Ravinia is not the first place one would expect to find an important young conductor making his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But that's what happened Thursday night when a rising young podium star from Poland named Krzysztof Urbanski led the ensemble for the first time and did a most impressive job of it. Too bad a larger crowd did not turn out to witness the event.
Urbanski, who turns 32 this year, is about to begin his fourth season as music director of the Indianapolis Symphony and is said to be the youngest conductor to hold such a post with a major American orchestra. With directorships in Norway, Japan and Germany also taking up his energies, Urbanski's career clearly is on the ascendant, with Berlin and Vienna already knocking on his door.
That he is no mere flashy wunderkind of the baton was shown by the freshly invigorated playing he drew from the CSO in standard repertory that included Stravinsky's “Firebird” Suite (1945 version) and Dvorak's “New World” Symphony, both of which he conducted from memory, all the better to maintain direct eye contact with the players.
Ravinia's tight rehearsal schedule allows not much more than a couple of program read-throughs, with scant time for conductors to refine detail or put their own interpretive stamp on the music. First-timers have it even worse. Yet Urbanski was able to elicit musical statements from the orchestra that carried a personal and convincing point of view and the CSO delivered generally fine playing for him.
Slight of build, with long arms and quivering fingertips firing cues in every direction, Urbanski sported a tight black suit and a fashionably tousled haircut, both of which would fit right in at any trendy nightspot in Chicago. The rock-star vibe is deceptive, however, given his keen musical instincts and vigorous way of translating his ideas into orchestral sound that has both shape and meaning. His unshowy manner is directed entirely toward the music rather than the audience. I hope CSO management has him firmly on its radar.
Even though one would have preferred hearing what Urbanski can do with one of the lesser-known Dvorak symphonies, his “New World” combined analytical clarity with lyrical warmth in a way that had this Romantic staple pulsing with new life. Placing the violas on the outside right of the podium gave welcome prominence to their baritonal voices in the Scherzo, even as Scott Hostetler's mellow English horn solo helped to impart a dreamy nostalgia to the famous Largo: This was the beating heart of an interpretation of strength, drive, thoughtful balance and vivid personality.
The clean, rather dry sound Urbanski elicited from the orchestra for the 1945 “Firebird” Suite was in keeping with the relatively lean scoring of this third and longest of the three suites Stravinsky extracted from the complete ballet score.
The conductor enforced graceful fluidity when needed but also brought keen bite to the rhythms of Kashchei's infernal dance. If the princesses' round dance was momentarily marred by imprecise violin ensemble playing, there were particularly fine solo contributions from David McGill, bassoon, and Daniel Gingrich, horn.
No conductor can do much with the orchestral window dressing to Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 other than support the soloist attentively and keep things moving sensitively. This Urbanski managed quite well, allowing the pianist, Dejan Lazic, ample room to muse his way through the richness of Chopin's lyrical invention.
Perhaps there was too much room in the central Larghetto: Like the playing in general of the gifted, young, Croatian-born, Salzburg-trained soloist, the slow movement was technically immaculate and gave off a delicate, purling beauty of sound, but sometimes felt rather studied and self-regarding. There was nothing seriously amiss in this performance, but I prefer my Chopin played with more dashing brilliance and naturalness. Thursday also marked dual CSO and Ravinia debuts for Lazic.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Ted Sperling conducting, will be joined by soprano Deborah Voigt for a program of Broadway favorites, 5 p.m. Sunday at Ravinia, Green Bay and Lake-Cook roads, Highland Park; $25-$70, $10 lawn; 847-266-5100, ravinia.org.
Twitter @ jvonrhein