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February 27, 2009

London Philharmonic, Jurowski, Fleisher deliver superb music-making at Strathmore

Vladimir JurowskiFor a brief moment, I felt a little guilty about missing the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's performance last night at the Meyerhoff in order to catch the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Strathmore. But I quickly spotted some BSO staffers playing hooky, too, so those qualms evaporated in a flash. Besides, the BSO's program will be repeated; the LPO's visit to the region (another valuable presentation by the Washington Performing Arts Society) was confined to this single appearance.

It has been quite a while since I heard the esteemed ensemble, and I had yet to experience its buzz-producing principal conductor, Moscow-born Vladimir Jurowski. Both left me deeply impressed.

Let's start with the sound of the LPO -- lush, but never thick, and exceptionally refined. I was quite taken with how smoothly and tightly entrances were made, each section cohesively articulating and adding equally to the big aural picture. The strings had a silken tone (the basses -- lined single-file along one side wall, a practice the BSO might want to explore -- sounded unusually rich and dark); the woodwinds glowed; the brass had power that never coarsened. It was fun just soaking up all the orchestral color emanating from the stage, but there was much more than that to savor.

Jurowski, tall and thin with a long mane of black hair (he probably could have gotten a supporting role in Twilight), goes against the podium norm, conducting with an economy of means and few leaps or swirls. His precise gestures obviously communicate with clarity and feeling to his LPO players.

Jurowski's firm command served him well throughout the demanding program, starting with the Adagio from Mahler's Symphony No. 10 (the only movement fully completed before the composer's death). Although I would have liked even more whomp when the music reached the amazing passage of screaming dissonance toward the end, everything else registered in a thoroughly convincing and involving fashion as the conductor drew out one telling detail after another. The final moments, when Mahler seems to let go of all earthly cares, were molded with particularly sensitivity.

After an awfully long seating change, a reduced complement of players took their places for ...

Leon FleisherMozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 -- and unusual places at that, with all of the wind instruments grouped on one side of the piano. That turned out to be a terrific idea, visually and sonically, underlining the exquisite role those instruments play in this work. The soloist was Leon Fleisher, whose every performance is treasurable for the wealth of musical depth it reveals. A few little bumps aside, his playing was as technically poised as it was expressively potent. He achieved a transfixing beauty of phrase in the bittersweet slow movement. Jurowski partnered the pianist effortlessly, drawing gorgeous work from the orchestra.

The evening closed with an imaginative pairing of Ligeti's Atmospheres and Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, linked together with no break. This nod to the works' use in 2001 wasn't some cheap marketing idea. You didn't even need to have any memory of that iconic film (personally, I always thought it was way over-praised -- perhaps because I never could make heads or tails of it). The diffuse clusters of sound in the time-stopping Ligeti score conjured up a kind of ancient, unfathomable cosmic space that slowly dissolved into nothing more than the breaths of brass players blowing note-lessly through the instruments, before the first rumbles of the Strauss piece signaled the approaching sun. Cool.

The LPO responded firmly to Jurowski's sure, nuanced direction, producing Ligeti's painstakingly crafted tone clusters deftly and digging into Zarathustra with a vivid spirit.

Quite a night.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:34 PM | | Comments (2)


Tim, can you explain your suggestion that the BSO follow the LPO and line its basses against one wall? I thought they did that: lined against the right wall. Also, the winds being all on one side of the piano - where are they on more sides? I thought the Elgar variations were played by the BSO with more depth and intensity than with YT conducting - and they were one of his signature pieces. (Will he ever conduct here again?) I recall after 9/11 he set aside a Mozart piece to play the Nimrod variation. And played it as an encore on another occasion. Lucky you to hear 3 Met performances! Thanks, Tim, for your very insightful reviews and wide-ranging blog. Btw, the Friday performance was very well attended w/few empty seats to be seen.

I'm hastily blogging a review of last night's BSO concert at this very moment. But I wanted to respond to your comments. The BSO basses typically are in a double row of 4s, so only hald are actually against the wall. The LPO players were single file, taking up almost the whole length of the stage-right wall. I should have been clearer about the wind instruments in the Mozart. Typically they are in the middle of an orchestra seating, as you know; here, they were grouped all to one side, facing the pianist. I should have written they were at one end of the piano, not side. Sorry about that. (The strings took up the rest of the area.) I liked the effect very much. And your guess is as good as mind about whether we'll ever see YT on the podium here again. Thanks for writing, and for your encouraging words about my humble blog.TIM

This was an accurate and enjoyable account of pretty much the same concert at Avery Fisher in NY. This was exciting music making by any standard and Fleisher was a touching, poetic soloist in the Mozart. As an encore we were given a rapturous account of the Rosenkavalier Suite for orchestra.

That's one heck of an encore. Thanks for the report.TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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