Glorification of the Chosen One” to the end, brought out marvelous details in Stravinsky’s many weird effects.

The conductor seemed to take the absence of dancers in this symphonic performance as an excuse to add some choreography of his own. In the orgiastic fury of the “Danse Sacrale” especially, he writhed in sympathetic motion. One might call it showboating, if the playing he drew forth had not been so effective: the NSO followed his movements, seemingly driven by the mania of the dance, with absolute precision.

The program will be repeated 11:30 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. kennedy-center.org

One Response to “Urbański leads NSO in a frenzied yet thrilling bacchanalia”

  1. Posted Feb 10, 2023 at 9:33 pm by Tom Bradley

    Except for the rather boring Prokofiev, violin concerto, the rest of the program was magnificent. Urbanski is a wonderful new conductor. It was wonderful to hear the big sound produced by a very large national Symphony Orchestra. brass playing was exquisite.

Leave a Comment


 Subscribe via RSS