Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]
Looking for the busiest conductor in Britain, the most active and influential? You won’t find him in the obvious places. Not at the Royal Opera, where Antonio Pappano doesn’t get out much; nor at the Barbican where Valery Gergiev’s flying visits leave little more than a carbon footprint; nor at the South Bank, where no maestro has made an impact in a decade, though that may be about to change.
The baton who spends most time in Britain is music director at Glyndebourne and head of two orchestras, both of them resident at the reopened Royal Festival Hall. Vladimir Jurowski has more bands on the run than any boss since Thomas Beecham.
This autumn, he takes over as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; this Saturday, he leads a 21st birthday bash for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. At 35, Jurowski is the pacemaker of a new generation that is breaking with past vanities and grooming a new style of musical leadership.
He is the linchpin of the new South Bank, the first to pronounce on its improved acoustics – ‘it will take us two years to work out’ - and more involved in both planning and performance than any other musician. In rehearsal, he gets lightning-quick results from his orchestras, achieving on second take what others obtain on fourth. LPO musicians, sceptical of hoity-toity foreigners, like it that he speaks intelligible English and is never jet-lagged. They like it all the more that he solicits ideas from players – in one instance, from the wife of a player who persuaded him to put on an opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose biographer she is.
His second ensemble, the vigorously opinionated OAE, has forty-two expert views as to how any work was played at the time it was written and puts its leaders through a Mensa test on practically every line. Jurowski, who shares the podium with Simon Rattle and the Hungarian Ivan Fischer, is a relative newcomer to the ebullient world of period performance, a Russian who never saw a crumhorn until he left the country. I wondered how he found his way to an alternative sound that traditionalists dismiss as ‘vegetarian’ and adherents acclaim as ‘organic.’
‘By accident,’ shrugs Jurowski, ‘in Russia, there was no other way.’ His father, Mikhail, was conductor of the state radio orchestra, his career cramped by antisemitism. ‘The only foreign country he could work was East Germany, but he couldn’t bring back currency so he spent it on local copies of western recordings. When I was 15 he bought some Bach concertos conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. There was something about the music making that made me listen. Harnoncourt became my guiding light. Then I heard his Vivaldi Four Seasons, which was a real shocker. It sounded like contemporary music, with lots of strange and eerie sounds. I was converted.’
After the family emigrated in 1990 Vladimir, then 18, embraced the ferment of post-Wall Berlin, ‘a melting pot of cultures’. An opera debut at 24, followed by a tremendous Covent Garden Nabucco brought glittering guest dates to his door but Jurowski was determined not to spend half his life in a plane. Married to Patricia, a piano teacher, and with a child on the way, he was keen to settle somewhere. Glyndebourne offered a cottage, a challenge and a choice of two orchestras, ancient and modern.
At the Sussex festival over the past four years, the soft-spoken Russian has lightened the atmosphere and emboldened the repertoire, introducing this season, a contentious staging of Bach. He loves risk and flirts with it like a floor trader. When the Polish baritone singing Macbeth lost his voice one day last month, Jurowski summoned a British prizewinner, Stephen Gadd, who had never sung the role before and led him through a tense, triumphant performance by the tip of his baton. ‘Only at Glyndebourne,’ beams Jurowski when I congratulate him afterwards at the green-room door. ‘No other opera house would have dared.’
His ten year-old daughter Martha, fluttering at his side, has just come off stage as the Third Apparition. For Jurowski, Glyndebourne is family time. His wife, agreeable and determinedly private, is usually in the wings making sure things run smoothly for him. Martha attends a Rudolf Steiner school in Sussex half the year and in Berlin the other half. ‘It’s the same system, but I pay two fees,’ her father laughs.
Berlin is his main base, though he no longer works there much. Apart from concerts with the Russian National Orchestra and a fortnight each year in Philadelphia, his career is rooted in Britain and the dividends are starting to show.
With two sound worlds to choose from, he is in musical heaven. ‘It’s a real adventure for me to do the same piece with the LPO and with the OAE,’ he says, ‘one looking from today backwards and the other from the past forwards.’ At the OAE, he is extending historic awareness from the baroque into the high romantic. ‘I’ve done Glinka with them, and I’m going to do Tchaikovsky,’ he says excitedly.
Unlike past maestros, Jurowski is less concerned with imposing a personal imprint on an orchestra than with seeking and developing an inherent truth. ‘It comes from Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who trained my father and then trained me. He said there is a different sound in every orchestra and you should create a different interpretation every time, for every piece. When I do a concert of Stravinsky, Mozart and Schumann, I try to achieve three different sounds, which sometimes pushes the orchestra beyond the limit of what’s feasible.’ His own input is, however, strongly characterised. ‘By definition,’ he says, ‘you impose your personality on a score simply by opening it.’
Orchestras light up to the difference he makes. His US debut two years ago with the elite but troubled Philadelphia Orchestra let to overnight rumours of a million-dollar transfer. Jurowski, flattered, told the Americans he was committed to his British connections. ‘I am very monogamous in this sense,’ he insists. ‘I can’t divide myself between continents.’
A New Age outlook – he follows a frugal diet and a Taoist philosophy – has added a mystic dimension to Jurowski’s intense practicality and boundless energy. In the time it takes most maestros to change a lightbulb, Jurowski has made Glyndebourne a hub of buzz. He is grooming a new generation in the touring company; Edward Gardner, 31, has gone on to head English National Opera and Robin Ticciati, 23, is the talk of the season in Cosi.
At the South Bank, his authority is stamped across the billboard. The LPO, he says, will serve a traditional menu, while the OAE ventures into late-night concerts, talk-ins and drama. Against a backdrop of stasis, whingeing and timidity, this Juro is confidently on the rise, with the future of British music clinging to his coattails.
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]