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Urbanski Takes A (Virtual) Bow

The ISO’s outgoing music director leaves without the standing ovation he deserves.

By no fault of its own, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s farewell to its music director and podium poster boy Krzysztof Urbanski has certainly lacked fanfare. Cancelled concerts over the last year included a pairing with pianist Dejan Lazic, who was here for Urbanski’s ISO debut in 2010, as well as a climax for the orchestra’s Beethoven 250th anniversary celebration. And his final concert of Polish music was, as they say in his native language, kaput, thanks to COVID-19.

Before Urbanski stepped down, the ISO had hoped to sneak in a series of goodbye concerts to celebrate his time here. On June 4 and 5, Urbanski was supposed to conduct Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. And on June 11 and 12, the orchestra’s new concertmaster Kevin Lin was to join Urbanski for Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G Minor. Sadly, due to ongoing travel restrictions in Europe where he resides, Urbanski was unable to return for his final shows.

Lin takes the first violin seat that was held by Zach DePue during much of Urbanski’s reign. Less than half the age of some of the ISO stalwarts, the duo gave a youthful energy to the organization—for good or ill. (An age discrimination case against the ISO by its principal bassoonist was settled out of court in 2018.)

Urbanski—brought in at age 28—arrived on the heels of the 2002-2009 tenure of Mario Venzago, whose podium performances brought to mind Martin Short on a particularly antic day. Venzago was in his 50s when he joined the ISO, replacing Raymond Leppard, who arrived at about age 60. Not only was Urbanski the youngest to lead our hometown orchestral team, he was the youngest maestro ever to take the helm of a major U.S. orchestra.

The ISO hoped that youth might have an effect at the box office. But according to Kate McGuinness, the orchestra’s director of artistic planning, there’s no clear evidence of a significant uptick in sales to younger demos. “There was a modest increase, but so many things occurred over those years,” she says, “it would be difficult to pinpoint the impetus.” Still, having Urbanski as frontman helped build the impression that this was not your parent’s ISO. You could even find bright T-shirts sporting Urbanski’s tousled hair and smiling face in the gift shop.

Urbanski’s influence on the orchestra itself will certainly be stronger than his influence on the retail side. As music director, he was involved in the hiring of 20 of the orchestra’s 66 full-time players. And this isn’t the last Indy will see of him. He is already confirmed for a concert here in April 2022, conducting a little ditty called Symphony No. 9 by Beethoven—paired with a commission he intended to stage last season.

As to who will take his place at the podium, the hunt is underway. A search committee of musicians, board members, and staff has reviewed about 100 names, and whittled it down to 15. But until those individuals can be seen at the podium and their chemistry with the players evaluated, no decision can be made. That could push the decision to the 2022-2023 season. The mandate, according to McGuiness: “Someone who will enthusiastically engage with the community and take the ISO to its next chapter.”

As they say, stay tuned.

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