Urbanski turns in another dazzler with SF Symphony

Joshua Roman
San Francisco Gate

There’s just no way around it: This month’s visits to Davies Symphony Hall by the magnificent young Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski constitute the most exciting development on the San Francisco Symphony’s horizon in a good long while.
It’s not easy to write about Urbanski’s remarkable podium gifts without gushing, but let’s give it a try. His conducting combines a masterful precision of detail with a command of the broader expanse of even the most challenging repertoire. He seems to have inspired the Symphony musicians to remarkable feats of instrumental prowess even beyond what they normally muster. He brings a charismatic star power to every performance that makes him as thrilling to watch as to listen to.

OK, maybe just a little bit of gush.
Urbanski was back in Davies on Thursday, Oct. 19, for the second of two not quite back-to-back weeks with the orchestra. Just like before, he brought with him a landmark work of midcentury Polish music — in this case, Lutoslawski’s beautiful and sturdily built Concerto for Orchestra from 1954 — and once again that proved to be the high point of an evening studded with high points.
But Urbanski is an equally remarkable interpreter of the core European repertoire, and he had a peer and partner in cellist Joshua Roman, who joined him for a gorgeous and expressively urgent account of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto.
Roman was a last-minute substitute for the scheduled Sol Gabetta, and perhaps one of the only artists whose presence could have salved the disappointment of missing out on her anticipated Symphony debut. With his robust yet fluid string tone, his effortless and almost offhanded technical precision, and the bighearted communicative vigor of his playing, Roman is one of the great instrumental talents to come along in recent years.
And all of those gifts were poured into an account of the Dvorák that was at once emotionally tender and dramatically firm. The broad melodic gestures of the opening movement emerged with a lyrical freedom that never turned gooey on its way to a listener’s emotions, and the song-like slow movement was a testament to the warmth and immediacy of Roman’s playing.
Even the difficult finale, with its hairpin shifts in material and tone, came through with wondrous intensity, helped along by Urbanski’s crisply specific leadership and an eloquent contribution right at the end from assistant concertmaster Jeremy Constant. As an encore, Roman gave a luminous account of the Sarabande from Bach’s C-Major Cello Suite, offered, he said, as a “moment of peace” for those affected by the North Bay wildfires.
Dvorák made a meaty first half of the program, but there were more delights after intermission, beginning with a performance of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” Overture that was blazingly fast — Urbanski seemed determined to test just how far he could push the Symphony musicians without mishap — and also silky and inviting. It was one of those great overture performances that left you eager to hear the entire operatic evening it seemed to promise.
Instead, and just as engagingly, we got Lutoslawski’s ferocious three-movement orchestral showcase. Just as in Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” two weeks ago, Urbanski seemed to have integrated every minute and measure of this intricate work (he conducts everything from memory), and the result was a formidable display of communal virtuosity.