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TSO delivers familiar but stirring performance under Krzysztof Urbanski

Pianist Yuja Wang and conductor Krzysztof Urbanski.

Jag Photography

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Roy Thomson Hall
Thursday, October 13, 2016

Guest conductor Krzysztof Urbanski coaxed some of the most subtle, beautiful sounds ever heard in Roy Thomson Hall out of a splendid, willing Toronto Symphony Orchestra Wednesday night in an extremely enjoyable evening at the symphony. If there was any doubt about the quality of the TSO's playing, Urbanski brought out its best, with beautiful wind playing, subtle string sonorities, and an ear for colour and shape that was outstanding.

What is amazing about Urbanski's achievement is that he was conducting the orchestra in two of the most often played, hackneyed pieces in the standard repertoire – Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite and Dvorak's New World Symphony. These are exactly the kind of pieces that symphony orchestras, through sheer repetitive boredom, often play with the enthusiasm of clerks bagging groceries in your neighbourhood grocery store.

Not so Wednesday night. Urbanski reminded us all of the great beauty in these familiar works (they're not greatest hits for nothing). From the opening moment of Grieg's Morning Mood, it was clear that Urbanski was intent on bringing out all the lovely sonorities in this music, constantly encouraging the orchestra to be quieter than usual (I counted at least a half-dozen times during the concert where Urbanski, finger to lips, reduced the orchestra's volume). And that quietness transformed the haunting Ase's Death (the second movement of the Grieg), a deeply moving meditation on death, into the most hushed, most sublime few minutes I've ever heard from the TSO.

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Urbanski is a conductor of subtlety and rectitude, and that peace of Ase's Death reappeared about an hour later in the second movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony, the movement with the famous tune (rewritten decades later as Going Home, and superbly played by Cary Ebli, the TSO's sensational English hornist).

Again, Urbanski managed to quiet the orchestra and the hall to anechoic chamber silence, holding the music taut, stretched like the finest silver wire, tense with expectation and daring. The New World Symphony is full of exuberant barn-burning tunes given to a thankful brass choir, remarkably easy to overplay and ruin, but Urbanski never let his ensemble get out of control, and in so doing, allowed us to hear the New World with the freshest of fresh ears.

Where Urbanski was a little less revelatory was in Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3, definitely not an overplayed part of the standard repertoire, although it's not a rarity, either. The Bartok composition is a complex, sometimes joyous, sometimes heartfelt work that was left unfinished at his death, his New World concerto, if you like, written after his arrival in America in the early forties. The soloist in the Bartok was Yuja Wang, the young, amazingly virtuosic Chinese pianist who has become one of the world's keyboard supernovas.

However, Wang didn't seem to inhabit the Bartok with great comfort – she played with great elan, tempering her steely dexterity with moments of quiet passion, but she seemed to skim off the surface of the music like a stone you throw across a pond, never really alighting. Urbanski again coaxed some beautiful sounds from the TSO in an accompanying role, but the depth he realized in the other two works on the program seemed to elude him here.

Nonetheless, it was a fine, fine evening at Roy Thomson Hall – a revelation in many ways. It may be a bit too early to start to amass names to replace Peter Oundjian, who is leaving the orchestra in a couple of years, but I wouldn't mind one bit if Krzysztof Urbanski's name was added to a list someone was compiling of potential successors. And the 1,800 or so cheering patrons at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night probably wouldn't mind, either.

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