The world of classical music generally allows for its professionals to continue performing and working until judgment day. For instance, Gordon Jacob was scribbling black dots on a piece of paper until he was 88 years old. Furthermore, conductors and musicians, like all living creatures, fall victim to illness. So, it is not surprising to hear that Christoph von Dohnányi, also taken ill the night of his 85th birthday concert in September, needed to take the evening to rest. Opportunity planted the young Krzysztof Urbański, 32, on the Avery Fisher Hall podium in Dohnányi’s place, and occasion was right for his New York Philharmonic debut as he was joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein, also 32, for a satisfying night of Dvořák.

Krzysztof Urbański © Fred Jonny
Krzysztof Urbański
© Fred Jonny

According to legend, Dvořák was skeptical of the cello’s aptitude as a solo concerto instrument. It was not until he was inspired by a cello concerto by Victor Herbert that he changed his mind. Rockstar cellist Alisa Weilerstein captured the spirit of the Romantic concerto through an honest interpretation of the composer’s intentions. Careerwise, Weilerstein has not wasted time. Over the past few years, she has recorded the Dvořák and Elgar concertos, among others, while performing with copious ensembles across the globe. As a soloist, Weilerstein radiates elegance through her flashy stage presence that complements her dependable and consistent technique. With great panache, Weilerstein glided across Dvořák’s concerto with utmost poise while Urbański preserved the orchestra’s dynamic integrity. Weilerstein presented a convincing rationale for revisiting a commonplace concerto. Before departing the stage, Weilerstein encored with unaccompanied Bach, programmed sensibly as a breath of fresh air between the shadowy colossi.

The Seventh Symphony of Dvořák is largely free from Slavic folk melodies and rustic conviviality. It is instead tragic, heroic, and sanguine, subsuming the Czech nation’s struggle for freedom in the 19th century. Over a hundred years later, all nationalistic intent can be set aside to examine its musical content. In fact, Urbański did not conduct from a score in this performance, either because he diligently absorbed the symphony into his soul or because he forgot the music at the hotel. Naturally assuming the former, his memory never faltered, and he gave full focus to the Philharmonic. Indeed, Urbański has a gesture for everything. One wonders: where does conducting end and choreography begin? Certainly jumping in the air while waving a stick is a sure-fire way to increase a player’s intensity, but does twiddling ones fingers quicken a trill? Of course, all the bells and whistles are for the sake of balance when conducting Dvořák because the composer often marked dynamics too densely, and the Philharmonic, with musicians at the top of their class, reacted consciously to his movements. Urbański falls into the category of “up-and-coming conductors”; however, he is not exactly a “new” conductor. Internationally, he has conducted several big name orchestras and holds conducting positions on three continents. His unsullied track record and positive impression on the New York audience are sure signs for an optimistic future.

History suggests that we will be seeing a lot more of Urbański and Weilerstein – that is if either of these jet-setters make it back to New York anytime soon. In about 50 years, one of them may fall sick and give way for another generation to emerge.