Interview: Krzysztof Urbanski

As part of our Ones to Watch series of concerts we’re putting the spotlight on seven of the brightest emerging conducting talents in the world in a series of interviews. We’ll be finding out what makes our up-and-coming conductors tick, what they think makes a great conductor great, what a baton is for and what can go wrong when you’re on the podium! 


This month Sarah Breeden caught up with the talented young Polish maestro Krzysztof Urbański, a conductor once described as ‘giving off a dashing rock star vibe’. Urbański discusses conducting with chopsticks and fishing rods, and why being a bad composer had a happy outcome…

How would you describe what a conductor does to someone who doesn’t know about classical music?
This is the guy who waves his hands and the orchestra is not even looking at him, so what’s the reason for placing someone in front of the orchestra? Actually, the truth is different because having 100 people on stage, each of them classically trained, some of them really great artists, there has to be someone to unify the vision of the piece they are performing. So this is the task of the conductor, in fact the most important task: to give the orchestra a vision, where they should focus and which direction they should go in the performance.

What are the skills and what personality is needed to be a really great conductor?
Good question, but I think you should ask a great conductor, I still need to study! I admire many great conductors and I feel I could never put myself on the same shelf as them.

Conducting is a very complicated thing. On the one hand, you must be someone with a very strong personality – it’s not easy to make 100 people who know a piece very well follow your direction so you must be a natural leader as well. This is one of the most important things. You have to have something to say in music, so it’s combining those leadership qualities and, I would say, good taste. You could call it love of music. Then the orchestra might consider following your directions. You have to have something to give to them… the truth in art is the most important feature, really.

How did you get into conducting?
By accident really… When I was 15 I dreamt of becoming a composer so I wrote a piece for a chamber orchestra. In the little town where I grew up, there was no orchestra to perform it so I asked my colleagues from music school to rehearse and perform it and I organised the concert. During rehearsals they said ‘look, Krys, it would be so much easier if you show us the tempo.’ So I took a chopstick and started to beat time. After that performance and after trying some other pieces that I had written, I realised that I definitely didn’t have the talent to become a composer! And that’s why I started conducting. It’s very enjoyable actually.

I’ve learned one lesson: I once wrote something that I very proudly named ‘Symphony’ but you know, I was 19 at that time, and I realise now that I cannot put it next to a Brahms symphony – I am ashamed that I ever tried to write any music! But it helped me understand how important it is to respect those great composers. Having no talent myself for writing music I really admire great composers and their masterpieces. When I’m facing a masterpiece, for example, for example Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, it’s so perfect that I wouldn’t want to change a note, I want to do everything just the way it is. So really as a conductor I’m trying to put away my ego and do the music the way it’s written because it’s so good.

This will be your debut with the LSO. Why did you want to perform with them and what do you think you’ll get out of it?
For me, working with any great orchestra is a valuable opportunity. When you work with an orchestra like this they have so much to offer and you just take it! Of course, I have my own vision for the music and I will share it with the players, but sometimes it is so inspiring when you hear things that they will suggest so it’s a lot of fun to work with really great musicians.

Your chosen works to perform are Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition – why did you choose this repertoire?
I’ve chosen Ravel’s orchestration for Pictures and the common thread between Ravel and Szymanowski is the evocative orchestral colours they use. The sounds in Szymanowski’s Concerto are amazing, and the same in Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures, it’s so great. Of course Mussorgsky’s music is very good but without Ravel’s orchestration it just wouldn’t be the same. That’s my personal opinion.

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a good introduction to the orchestra. What would you say to someone to make them come to this concert?
They won’t regret it! For a start, the Mussorgsky is such a well-known piece and it’s so diverse. For people who don’t know about classical music it’s perfect because it’s not half an hour of one movement. They are these vivid little pictures so it’s very accessible for everyone! Most people are familiar with it already. It’s a powerful work and Ravel’s orchestration is just magical. I think it would be hard to find someone who dislikes Pictures at an Exhibition. I don’t think those people exist! It’s one of the all-time favourites. The Szymanowski is a little more challenging – but again, the orchestral colours are truly magical so it’s a pretty stunning programme all-round.

If you could conduct any work with anyone what would you choose?
It is very hard, nearly impossible to answer that question because what makes my job so interesting is that every week I get to work on different music. Although I have some favourite pieces that I like more than others, I don’t want to conduct only those things because classical music is so diverse. One week you are doing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and the next you are doing a Beethoven symphony, then you can do a Brahms symphony, then you can do some Shostakovich. All these pieces are so different and this is the magic of classical music. People sometimes say ‘I don’t like classical music’. Well, it can’t be true! The repertoire is so diverse I think anyone could find something in classical music they would like and that’s what makes my work interesting.

Have you got any tales from the podium to tell?
There is one concert I will remember forever. Whilst I was Assistant Conductor for the Warsaw Philharmonic there was a cancellation – this is the situation that every assistant conductor dreams of! But on this occasion the programme was very tough. The programme included Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and I had very limited time to prepare for such a complex piece. I don’t know if it was because I was so tired or because the music is so magnificent, but I remember for the last five minutes I completely lost consciousness. I had no idea what was happening. The last five minutes is quite difficult from a conducting point of view because of the irregular rhythms and tempos, as a conductor this is the time that you must concentrate. I completely blacked out for these five minutes but I did not fall. At the end I opened my eyes and thought ‘oh gosh, who are these people? Oh, it’s an orchestra! And there is an audience!’ So this was a strange and quite amazing experience, quite cathartic, a truly magical experience and I’ll remember it forever.

Did the orchestra notice at all?
I recorded the performance for my own study and when I watched it back I saw I was still conducting, I think all those rhythms and movements were in my subconscious, I have no idea how or what happened. It was strange, but I would love for it to happen again. It was the utmost joy that could ever happen to anyone. For me it was utter ecstasy of music.

Do you have any rituals on concert day, do you still get nervous before a big performance?
No, I don’t have any rituals. Actually, in my opinion concert day is very easy because the hardest part, the rehearsals, has already been done. In the rehearsals you have to work hard, you must stop and fix things all the time. The concert, in my perspective, is really the dessert. It’s always an enjoyable experience and I don’t get nervous. I used to, but that was quite a time ago. The concert is a special kind of concentration and sometimes when the mood is very good from both the orchestra and the audience it’s fun because some things that you never predict might happen.

Outside of conducting what do you like to do?
I love science and that’s my thing – especially astronomy, cosmology and philosophy.

If you were not a professional musician what might you have done for a living?
I don’t know. Maybe I would be a scientist. I always thought I wanted to do something that is important and what scientists do is so amazing. I am so happy to live in the 21st century. All the information we have of the world and the space and the universe is so different from 100 years ago. I’m so happy that science is developing so rapidly. I enjoy the fact that everything right now is so accessible. This is quite amazing!

Do you use a special kind of baton?
I do! I make them myself. I buy the top part of fishing rods and put them in wooden handles made by my father. They are just perfect because they exactly the way they should be. The balance is perfect and they are very tough. I remember at the beginning trying to use the wooden ones but every week I broke one because they are so weak, the ones I use now are made of a very strong carbon fibre.

If you could go back to the start of your career is there any advice you would give yourself?
I would say have more courage in doing music exactly the way I want it. I remember at the beginning of my career I was sometimes a little afraid of how far I could go in my interpretations. With all due respect to traditions, in every work I conduct – even if it’s a super well-known piece by Beethoven – I conduct as if it is world premiere performance. I try to forget everything and create my vision of it, or rather, exactly the way it is written because of the immense respect I have for the composer.

For example in Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, the final movement is marked ‘Allegro con fuoco’ which means very fast. Traditionally though, everyone does it very slowly, but the written tempo is at least twice as fast as this! I had always wondered why people continued to conduct the movement at this tempo and why there was no discussion about it? But, I never allowed myself to do it at the speed I wanted. But now I think no! Dvořák was right! He knew what he was writing. So I’ve decided I have to do it this way because it is what Dvořák wrote. Of course, one needs to ask the question, maybe if Dvořák heard the traditional very slow, majestic ending, he might like it. But when he was composing he had something different in mind. Now when I work a piece, I try to forget everything I already know about it, to have my own view of it. I want to hear the music the way I like. Incidentally, Dvořák Nine has never been recorded in the way I would like to hear it so conducting it is my only chance to hear the symphony the way I love. And that is why I conduct!


Krzysztof Urbański conducts Glinka’s Overture: Ruslan & Lyudmila, Szymanowski‘s Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhbition on Sunday 3 May.