It was a less-than-full house at the final People's Symphony Concert of the season Saturday night, which probably had a lot to do with the bill: an unknown pianist with a funny-looking name. But, after hearing Mihaela Ursuleasa, a young Romanian based in Vienna, I can assure you that you'll be hearing that name (for the record, it's pronounced "UR-soo-lee-AY-sa") a lot more in the next few months. So, get practicing.
Ursuleasa started out with the New York premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis' Ballad(e) Out of the Blues: a ten-minute piece full of jazzy chords and rhythms, of which she gave the world premiere in Minneapolis less than a week before. Kernis, who was present to introduce the piece, described it as a memorial to his father, who loved blues and ballads.
After intermission, Ursuleasea marched onto the stage while patrons were still making their way back to their seats and launched straight into Rachmaninoff's Etudes-Tableaux for Piano, Opus 39. Immediately, the room fell silent: no easy feat at these concerts, where the mostly-senior audience doesn't hesitate to shout down offending performers with their disapproval. Piano playing doesn't get more exciting than this: with her long brown hair flying, Ursuleasa went from bombastic to gentle, then back again, not once seeming pushed or strained. Watch out, folks: this girl's got fire.
After exploding through the final section, Ursuleasa leapt to her feet, and much of the room immediately stood with her, cheering wildly. (The only ones who didn't stand seemed to be those reaching for their canes and walkers.) She rewarded us with the Toccata by her countryman Georges Enescu, full of bouncing rhythms that sounded a lot like gypsies dancing.
Ursuleasa will be back in town this summer to perform at the Mostly Mozart Festival, playing Beethoven's 3rd concerto with Osmo Vanska - one of her biggest champions - as well as a late night recital of Chopin and Ginastera. Tickets on sale June 11 at the box office.