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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Concert Review: What's In a Name?

The Philharmonic opens Dohnányi/Dvořák...without Dohnányi.
by Paul J. Pelkonen's young conductor Krzysztof Urbánski.
Photo by Ole-Einar Andersen and Adresseavisen © 2014 Deutsche Grammophon
The choice to market a two-week festival around a particular artist can prove problematic--especially if that artist cancels a week before the event. That's what happened this week at the New York Philharmonic, where the orchestra's two-week Dohnányi/Dvořák festival got under way without conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. (Mr. Dohnányi cancelled on Nov. 26, as he was recovering from the flu. He is scheduled to return next week.)

Happily, his substitute was the energetic Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbánski, who shared the elder conductor's precision, skill and an accent mark on the same letter in his surname. Taking the podium at Friday's matinée concert without the benefit of a printed score, Mr. Urbánski, who conducts in Trondheim and doubles as the current music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra proved worthy of the task, as he led Dvořák's Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 7.

Alisa Weilerstein played the solo part in the concerto, bringing a lyric, almost operatic tone to the discourses of her instrument. In the first movement, she played with a warm, deep sound, taking maximum advantage of the cello's uncanny ability to imitate the human voice. She was ably met by the Philharmonic musicians, with Philip Myers' horn predominating. Mr. Urbánski moved the Sonata Allegro forward while allowing the cellist room to move, striking the balance that is necessary for a successful performance.

The slow movement was lyrical and sweet, with the orchestral accompaniment kept in careful check. Those restraints disappeared in the finale, with its folk-dance theme repeating and incorporating new material in dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The solo passages were thrilling, edge of the seat stuff, and the orchestral tutti was of a very high caliber indeed. Ms. Weilerstein was at her finest in the soft solo that comes right before the very end, holding Avery Fisher Hall breathless as she played the notes with a beautiful vibrato.

The Seventh is one of the "big three" symphonies by this composer, benefitting from his experience and full maturity as an artist. The second of of Dvořák's symphonies to be written in D minor, it confirmed the Bohemiam composer's arrival in the front rank of composers working in the post-classical tradition of Beethoven, with its preference for form over narrative and its ability to take a tragic theme and turn it into a bold and triumphant blaze of sound.

Mr. Urbánski's interpretation of the Seventh waled the balance between classical rigor and Bohemian folk song that resounds through the best of Dvořák's music. The big theme in the first movement was red-blooded and bold, with strong playing from basses, brass and woodwind. (Indeed this latter section, with its four virtuoso first chairs is among the Philharmonic's finest, contributing here at a very high level.) The quiet development, with its changes of thematic idea presented no pitfalls for the young conductor, who then brought the terse recaptulation back with great force.

The second movement was lyric, with Dvořák's predisposition for melodies that could be sung by human voice again coming to the fore. This is one of this composer's tightest and most majestic creations, opening from a woodwind theme into a vast landscape of sound telescoping forth from the brass. The Scherzo followed, with the unconventional polyrhythms (half the orchestra plays three beats in the measure while cellos and bassoons play two) supplying this symphony with its most memorable theme. The middle section of the work again featured the little wind band, before the whole orchestra charged into the resumption of the dance.

The finale of this work is problematic, with a certain squareness of rhythm that can challenge the best of conductors. Mr. Urbánski added just enough rubato to make the work flow and roll forward, playing the square-shouldered theme and capturing the essential conflict that Dvořák himself is struggling to solve. Old themes are recalled and new ones added, and the whole concluded with a serious, and yet optimistic aural climax in the robust key of D Major.

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