All Reviews / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Reviews 2011/2012

Youth is served: Krzysztof Urbański and Denis Matsuev make their LA Phil debuts

05The Hollywood Bowl is often a place for conductors and soloists to make their Los Angeles Philharmonic debuts.  It’s a bit of trial by fire — if you can make a strong impression under the duress of limited rehearsal time and less-than-ideal performing conditions, then you might get invited for a gig downtown for the “regular” season.

Conductors seem to have the higher risk/reward profile in this environment.  Gustavo Dudamel and Simon Rattle are just two conductors who had noteworthy starts to their relationship with the LA Phil at Cahuenga Pass.  The less heralded Juraj Valčuha acquitted himself well enough in a one-night Hollywood Bowl stint in 2009 to get invited back to work with the orchestra and Yefim Bronfman in 2011.  In contrast, Kirill Karabits led two concerts during the same 2009 summer season and hasn’t been seen or heard with the local band since then.

Into the breach this past Tuesday stepped conductor Krzysztof Urbański and pianist Denis Matsuev.  They each left strong impressions in their own very different ways, both having mixed results.

Of the two, Mr. Matsuev has perhaps the more notable pedigree, having won the 1998 Tchaikovsky competition.  The Siberian pianist has a Samwise Gamgee kind of look to him, and his playing matches the character’s persona:  thick, loud, and straight-forward,  capable of subtlety but rarely employing it.  This approach worked better in the Prokofiev Concerto No. 1, as well as for the “Russian Dance” of Stravinsky’s solo piano transcription of Three Movements from Petrushka.  Even though his pounding didn’t always come with the cleanest sound, you had to be impressed with his ability to play fistfuls of chords with both speed and power; however, when “The Shrovtide Fair” became mostly a set of variations on a theme of fortissimo, the whole experience grew tiresome.  Perhaps he was adapting to his acoustical environment — I’m guessing he wasn’t.

As if twelve minutes of solo piano exhibition following a concerto wasn’t quite enough, Mr. Matsuev decided to sit down for an encore:  his own solo piano arrangement of “Largo al factotum,” the iconic baritone aria from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  It was an old-school bit of virtuoso showmanship, not to mention being the best demonstration of the pianist’s entire skill set:  as it turned out, he actually could play with a broad range of color and textures.

It was also extremely self-indulgent.  The LA Phil musicians applauded, tapped their bows, and shuffled their feet in support of the pianist after the concerto, and seemed to hold steady as they patiently sat through the two Petrushka movements as quiet spectators.   Their collective patience seemed to be wearing thin during the four- to five-minutes of Rossini, and you could tell that many were more than ready to head off stage as soon as he was done.

Mr. Urbański  led the orchestra in nice support of Mr. Matsuev during the Prokofiev concerto, but he didn’t really have a chance to make a notable impression of his own until he conducted the  Shostakovich Tenth Symphony after intermission. . . .  Well, on second thought, that’s not quite true.  The fact that the 29-year old Music Director of the Indianapolis Symphony chose to conduct the Shosty 10 instead of a more common Bowl-friendly warhorse, plus play Stravinsky’s arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, showed me that had some interesting, even slightly daring, programming sensibilities.  That was a good sign.

Even before his first downbeat, Mr. Urbański gave the impression of a very post-modern young conductor.  He eschewed the Bowl’s traditional white dinner jacket in favor of a skinny black suit with matching skinny black tie and contrasting white shirt.  He may have been mistaken for fronting a two-tone ska band if not for  his trademark Depeche-Mode-reminiscent spiky hair cut.  On the podium, his right hand carved out broad, sweeping lines with a longer than average baton, while his left hand utilized a whole host of gestures your average Las Vegas magician might recognize:

  • A “you are getting very sleepy” wave of the palm
  • The “watch me pull a rabbit right out of the musicians”
  • The slow rising palm that makes you imagine he’s trying to levitate a hypnotized assistant
  • And my personal favorite, a cue that looked like he was sprinkling a dash of pixie dust onto whatever orchestral section he was signaling towards.

You’d hope that with all the visual attributes in place, the actual performance would be good.  Generally speaking, it was.  For starters, the whole orchestra sounded very good — as good as it has all summer, as a matter of fact.  Whitney Crockett (Principal Bassoon) and Michele Zukovsky (Principal Clarinet) had particularly awesome nights along with the entire woodwind section.    To the extent that Mr. Urbański kept things moving along and didn’t get in the way of the orchestra, he should be praised.

At the same time, one wished for something more.  Mr. Urbański’s take on the Shostakovich Tenth was nicely executed if not particularly distinctive.  It sounded smooth and sleek, but could have benefited from more bite and tension throughout.  The compact second movement was plenty fast, but curiously seemed to lack fire, like a Prius that is going 100 mph and still doesn’t feel very exciting.   Perhaps he was adapting to the circumstances, not trying to overreach in interpretive detail with relatively little rehearsal time — I’d be willing to believe that.

Given his good taste in programming, I’d be interested to see what he could do at Disney Hall.  We’ll see if the powers-that-be at the LA Phil will give him the chance.

Los Angeles Philharmonic:  Sept 4, 2012; Hollywood Bowl
Krzysztof Urbański, conductor
Denis Matsuev, piano

Prokofiev:  Piano Concerto No. 1
Stravinsky:  “Russian Dance” and “The Shrovtide Fair” from Petrushka (solo piano)
Shostakovich:  Symphony No. 10

16 thoughts on “Youth is served: Krzysztof Urbański and Denis Matsuev make their LA Phil debuts

  1. The encore Matsuev played was not “his own arrangement”, the pianist’s boastful claims notwithstanding. At most, it was his “enhancement” of a transcription that was created by Grigory Ginzburg several decades before Matsuev was even born.
    If interested, you may compare a very old audio recording of Ginzburg’s own performance ( ) with Matsuev’s modern take on it ( ). With the exception of a few flourishes and embellishments added by Matsuev (and slightly increased speed), the two versions are almost identical. But Ginzburg’s was definitely first – by more than half a century. This current piano virtuoso and the reviewers (including the LA Times’ gullible scribe) should have mentioned Grigory Ginzburg by name and given him appropriate credit.


    • Very interesting. Many thanks for the link. I got my info re: the Rossini transcription straight from the friendly folks at the LA Phil PR Department. Not sure where they got their info, but my guess would be from the soloist.


      • I’m too swamped to do much other than point to Adaptistration and shake my head sadly. Man, such awful situations.

        In the case of the Philly, 15 years of mismanagement and some very bad decisions got them into this mess. I know less about Detroit, Atlanta, MN, and the St. Paul…..


  2. I seriously wonder how many reviewers – for that matter, how many pianists – could have identified the composer of the transcription.

    Urbanski is also in the news this week because of the lockout at the Indiana Symphony.


    • The challenges that the Indianapolis Symphony are facing (along with similar issues with Atlanta, Minnesota, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra — not to mention the ongoing drama in Philly and Detroit) are all quite sad.

      Its worthy of an entirely separate post– or even set of posts.

      When I clear out my to do list, perhaps I’ll get on that. Or maybe Lisa will.


  3. When you are saying “relatively little rehearsal time”, what do you mean exactly? Relatively, compared to what? Seriously now, how much rehearsal time do you believe would be reasonably sufficient to get Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto ready for a performance, considering that the two pieces are about 70 minutes long and are not performed often by American orchestras even indoors, let alone outdoors – and that this conductor and this orchestra have never seen each other before? Just wondering…


    • Relative compared to, say, the Fall/Winter season at WDCH. If a conductor were to prepare the Shostakovich 10th Symphony during, a “regular” week, assuming eight services per week, that might mean something like 4 practices and 4 performances. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

      If the concerts were going to be, say, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I’d guess that there’d be fewer services.

      In either case, this would be “relatively more” rehearsal time than I guess the orchestra and conductor had together in preparing the same symphony last week.

      Whether any of those examples are “reasonably sufficient,” new conductor or not, I couldn’t say unless/until I heard the performances and could comment on them.

      Of course, what is “reasonably sufficient” for one conductor could/would be entirely different than for another conductor.


  4. Actually, i was more interested not in the customary practice – as you can imagine, i know that myself – but in your personal opinion about what should be done. Anyway, if you consider this customary practice a reasonable requirement, then replacing the word “relatively” with “very” would bring you much closer to the truth.
    A proper rehearsing process consists of three parts: 1) reading through the piece (this is particularly valuable and useful when conductor and orchestra do not know each other well), 2) working on its technical and interpretive details (normally the longest segment by far), and 3) a final run-through (usually during the “dress rehearsal”). For a “Top 40” piece that is performed every (other) year and is therefore very familiar, either 1) or 3) may be omitted. Otherwise, a program like the one in question here (70 minutes of music) would require 140 minutes combined for 1) plus 3) and at least 150 minutes for 2) – nearly five hours of rehearsal time. Don’t even ask me how much time this orchestra had to rehearse this program with this conductor last week…
    Considering the circumstances, the quality of that performance was rather miraculous and i believe that both the orchestra and the conductor deserve plenty of accolades for it. When you are saying that “one wished for something more”, i can tell you exactly what that “more” is: an opportunity to hear this music the way it is supposed to be experienced which is inside of a good concert hall. Asking for “more bite and tension” in a pleasantly amplified summer outdoor environment of our dear Hollywood Bowl is simply unreasonable.
    As for different requirements for different conductors, the paradoxical thing is this – while it is true that a better conductor may need less time to put together a good performance, it is also true that, as a general rule, the better the conductor the more useful and rewarding some additional rehearsal time usually is. With a bad conductor, extra rehearsal time often yields diminishing returns and therefore produces inferior results.


    • It was a wish, not an expectation. I’m allowed to wish for something more, aren’t I? A guy’s gotta be allowed to wish. . . .

      We both agree on the following:
      – Was it a very good Shostakovich 10th for the Bowl? Yes.
      – Was it a very good Shostakovich 10th, period? Not necessarily
      – Could it have been better in a different venue under different conditions rehearsal and performance conditions? Maybe/Probably.

      We’ve both experienced concerts at the Bowl which weren’t just good for a Bowl concert, they were good, period. They are rare, but they happen. This wasn’t one of those nights — it was good, but not that good.

      All the more reason why I’m very much looking forward to the performance of the same symphony at WDCH later this year, when the orchestra will have more time to prepare it and will be working with a conductor who is not making his debut.


      • Of course you may wish for as much as you want, but i simply expressed my opinion about what exactly may have been “missing” for you and for other experienced listeners like you during that particular concert. As for our agreements, my answers to the three questions you have listed are as follows: 1) absolutely; 2) depends on one’s vantage point as well as a point of reference and musical taste; 3) without any doubt. If you can recall an occasion at the Bowl when Shostakovich’s Tenth or other music that is equal to it in intensity and depth (and requires equally active – intellectually and emotionally – kind of listening from the audience) was performed cleaner technically and stronger dramatically than during that concert two weeks ago, your memory is better than mine. It is quite simply not an outdoorsy kind of music that would be suitable for enjoyment while sipping good wine and munching fine cheeses. And even if you were listening with 100% of undivided attention, you were still experiencing it in that same environment mixed with those same vibes, not to mention the substantial limitations and imperfections of the place’s acoustical reality and its diligently amplified sound, however advanced.


        • Fair enough.

          As to other music played at the Bowl that I personally felt were amazing performances (technically and dramatically) for any venue:
          – Rattle conducting Beethoven’s 9th near the turn of the New Millenneum
          – Lorraine Hunt (not yet Lieberson) singing Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer in what I believe was her Bowl & LA Phil debut in 1998

          That was how I experienced it at the time and the memories of those two concerts have lingered. I will readily acknowledge that both of those works are performed more often than the Shostakovich 10th; that said, I think one can make the case that they are equal to intensity and depth.


  5. If the only conductor whom you are putting ahead of the twenty-something Krzysztof Urbanski in this very informal ranking is the 45-year-old Simon Rattle, then you are making an awfully mighty compliment to the young Polish Maestro, especially considering that by the millennium’s turn Sir Simon was already chosen for – and soon successfully assumed – the top conducting position in the universe.


    • As i said before, putting him right next to Sir Simon may certainly be excessively complimentary to Maestro Urbanski, but “charlatan” he ain’t. Four “many”s is a lot, and in my considerable experience i have personally observed plenty of conductors that can be ranked somewhere between him and the true charlatans.


      • To be absolutely clear, characterizing my previous comments regarding Sir Simon as “the only conductor whom [I am] putting ahead of the twenty-something Krzysztof Urbanski” is not accurate. I stated that the best performance of Beethoven’s 9th I’d ever heard was conducted by Mr. Rattle and it happened to be at the Bowl — an indication that stellar performances are achievable at the Bowl despite the inherent difficulties. This is not the same as saying that this was the only performance/conductor that was better than Mr. Urbanski and his own Bowl appearance. There were many performances from this summer alone that I’d put on par with his, but in the end, that is missing the ultimate point: the Shosty 10 he led was, IMHO, good enough to warrant an invitation to conduct the orchestra at WDCH (where he’d get more rehearsals and performances to better show his interpretive skills or potential lack thereof). Whether he actually gets said invitation remains to be seen.


        • Your opinion is very clear, CK.
          For my ears, considering the difficulty of the program and the imperfections of circumstances, the results he achieved in that concert was the most impressive conducting accomplishment of the past summer season.


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