Polish-born conductor Krzysztof Urbański owes his American breakthrough to an erupting volcano. After making his U.S. debut in April 2010 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Urbański was supposed to return to Europe for concerts in Scandinavia. However, he had to remain in Indianapolis when an active volcano in Iceland shut down air travel to Europe.
It so happened that the orchestra was looking for a new music director, and this unplanned interlude gave Urbański an unexpected chance to meet with officials about the opening. Then, in June, the orchestra gave him another guest-conducting slot so it could evaluate him further. “And right after that,” he said, “there was a little discussion, the orchestra voted and they named me their music director. So everything went really fast.”
So when seeking a guest conductor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra residency this summer at the Ravinia Festival, officials didn’t have to go very far. This fall, Urbański, now 34, will begin his seventh season with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, a cultural mainstay in a city only about three hours away from Chicago by car. The maestro’s first and only other appearance at the festival came in 2014, a concert that also marked his CSO debut.
For his guest conducting appearance Aug. 10 at Ravinia, Urbański will lead an all-Russian program featuring Sergei Rachmaninov’s ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 3. The soloist is Garrick Ohlsson, who became first the American to win the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1970 and has enjoyed an illustrious career since. “Garrick Ohlsson is one of my very favorite soloists,” Urbański said. “Working with him, being on the stage with him, is something really precious.”
Rounding out the program will be Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, which Urbański believes is the greatest of the composer’s works in that form. It also happens to be his favorite. “Maybe because it’s so intimate,” he said.
Since Urbański’s tenure began in 2011, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has been able to hire top-notch players for some of its key positions and to enjoy what he sees as solid artistic growth. “What I’m especially proud of is that our ticket sales are constantly growing,” he said. “Just last season there was a 15 percent increase in our ticket sales. So, altogether, I see the future of the Indianapolis Symphony in bright colors.”
Next spring, Urbański will take the orchestra to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras. Launched earlier this year as a co-production of the Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center, the showcase became an instant success. At SHIFT, the Indianapolis Symphony will present an all-Polish program, beginning with what the conductor unabashedly calls the “best concerto of all concertos ever written”: Witold Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto (with soloist Alisa Weilerstein). Also featured will be Krzysztof Penderecki’s Credo (1997-98). “It’s really fascinating music, and it requires huge forces,” Urbański said. “So apart from the orchestra, we are taking a children’s choir from Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir. It’s going to a big production, and I’m really happy we’re going to be able to present this fascinating music at the Kennedy Center.”
Wherever he conducts, Urbański likes to program as much Polish music as possible, because he feels it does not receive the recognition it deserves. “I grew up and did all of my musical education in Poland,” he said, “I got to know Polish music quite well, and, unfortunately, there are some pieces that are not as well known outside Poland as they should be. And there are so many real masterpieces, like the Concerto for Orchestra by Witold Lutosławski. So when there is an opportunity for me to show some of the jewels of Polish musical culture, I’m very happy to do it.”
In 2015, Urbański became principal guest conductor of what has become one of the world’s most talked-about orchestras: Germany’s NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra (formerly known as the NDR Symphony Orchestra Hamburg). In January, it took up residence in Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie, a startlingly contemporary addition to the city’s skyline that contains what many musicians are calling one of Europe’s most acoustically sophisticated concert halls. The maestro has already led several sets of concerts and recording projects in the new facility (where the CSO performed on tour earlier this year). “I personally think this is the most beautiful concert hall on this planet,” he said. “It’s truly spectacular, and the audience has a unique experience of feeling a part of the orchestra, because the seating is quite steep, and they sit over the musicians. It gives a special intimate quality.”
In addition, the NDR Elbphilharmonie created a sensation in the classical world in June when it announced the appointment of Alan Gilbert, the departing music director of the New York Philharmonic, as its next chief conductor. He signed a five-year contract that begins with the 2019-20 season, and in the meantime, he will hold the title of chief conductor designate. Urbański, who succeeds Gilbert as principal guest conductor, said he has great respect for the American maestro. “I think it’s really great news for the whole institution,” he said.
Aside from his positions in Indianapolis and Hamburg, Urbański maintains an active guest-conducting schedule regularly that takes him back and forth across the Atlantic. He has upcoming engagements with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. “I have relationships with so many orchestras,” he said. “I’m always very happy to come back and make music with them.”
As for the future, Urbański professes to have no idea what might come next. “In fact,” he said, “I do not care about it. There was a time in my life when I was really focused on my career, and I thought it was really important, maybe because I had to sacrifice a big part of my life for study and things. But I’ve changed my attitude recently, and, right now, what’s going to happen is going to happen. I’m really happy. I have a chance to work with good orchestras or great orchestras and make beautiful music.”