The City of Brotherly Love evidently has little love for Christoph Eschenbach, who will end his difficult five-year tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra this spring. The town does appear, however, to adore Vladimir Jurowski, the 35-year-old leonine Russian conductor who is currently the toast of London and, by many accounts, a leading candidate for the Philly post.
By one of those quirks of concert-life fate, Jurowski came to Costa Mesa on Tuesday, conducting the Russian National Orchestra at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall only a couple of days after Eschenbach had led an impressive performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Jurowski stuck to bread-and-butter repertory: Brahms' First Piano Concerto, with Stephen Hough as soloist, and Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony. He too proved impressive.
But just who is this mercurial musician? Well known in opera, Jurowski became music director five years ago of the exclusive Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Britain, where he is known for his meticulous preparation and sophisticated theatrical sensibility. Before that, he was associated with the provocative, seat-of-its-pants Komische Oper in Berlin.
Lately, he has been busily adding to his English resume: He has just become music director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and principal artist of the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. He is also principal guest conductor of the Moscow-based Russian National Orchestra. Three orchestras with more different personalities and specialties would be hard to imagine.
Tuesday's performances were assertively Russian. Jurowski seated the orchestra as close to the rear wall of the Segerstrom stage as he could. He favored a dark, cavernous sound, supported by rich, chocolaty bass. He all but reveled in as much somber gloom as could be extracted from Brahms and Tchaikovsky, which is a great deal. Everything sounded burnished, soulful, important -- and distant.
The way Jurowski opened the Brahms, he might have been a maestro of old -- actually several maestros of old. At once, he achieved the dug-in character of Mravinsky, suggested the mystical aura of Furtwangler and hinted at the creamy blend of Karajan, even though the Russian players regularly laced sweetness with shots of vodka-like acid.
Many figures of speech I might use to describe the concerto, and to some extent the symphony, require a mention of the opposite as well. Jurowski's Brahms was boomy yet had a pinpoint sting. The 5/4 second movement of the Tchaikovsky was like a Russian bear waltzing -- a big, beautiful, cuddly creature who could, at any moment, bite your head off.
Among the evening's curiosities was Jurowski's choice of a British pianist with whom to tour. Hough's approach is formal and well thought out. He is not a showman. He values clarity. He plays by the book.
Jurowski pushed him, and Hough did bang more than might have been expected. His playing was strong and sometimes luminous. But he seemed not particularly suited to this collaboration in either tone or temperament. The slow movement, Bachian and spiritual, worked best.
Jurowski's Tchaikovsky was intense. He wrung emotion from the strings from beginning to end. The solo bassoon seemed to be playing from the depths of despair. The symphony proceeded as if from one moment to the next, not analysis.
Jurowski is a joy to watch, and he appears to be able to do anything he wants with an orchestra. His stick technique is immediately communicative. He has rabbit-quick reflexes. When he wants to whip up excitement, he can. The third movement of the "Pathetique" was on fire.
But he also seemed curiously disconnected from his surroundings. Perhaps in his lust for all that luscious bass, he did everything in his power to offset Segerstrom's brightness, but he got a lot of sonic muddiness in the process.
Nor did Jurowski appear all that comfortable in such an all-American setting. He looked irritated by distractions -- it was a noisy audience. Applause after the third movement of the "Pathetique" was inevitable, but Jurowski wanted to dive straight into the dark waters of the Finale, and that was an awkward moment.
Still, Jurowski is a natural on the podium, and I have little doubt that he will, before long, become one of the world's most prominent conductors. Philadelphia could do a whole lot worse. But five years ago it could have done a whole lot worse than Eschenbach. Stay tuned.