The concert that may have had Boston Symphony Orchestra watchers on highest alert marked the debut of Vladimir Jurowski, the acclaimed 40-year-old Russian conductor who directs England's prestigious Glyndebourne Festival Opera and is principal guest conductor of the esteemed London Philharmonic (which he'll conduct for the Celebrity Series March 8). He has bigger and better credentials than most of the contenders for the next BSO directorship. Might he be interested? Did he strike sparks?
His program was an odd mix: the ever-familiar Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Shostakovich's rarely performed and demanding, almost unfollowable hour-long Symphony No. 4, which the composer was forced to withdraw before its premiere in 1936 after his music was denounced by Pravda, clearly at the orders of Stalin. It was finally played in Moscow in 1961.
The less said about violinist Arabella Steinbacher's charmless, monochromatic Mendelssohn the better. But Jurowski's Shostakovich was one of the most thrilling BSO performances I've ever heard. Shostakovich regarded this symphony as his artistic credo — he seems to have thrown into it everything he knew or felt. The largest extension had to be added to the Symphony Hall stage to accommodate all the players. And Jurowski kept us totally riveted, even when we couldn't possibly predict where the next musical turn would abruptly take us. Violent explosions, then a sudden hushed aftermath (of war?) in the voices of a lonely bassoon (Richard Svoboda having a field day) and harp. Night patrols (or night crawlers?). The last movement's funeral march could break into a song or dance or a joke, a sudden shriek of agony or a wailing lament. Jurowski not only played the score, he played the orchestra; he even played the hall itself. Everything reverberated (in every sense).
I loved that he returned to James Levine's seating plan, dividing the first and second violins antiphonally, so that in the astonishing first-movement fugal chase we could follow the circle of entrances from first violins to violas, to second violins, then cellos and basses. Yet nothing seemed rushed. Intimate passages had breathing space. Even in the most frenzied sections, you could hear every detail. The playing was magnificent, and precise. All of this was accomplished by Jurowski with unshowy, minimal, efficient gestures, yet you were never in doubt about his emotional intensity and commitment.
Sparks? This was a conflagration! Jurowski's at the top of my list.
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