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Jurowski, Fleisher, and the LPO

Vladimir Jurowski
Conductor Vladimir Jurowski
Thursday evening, the Washington Performing Arts Society hosted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Music Center at Strathmore. The venerable ensemble, founded in 1932 by Sir Thomas Beecham, has had Vladimir Jurowski as its 12th Principal Conductor since September 2007, and he has quickly cultivated a good rapport both musically and with non-musical duties (that conductors often abhor) in the community. The youthful Jurowski’s unique energy was evident as he quietly entered the stage at a quick clip, then once at the podium impatiently waited for the house to become sufficiently quiet before beginning the intensely dissonant Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10.

One of the LPO’s greatest attributes is the focused, robust quality of its string sections, which is on par with the great continental orchestras. The attacks, or beginning of notes, were always placed together gently as a unit before allowing the tone to soar. The Adagio was an interesting programming choice in that the lengthy, demanding slow movement allowed a close inspection of the orchestra with an aural magnifying glass. As always with the highest quality of playing, minor fumbles become more obvious, such as botched pizzicato notes in the bass section, placed on the wrong side of the road to the audience’s left. It was also challenging for the audience to absorb such a lengthy slow movement out of the context of an entire symphony.

Leon Fleisher joined the LPO, reduced to chamber orchestra size, for Mozart’s Concerto in A major, K. 488. While the orchestra exuded stylish personality in Mozart’s pristine lines, Fleisher was unable be an equal partner due to technical preoccupations. After a long battle with focal dystonia, the natural state of the fifth finger of Fleisher’s right hand is curled into his palm. When needed to strike a note, it must be unnaturally uncurled. From the vantage point of your reviewer’s close seat, it appeared that Fleisher’s fourth finger had the same tendency, though not as severely as his pinkie. Fleisher struggled to compensate, by at times trilling with his thumb and second finger, and by fingering some scales with 1-2-1-2, etc. Understandably, technical demands outweighed musical demands on Fleisher, begging the question of how much longer he can sustain a concert career. Jurowski and the LPO seemingly preferred brisker tempos than Fleischer could maintain, given that they sped up at most orchestral tuttis. Gary Graffman, whose career has been left hand alone now for decades, had an 80th birthday concert a month ago at the Curtis Institute of Music that was much more dignified.

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The second half of the program comprised Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, both of which are featured in part in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Jurowski cunningly fused the short Atmosphères, a rhythmless cacophony of sound, to the powerful Strauss with only a few beats of silence between them. The rich musical rhetoric of Strauss’s tone poem is perhaps the closest instrumental music can get to narrative language. Strathmore Hall's acoustic embraced the width of voluptuous sound produced by the LPO, with the brass and percussion never covering the strings. Jurowski's understated conducting resulted in an abundance of memorable music making.

The next classical concert sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society is the much-anticipated recital by Evgeny Kissin tomorrow (March 1, 4 pm) at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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