The 40-year-old Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski made an enormous impression last year at his BSO debut, conducting Shostakovich's gnarly hour-long Fourth Symphony. I thought it was the single most thrilling concert of the year. On March 8, the Celebrity Series of Boston brings Jurowski back to Symphony Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which he's led for a decade, in more Shostakovich, the First Violin Concerto with Vadim Repin, and the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. I spoke to Jurowski via Skype recently while he was in Amsterdam rehearsing Richard Strauss's complexly symbolic opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman without a Shadow"). I'd ask a simple question and he'd run with it, in his more than eloquent English.
The Shostakovich Fourth Symphony is such a daunting work. How did you get such a riveting performance? I was very happy with this result myself. They [the BSO] really threw themselves into it. They had played it before, but I don't think they had really understood it. I didn't have to tell them about the Stalinist horror behind it. But I gave them specific images, not always of a musical nature, and not always about beauty. Often the description was non-beautiful, ugly — the aesthetic qualities of good and evil. As in Mahler. Shostakovich didn't prescribe any specific literary program. But I mentioned George Orwell's novels — 1984 or Animal Farm — or BraveNewWorld. Films. Often it's the really in-your-face image that will stick. I suggested to the principal trombonist that he think of himself as the protagonist of a Charlie Chaplin movie, chased around the city by the police. There's always a double entendre in Shostakovich — a hidden coded meaning. Things sounding very jolly or happy might have a very poisonous downside. The Fourth is not a piece of sound philosophy or political statement. It's a kind of absurdist theater.
My rule in rehearsal, which I inherited from my mentor, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, is to play through as much of the music as you can without stopping, not to start working from bar two. Let the players offer something to you.
What are the differences between playing in Boston and in London? Boston is obviously a city that has a culture very much comparable to traditional German and Central European orchestras. The orchestra is the best in the town. It owns its own hall and can rehearse in the same hall. And they play the same program several times.
In London, you can never perform the same program more than once. It's a different pace and style of working. The London Philharmonic is very flexible, and amenable to changes. You come with some kind of tabula rasa — especially these days, when everyone is short of money. Players change and there are few rehearsals. Technically speaking they can manage almost without a conductor, sticking together as a group. Still there's a difference — the speed at which they have to work. They're not salaried, but paid per-service. That changes the attitude.
There's nothing worse than a routine performance of any London orchestra, without a very inspiring conductor. But at their best, it can be the most important performance of lives. I always try to inspire them to the highest results. London players may not give you everything in rehearsal. But they are absolutely tireless. They travel long distances, playing rehearsals and performances on the same day. Sometimes we're living dangerously. But I can trust them. It's as if they're reading my mind.