Review by David Richards
Toronto ON October 16th 2016
Pianist Yuja Wang, Guest Conductor Krzysztof Urbanski and the TSO
Photo Credit: Jag Photography
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Yuja Wang and Krzysztof Urbanski bring roars of approval from audience
Upon first examination of the programme for last night’s Toronto Symphony concert at Roy Thomson Hall, my instinct was to give it a pass. The two works by Grieg and Dvořák are orchestral war horses that have been performed more than enough for me, or so I thought. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the two guests. having missed them the last time they were in Toronto. Pianist Yuja Wang and conductor Krzysztof Urbański are both cementing their reputations on the world stage.
Wang is the subject of a feature article in last month’s New Yorker. Her celebrity has been established. Her combination of electrifying technique, exquisite artistry, edgy fashion and relentless drive has made her one of the most sought after pianists of the decade.
While it would appear that not as much has been written about Urbański, the Polish conductor has certainly garnered a reputation of delivering sensitive performances with a singular conducting style both in Europe and North America. He made his mark on the New York stage just two years ago at the age of 32, stepping in for an ailing Christoph von Dohnányi with the New York Philharmonic. The enthusiastic critic for the New York Times described his conducting style thus: “In a taut, coherent reading, he brought such stylish moves as a scissoring downbeat, a head-butt for cross-rhythms and a jumping jack for climaxes that peaked midair. Unlike some of his peers, each signal had precise musical purpose, however showy it looked from the audience.”
From the opening of Edward Grieg’s Suite No. 1 from “Peer Gynt”, Op. 46. Urbański scarcely moved more than his eyes and his finger tips to achieve an orchestral sweetness. He guided the flute and oboe solos with a gentle approach to his conducting. Without a score in front of him, he communicated with every musician. The lush, warm tones from the strings in the second movement were breathtaking as were the barely audible pianissimos. Again, in the final movement, his light approach with the cellos and basses set the stage for the dramatic buildup of tempo and volume to a climax that brought goosebumps.
Bartok was desperately completing his Piano Concerto No.3 in E major, Sz. 119, BB 127 when he died in 1945 in New York City. Considering the suffering he was enduring with advanced leukemia as he wrote it, the positive tone throughout the work is quite remarkable. Wang was attentive to the artistic beauty of the work balancing the various colourful lines in the orchestra. I loved the delicate ending of the first movement with the piano and flute. The winds including piccolo, muted trumpet and piano, created bird-like sounds which gave life to the chorale-type tune in the second movement. Wang played with power and abundant technique when needed but was always careful to stay within the broader context of the work.
It was in Wang’s three encores that she displayed all her pianistic acrobatics. Each of the three was more spectacular than the previous. She concluded with the insanely difficult and showy Carmen Variations arranged by Horowitz. The almost capacity audience roared with enthusiastic approval.
The Dvořák Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 ‘From the New World’ gave Urbański another showpiece. This is symphonic music of the highest order. Again without a score, he delivered an inspirational performance conducting with his dance-like moves, springing lightly from one side of the podium to the other. Each of the soloists in the orchestra created breathtaking music and none more so than Carey Ebli on English horn.
On a night when there were doubts about a seemingly predictable programme, Krzysztof Urbanski gave unexpected freshness and vitality to the scores. The TSO responded with perhaps its finest playing of the year. Yuja Wang showed that she is ready to take on the Cleveland, London and San Francisco orchestras in the coming days with her Bartok concerto.