Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony will never not be welcome on a symphony orchestra’s season schedule, no matter how much veteran concert-goers may cavil about programming “chestnuts” and “warhorses”. And it was a very good choice for the National Symphony Orchestra to assign this year’s reading of the Fourth to guest conductor Krzysztof Urbański, currently music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and likely bound for a higher-profile US orchestra once his term in Indianapolis expires in mid-2021.

Krzysztof Urbański © Marco Borggreve
Krzysztof Urbański
© Marco Borggreve

Urbański, a young hotshot with spiky hair, proved in Washington to be a surpassingly good conductor. His beats, while choreographically stylish, are exceptionally clear, and his direction never lacks a clear motivation. One distinct tick that he allows himself, of bringing down his left fist in a hammer motion for staccato fortissimos, is simply good showbiz in a live concert environment.

Best of all, Urbański created an arc of the entire symphony with careful tempi through the first three movements, including a beautiful, non-hectic pacing of the largely pizzicato third-movement Scherzo. That left plenty of room for the choice of full steam ahead for the finale, matching Tchaikovsky’s Allegro con fuoco tempo marking and then some.

As sometimes happens with the NSO brass, their tone was occasionally more blatant than round and the group attack just short of unanimous during the first of three subscription concerts of the program. But the NSO’s strings, especially now the violins, have shucked off the lethargy of earlier this decade, and the triumphant reach of the third of Tchaikovsky’s F major final-movement virtuoso runs past the major third to the high C near the end of the symphony was a moment of glory to finish the proceedings.

The first half of the concert consisted primarily of Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor featuring French pianist Lise de la Salle, who appeared in Washington in 2017 both with the NSO and in a solo concert in the prestigious Sunday afternoon concert series at the Phillips Collection. As she has previously, de la Salle showcased both virtuosity in the concerto’s complex passagework and great songfulness in many lyrical themes throughout the concerto.

Two preferences that may be more a matter of taste than anything else perhaps slightly limited the performance’s triumph for some. Ms de la Salle does elect to lightly layer in left-hand completions of downward passagework into Chopin’s notoriously simplistic orchestration, whereas they could be more forward-sounding without doing any violence to the sense of the piece. And a third-movement horn call that signals a shift from the F minor key of the concerto to the F major of the conclusion seemed a trifle reticent even at the outset before pulling back. Perhaps as Urbański continues to navigate the somewhat challenging acoustics of the Kennedy Center’s boxy Concert Hall, he can direct this to be a more of an engaging dialogue between pianist and French horn.

Urbański opened the concert by featuring a female composer from his Polish homeland. Grażyna Bacewicz’s self-standing Overture for Orchestra is a coruscating gallop with the orchestra sections diving into one another and back out again. The constrained six-minute length of the piece justifies the essentially tonal “busy-ness” of the 1943 work, with a woodwind-focused lyrical middle section tucked in to afford the ear a chance to catch its breath. It was a worthy introduction to a little-known composer who certainly deserves to be heard some more in Washington and elsewhere in America.

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