On an early-spring night so balmy you felt you might live forever, it was good to stroll into the Kimmel Center and hear Vladimir Jurowski make the Philadelphia Orchestra give you a reason to want to.
Saturday's program of Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven was everything a night at the symphony should be. The patrons in the near-full house, so rare a sight these days, sensed they would have all their hopes met, and they let the musicians know it from the opener, the brief Tragic Overture by Brahms.
With his severe black attire, his tall, thin frame, and his long, jet-black hair, Jurowski steps right out of the pages of Dostoevsky. He strides to the podium as though he cannot wait; and sure enough, he had the Orchestra pounding the opening chords of the Brahms before the applause had quieted— a small mistake, and possibly his only one of the evening.
The young Russian (he's 37) kept the Brahms brooding, never turgid; he and soloist Benedetto Lupo made the Schumann Piano Concerto sing gloriously; and, after intermission, Jurowski pushed, pulled, punched, tugged, poked, prodded and swept the musicians into a dense and propulsive reading of Beethoven's Eroica symphony.
Dutiful exercise no more
What if this man were leading the Philadelphia Orchestra regularly, instead of just once a year? The patrons would be lined up at the Kimmel's doors trying to get tickets, and a subscription would be a delightfully difficult choice from a dozen potentially fabulous programs, instead of the dutiful exercise it is today.
On the podium, Jurowski is three parts mad ascetic, one part voluptuary. His long reach seems to extend over the entire orchestra; first-seaters especially must watch for that thrusting baton that zooms suddenly toward their faces. The conductor cringes, extends, exults; he reaches out an open palm, supplicating; he points fiercely toward heaven to bring the playing to full crescendo.
There's a method to this direction. Jurowski works carefully with each section to build the foundation and then, when all are wailing, Jurowski stands nearly immobile, letting the music fire out across the hall, unmediated. That's when you know it's not mere theatrics; a lesser man would be waving his arms even more at such climaxes.
Jimmy Connors gestures
Jurowski likes to pound home a moment with a bolo wind-up of his left arm and a wild jab into an imaginary solar plexus. The gesture looks much like Jimmy Connors pumping both arms in exultation of a winning forehand on the tennis court.
The conductor also repositioned the players' seating. Entering the hall, we saw a line of eight basses on the highest riser, like something out of Stokowski's time, more than 80 years ago. The cellos switched sides and replaced some of the violins to the conductor's immediate left.
The result: few oblique angles for the muscle of the music. The sound came at us with directness and urgency, like a sledgehammer in a velvet wrapper. Ah, God, for more nights like this one on Broad Street.♦
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
To read another review by Tom Purdom, click here.