Polish conductor, Kennedy Center organ impress listeners

There were a number of interesting things on the National Symphony Orchestra’s program Thursday night, starting the final subscription weekend of the year. If you’re holding tickets for Friday or Saturday, you can’t see a number of them.

What you can see, and he’s worth seeing, is the Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, who looks like a young teenager and conducts with the relaxed mien of a young athlete — think Roger Federer, all fluid lines and ease and very little bombast. Urbanski has been music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra since 2011 and leads the orchestra in Trondheim, Norway, and is principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and makes guest appearances with ensembles such as the Berlin Philharmonic — in short, he’s got enough work that he doesn’t have to set out to prove anything with one individual concert, even in his NSO debut. At least, that’s one interpretation to put on the appealing ease of his execution, in which he showed a lot of coiled power but evidently felt little need to pull out all the stops — much to the benefit of the music.

As a result, even a greatest-hits suite from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” felt fresh, with the “In the Hall of the Mountain King” episode scampering and whirling itself into a neurotic froth rather than stamping out its dusty oft-heard tread.

The program I heard continued from this suite to James MacMillan’s third piano concerto, premiered in 2011, and concluded with Lutoslawski’s concerto for orchestra, which Urbanski, a champion of his own country’s music, conducted without the score. If you go Friday or Saturday, however, you’ll hear Saint-Saëns’s fifth piano concerto instead of the MacMillan, which means that your evening will be weighted toward chestnuts, as mine was toward the unfamiliar.

The MacMillan is not an earth-shaking piece, but it deserves more than one hearing. It’s based on the Luminous Mysteries, a set of Catholic meditations proclaimed by Pope John Paul II, and its music is filled with tastes of a churchly idiom, whiffs of incense and gilt and great organlike chords. It’s not off-putting in the least, except perhaps for the pianist, since it sent the ever-debonair Jean-Yves Thibaudet — for whom it was written — skittering around the keyboard before reprieving him with a second movement that featured a singing middle-voice piano line draped around with high notes, like snippets of lace. Of course, the idea of contemporary music scares off some audiences, but it’s too bad that more people in D.C. won’t have a chance to let their guard down with this perfectly amiable and perfectly innocuous work.

The other thing I heard that you will not was a performance on the Kennedy Center’s new organ, which seemed one of the most underused features of the 2012-13 season. The planned mini-series of three organ “postludes,” offered free of charge to NSO subscribers on selected Thursdays, dwindled to two, one played by J. Reilly Lewis and one, Thursday night, by Russell J. Weismann, the associate music director at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Weismann’s performance, sprinkled with engaging comments from the stage and illustrations of some of the instrument’s stops, put this clearly fine instrument through its paces, from the gentle sighing of the adagio from Herbert Nanney’s E minor sonata (a movement written as a love song to his wife) to the anodyne, thunderous variations on “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Dudley Buck, by way of a Fanfare by John Cook and a multi-layered “Cortège et Litanie” by Marcel Dupré.

It was a nice palate-teaser that raised, again, the question of why the Kennedy Center, having overseen the spending of several million dollars on this instrument, couldn’t have done a better job making sure more people got to hear it in this inaugural season. From the stage, Nigel Boon, the NSO’s director of artistic planning, said he hoped the series would become a regular thing; D.C.’s organ community hopes so, too, but Boon has the ability to make it happen.

The orchestra program (not the organ recital) repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with the Saint-Saëns concerto in place of the MacMillan.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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