Masterful Urbànski Proves his Mettle with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

[flag code=”gb” size=”24″ text=”yes”] Grieg, Dvořák, Smetana: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbánski (conductor), Alina Pogostkina (violin), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 4.11.2011.

Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite No 1
Dvořák: Violin Concerto in A minor
Smetana: Má Vlast: Vyšehrad, Vltava, Sárka

I’m neither mistaken nor myopic; conductors are definitely getting younger – and Krzysztof Urbànski proves my point. Back in 2007 he was still a student at Warsaw’s Chopin Music Academy; now at the age of 28 he is musical director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (one of the USA’s best, so I’m informed), chief conductor of Trondheim Symfoniorkester, and much in demand from orchestras around the world. Is he a Wunderkind or nine day wonder? I hoped this concert would provide me with an answer.

I can’t remember how often I have heard Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt, but as Mr Urbánski launched into the Prelude to Act 4 of Ibsen’s play, Morning, it felt as if I were hearing the piece for the first time. There was a freshness about the performance in which the conductor showed a sensitive attention to detail, with the strings bringing a tingle to the morning air and shafts of sunlight emanating from the brass. Asa’s Death started quietly and reverently on muted strings until the sense of sorrow and loss welled up in the music. The string section then played Anitra’s Dance, a charming mazurka, with delicacy and refinement, and the whole orchestra came together for a highly atmospheric In the Hall of the Mountain King. After a slow, creepy start the music picked up speed and grew in intensity in a carefully crafted performance which built up to a wild climax.

Violinist Alina Pogostina is Russian, but much of her musical education has been in Germany, and her playing seemed very much to represent the Central European musical tradition. She displayed a strong empathy with Dvořák’s music in the Violin Concerto and, while very much the virtuoso, she worked well with both conductor and orchestra to ensure the composer’s wishes were observed. The Adagio of the concerto was beautifully phrased and emotionally charged; and in the Finale she let her hair down leading the orchestra in a merry dance through a succession of rhythmic melodies starting with a Furiant.

An impressive performance indeed from the young Ms Pogostina. If I have one criticism of her (and this is minor) it is of her platform manner. During orchestral interludes when the soloist has a break, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself. She turned round on the stage, swayed about, inspected her dress and looked this way and that, as if she were bored with the proceedings – and this proved something of a distraction. Perhaps she should take a few tips from her elders, like Tamsin Little or Priya Mitchell.

The three tone poems from Má Vlast brought back memories of a few days I spent in the Czech Republic in the summer. Smetana’s music is deeply rooted in his country’s traditions and in the striking opening to Vyšehrad, named after the castle above Prague, two harpists evoked brilliantly the Bardic tradition of Lumir who unfolds a pageant of Czech history. Gradually the rest of the orchestra joined in, quietly at first, but then the past came alive with battles between knights, love, victory and defeat until the memories finally dissipated and the present reasserted itself.

Vltava, the most popular of Smetana’s tone poems, depicts the course of the country’s largest river starting with sinuous playing by flute and clarinet depicting the two springs at its source. Urbànski brought to life the changing vistas of the river so one could clearly imagine the water nymphs dancing by moonlight, feel the spray from the St John’s Rapids and then admire at the wide river flowing triumphantly through the capital.

One place I did not visit on my holiday was a wild gorge near Prague where, according to legend, a band of warrior maidens once held sway. (But then I have always tended to err on the side of caution!) Sárka, the final tone poem, tells how their leader vows vengeance on her faithless lover, lures him and his comrades into a trap and gets them all drunk; then the maidens spring into action pouncing and inflicting carnage on the sleeping men. The BSO’s musicians responded well to the conductor’s directions and unleashed with obvious relish a frenzy of wildness and thrills. Thus a concert which had opened so innocently climaxed with a bloodbath!

Finally, was I impressed by the youthful Polish conductor? Indeed I was. He is like a breath of fresh air on the musical scene.

Roger Jones