Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lunch with the New Maestro


My time in Berlin was coming to an end, but before returning to the US, I had one more day of new sites ahead of me. At the suggestion of Symphonic Choir Board of Directors President Peter Fellegy, and with the help of Kathleen Custer at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, I had been invited to meet Krzysztof Urbanski, ISO Music Director Designate, in Bamberg, Germany today. Maestro Urbanski is conducting the Bamberg Symphony concerts this weekend, so he had traveled there from his current home city of Warsaw.

Leaving Berlin shortly before 8 am, I took the ICE train for a four hour ride south and a bit east, arriving in the small city of Bamberg around noon. Stowing my bags in the lockers at the station, I hailed a cab, and arrived at the concert hall during the musicians’ break. As I got situated in the concert hall, I had a chance to meet the principal viola player for the orchestra, an American woman from Spokane. A graduate of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, she moved to Vienna and has been in Europe for over 20 years, playing in several fine orchestras. We talked about Krzysztof, and she reported that the orchestra had been very impressed with his work.

Rehearsal began, the Lutoslawski Cello Concerto, an aggressive and modern work. It was great to hear the soloist, Clemens Hagen, and the orchestra pull the piece together from what may have been their first reading. I enjoyed watching Krzysztof work very much. Clearly in command of this challenging material, his rehearsal style was direct and effective, moving quickly and always serving as a sensitive accompanist to the soloist.

One favorite moment: the work begins, after an extended cello cadenza, with jolts of very fast, short, sharply repeated notes from different brass instruments, one after the other. They began, trombone played its notes, then it was the trumpet’s turn—“tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat”. Without dropping a beat, Krzysztof called out “it’s just FIVE notes please.” Giggles and smiles all around.

At rehearsal’s end, I re-introduced myself (we had met at the ISO’s public announcement of Kryzsztof’s appointment last fall) and we headed to lunch. Neither one of us knew exactly where to go, but with a little luck, and the help of a friendly cab driver, we ended up in a cozy restaurant in the heart of the “old city.” Our tasty lunch…beef for him and “Schnitzel im Bamberger Art” for me, accompanied by beer of course…was delicious, and a perfect way for us to become acquainted.

We had great conversation, talking about favorite pieces and composers (he’s a champion of Polish composers, naturally), our various paths to music (he didn’t attend music school until age 12, very late in the European system), musical backgrounds, etc. One thing I am always curious to know is how conductors study their scores…such an individual thing, and since that task is a never-ending one, I’m always looking for helpful hints. Krzysztof works from a piano to learn his scores, doesn’t listen to recordings until after he’s made his own interpretive decisions, and marks his own parts with articulations and bowings (his wife, Joanna, helps him with that for now, but I have a feeling he’ll be hiring a scribe/copyist soon, in order to keep up with his fast burgeoning career).

He was eager to hear about the Symphonic Choir, so we talked about our typical seasons (8-10 different productions annually, about half of those with the Orchestra), number of singers (roster of 140-160 typically, all volunteer) and our board. Among the things that make me most proud of the ISC is the enthusiasm and flexibility our singers show. Though I rehearse the singers to within an inch of their lives, they are always willing to try it a different way when an orchestra conductor requests it. So I tried to give him a little sense of what to look forward to as we work together in the coming seasons.

Maestro Urbanski is young…just 28 years old. However he has an impressive resume of experience and work already, conducting in Houston, Chicago and Indy, and in numerous cities around the world. One-on-one, he is naturally at ease, quick to laugh, and very gracious. I felt lucky to spend such quality time with him, and know that my singers, and the musical community in Indy, will become his fans and supporters in short order.

(Old town Bamberg)


After lunch, another train ride, this time back to Frankfurt, then flight home next morning.

As I reflect upon the last ten days, I'm left with two "big ideas."

1) I am very lucky. To get to travel, to see and experience places, people and culture, to get to study and play music like this...I am humbly grateful for these opportunities.

And, 2) In this trip, I have encountered the extremes of humanity...from the glorious miracle of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the unthinkable nightmare of the holocaust. Though separated by 200 years, I realize the juxtaposition of these events underscores the timeless universality of the MASS IN B MINOR. Its closing moments contain a message that is both fervent plea and hopeful assurance: Dona nobis pacem.

Pacem indeed.

Somehow, Bach knew we'd need to hear that in 2011.


As promised some posts ago, I'll continue putting up information I find interesting or enlightening pertaining to the MASS IN B MINOR as I prepare for our April performances. Stuff I'm reading, stuff we're working on in rehearsal, stuff my students uncover, interviews with our performers, that sort of thing.

But next time I thought I'd answer a question some of our singers and choir fans have been asking me, namely what recording do I recommend for those wanting to get better acquainted with this magnificent work? I think I own close to a dozen different recordings, and there are way more than that out there. Everything from huge orchestras and monstrous choirs to chamber ensembles and one singer per part. We'll think about the differences between one approach or the other, and hopefully point you toward something you might enjoy.

Till then, thanks again for reading, commenting, sharing with friends.


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