Philippe Jordan Leads the National Symphony Orchestra

Last night's performance marked Philippe Jordan's debut with the National Symphony.
Last night's performance marked Philippe Jordan's debut with the National Symphony. (By Johannes Ifkovitz)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 2009

In the first year of what has become an interim period between music directors, the National Symphony Orchestra promised new repertory and new conductors. Last night's concert delivered on the second part of the promise: Philippe Jordan, the 34-year-old Swiss-born principal guest conductor of the Berlin State Opera who will take over as music director of the Opéra National de Paris next season, made his debut with the orchestra.

The programming, however, was new neither chronologically nor to the orchestra: works by Beethoven, Schumann and Prokofiev, all played by the NSO within the last six years (though never under Leonard Slatkin). Let's not go out on a limb with this innovation thing.

Jordan -- the son of Armin Jordan, who long headed the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande -- has been accounted a rising star, and has also gotten mixed reviews: Some say he's terrific, others that he's overhyped. He certainly offered a mixed performance last night. I intensely disliked his reading of Prokofiev's First, the "Classical" Symphony, but was quite all right with his Beethoven Fourth. Actually, Jordan offered a very consistent performance: He conducted all three pieces (including Schumann's Cello Concerto) pretty much the same way, and what came off as heavy-handed romanticism in the Prokofiev -- steamrolling the piece's delicate, Mozartean edifice -- turned out to be perfectly calibrated for the Beethoven.

My beef with Jordan is interpretive more than technical. I don't think he's a technical wizard, but the orchestra sounded pretty good.

Jordan is definitely a conductor who seeks to put his own stamp on the music. He is all about big, theatrical gestures and willful tempos. This was what, for me, sabotaged the Prokofiev: It felt slow and heavy, the sparkling first movement leaden, the rustic Gavotte downright lugubrious. Then he suddenly plunged into the final movement at such speed it seemed to take even the orchestra by surprise. This seemed fey: less about trusting the score than purely aiming for effect.

Yet in the Beethoven, this slower approach felt spacious, as if Jordan were establishing the piece's architecture and creating room for the instruments to be heard. Both the Prokofiev and the Beethoven have special places in my heart; I have always harbored a peculiarly strong affection for the Fourth Symphony, with its stately introduction suddenly yielding to a theme that yips and tumbles down the staff with helter-skelter exuberance, like a litter of puppies. So I was struck that Jordan seemed to violate one piece, and largely succeed in the other. The two symphonies certainly echo each other -- one neoclassical, one rooted in actual classicism -- and Jordan brought out the echoes in ways that, again, seemed willful: Both final movements were sudden bursts of rapid energy in contrast with the more measured tempos he had chosen before.

He also demonstrates what I'm coming to think of as a hallmark of many musicians today: the urge to be painfully, literally clear at all costs. Jordan didn't want either the orchestra or the audience to miss a single point. Nuance, or subtlety, are not what this is about. But he got some very nice sounds.

The Schumann was a nice centerpiece, more introspective than either of the symphonies. And Lynn Harrell, the soloist, was a fine counterweight to Jordan: He was still and centered, and every bit of the music came from within. He was less a virtuoso than a poet. If he stumbled occasionally, his playing generally conveyed the elegant smoothness of a single line, varied but unbroken. In the beautiful second movement, the soloist joins in duet with the orchestra's principal cellist, and David Hardy, who is one of the orchestra's defining players, held back in a beautiful show of proportion and restraint.

The program repeats tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.

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