London Philharmonic Orchestra at Strathmore

Vladimir Jurowski led the London Orchestra in a program that fused Ligeti with Strauss.
Vladimir Jurowski led the London Orchestra in a program that fused Ligeti with Strauss. (By Roman Goncharov)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009

Very little odd ever happens in the concert hall. The formula is exacting: Well-dressed people with instruments make noise for well-dressed people with tickets, who punctuate the affair with applause and drinks at intermission.

Vladimir Jurowski, a dynamic young Russian conductor whose star has risen just about as high and fast as possible in Europe, broke that time-honored procession Thursday night at Strathmore by joining wildly different pieces of music with no break, no applause and no time to change gears. The result was an amalgam of music by Richard Strauss and Gyorgy Ligeti -- one with his feet firmly planted in the 19th century, the other with his head proudly in the clouds -- composers who could never have imagined their music fused like conjoined twins.

After intermission, after he led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Mahler that stuffed a whole world of music into the sleek confines of a chamber score, Jurowski conducted Ligeti's floating soundscape, "Atmosphères," followed by Strauss's tone poem "Also Sprach Zarathustra." The linkage was seamless, with Jurowski counting beats between the end of Ligeti's seemingly formless, impressionistic score, and the low, protean rumble that presages the dawn in Strauss's "Zarathustra." You could see spinal firmness and intellectual joy return as some members of the audience, restive and cranky after Ligeti, recognized Strauss's trumpet motive, made famous by Stanley Kubrick in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

It was a cheap trick, but fun, and it worked for two reasons. The slowly evolving tone clusters of Ligeti's "Atmosphères" suggest, to many ears, the cold, random winds of the ether, precisely the non-stuff out of which Strauss imagines the beginnings of time. But it also made sense because of a simple accident of 20th-century cinema: Kubrick didn't just cadge his music from Strauss, but from Ligeti, too, including the pathbreaking 1961 "Atmosphères."

It wasn't really fair to Ligeti, who never asked to have his music made synonymous with someone else's movie. And it was also an uncharacteristically showy, even vulgar gesture, from Jurowski. But Strauss is nothing if not showy and vulgar, so he would probably forgive this parlor trick.

And he'd definitely forgive Jurowski after hearing him conduct. Jurowski, who is just 36, took over the London Philharmonic in 2007, and it seems the honeymoon is still on. He is a conductor of precise rather than expansive gestures, and he is far more likely to express himself through quirks of timbre and changes of volume than any wayward messing with the pulse. The Strauss was not an adolescent display of high spirits and metaphysical sulkiness, but a convocation of formal types -- philosophers, poets and elegant hangers on -- all forced to contain themselves under extreme circumstances. It felt buttoned-down and just barely contained, measured but imminently explosive.

This mix of precision, passion and control can be very exciting in a conductor, indeed, it may be the most exciting thing a conductor can do: keep order while suggesting the uncivilized power lurking in the music. It is a fine balance, and if you hold the velvet reins too tight, the spirit can go out of the beast. But Jurowski's method worked very well in the Strauss and it was welcome in the Ligeti, too, where the shifting colors felt more Josef Albers than Jackson Pollock.

It was a different matter in Mahler's Adagio from Symphony No. 10, an impressively large-scale and ambitious gambit as a concert opener, but not a convincing performance. The upper string sound was sour, which is a fatal blemish in music that requires plasticity and warmth to soften the anguished contours of its melodic lines.

Jurowski conducts rather like a curler sweeps the ice in front of a slow, inexorably moving stone, allowing the music to glide forth with its own internal momentum. But the Mahler Adagio is a big piece, and the music can't just play itself. One wanted more from Jurowski: more ideas, more encouragement, more provocation.

The same, unfortunately, must be said of Leon Fleisher's performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23. One wanted more.

Fleisher's personal story -- a brilliant young pianist cut down by neurological difficulties who late in life regains use of both hands for an Indian spring of musicmaking -- is familiar to most concertgoers. He is now 80 and a beloved figure.

The second movement of his Mozart was delicious, small-scale, inward, delicate and beautifully balanced over its slow unfolding. But his right hand wasn't working well Thursday. It was a pleasure to hear Mozart played with humility, with the piano absorbed into orchestral texture rather than dominating it with glassy brilliance. But when brilliance was necessary, especially in the third movement, where rapid passage-work frequently became diffuse and weak, Fleisher flagged.

That cast the attention back on Jurowski and his orchestra. It stood up well to the dissecting scrutiny of Mozart, but it is not an orchestra that overwhelms with luxurious sound or charismatic tone. It is a solid and skilled ensemble that Jurowski makes better and, when he does something odd and at odds with his seemingly conservative instincts, truly memorable.

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