I recently read an article about Dvorak’s “New World” symphony that opened by stating that the piece was the best symphony of all time. It was a wonderful, exuberant, absolute, deliberately provocative statement, and I loved its audacity and the exuberance with which the piece defended its indefensible claim. I miss that in a lot of writing. I also miss it in a lot of performances. Indeed, any performance of a great masterwork could make the case for that piece being the best ever. Thursday night’s audience at the National Symphony Orchestra seemed happy to embrace the article’s premise, getting to their feet at the end of Krzysztof Urbanski’s lyrical, detailed, slightly careful reading. But Urbanski and the orchestra showed no more than a very, very good symphony.
The evening didn’t lack for youthful energy. Urbanski, still in his early 30s, has become a fairly regular NSO visitor — this was his third appearance since his debut here in 2013. He’s a fluid conductor with easy gestures, and obviously a smart and considered one. In the second movement (which contains one of the most famous tunes in the literature, the “Going Home” theme), he wound the music down to a complete stop before summoning it back to life like a soap bubble hidden within and then released from his hands. After that, he turned on a dime and sprang into the third movement with bracing force.
I didn’t always feel, though, that he summoned the full focus of the orchestra to flesh out his musical ideas. I’ve praised him in his past NSO appearances for being understated and avoiding the obvious, but in this outing, it started to seem as if his thoughts simply weren’t fully taking hold. There was a lot of fine detail, but the overall architecture of the piece began to sag, and the final drifting chords seemed less a conclusion than an afterthought. There were many things to like about this performance, including the orchestra’s spiffed-up winds and brass, but it didn’t entirely rise above routine.
The first half also offered energy in the person of Johannes Moser, the German cellist, who made his NSO debut playing the original version of Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme” — the first time the orchestra had played this take on a familiar work most often heard in the arrangement made by its first performer, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen.
Moser has a big, warm, generous sound, and he played with evident enjoyment and a bit of showmanship. The piece is a particular calling card for him — he took a special prize for it at the 2002 Tchaikovsky Competition, where he also took second place (no first place was awarded) — and he made it very much his own, with the unfamiliar order of the variations (including an eighth variation) giving freshness to a piece known well to NSO audiences.
It’s almost de rigueur for young conductors to champion little-known works by their countrymen, and Urbanski opened with a bang with what, for some, was the evening’s highlight: a piece called “Orawa” by Wojciech Kilar, who died in 2013 at 81. Named for the region of Poland where the composer spent most of his life, the piece folds in folk influences that sound in the concert hall like neo-minimalist repeating string patterns, mounting in generous layers to a big, full, romantic sound that the NSO made wholly exuberant. Hearing the best symphony of all time is all very well, but there’s a good case to be made for fresh music.
The program repeats on Saturday night. On Friday, the NSO will offer a “Declassified” program devoted to the music of Bryce Dessner.