What makes him such a great conductor from a player's perspective?
As a flautist, I have played under a fair few conductors in my time, in ensembles ranging from youth bands to touring opera groups to semi-professional orchestras. And the conductors have been as varied as the repertoire. There have been the cocky upstarts, fresh out of college, whose dramatic, over-the-top gestures are akin only to their massively inflated egos; the nervous amateurs who begin rehearsals by apologising for their own shortcomings only to blossom in confidence during the performance itself; those whose detailed-to-the-point-of-boring rehearsal techniques give way to something fresh and spontaneous during a concert; and many more besides.
But audiences will often judge conductors rather differently. A concert experience may be thrilling for the listener, but terrifying for the players. I’m reminded of a performance a few years ago of Valery Gergiev conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique. For those of us sitting in the Royal Albert Hall, it was exhilarating, edge-of-your seat stuff; the players’ faces, however, told a different story. And it wasn’t surprising – with a lack of any clear downbeat, wavery gestures and a constant veering away from the score, it must have been a case of deep breaths, beta blockers and “don’t look up”.
Which brings me to Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted a terrific Liszt Faust Symphony at last night’s Proms. Now here is one conductor I would like to play under – and not just because he cuts a rather dashing figure on the podium. In person, he can appear rather timid, reticent and faltering. At the helm of the London Philharmonia Orchestra, however, he morphs into something else altogether. For a start, he communicates with his players in a very down-to-earth way – the aside glances to the second violins, the wry smiles to the percussion section, the encouraging looks at the woodwind, all suggest that he has an affection and respect for his musicians that is clearly reciprocated. This is not a conductor who views himself as being superior to the mere mortals of the orchestra – he is one of them, and they respond to this attitude in a hugely positive way.
Then there’s his technique, which is pinpoint accurate, clear, unwavering – yet he’s not afraid to make gestures that, frankly, can look a little odd and ungainly at times in order to achieve the sound he wants. And then there’s that indefinable “something” that great conductors have – his ability, even while communing with his players on a most human level, to transcend technique and occasion to tap into something spiritual, kinetic, profoundly moving. Listening to the Faust Symphony, I was able to manoeuvre my ears away from the technical aspects such as intonation, phrasing and projection – all of which were, by the way, spot on – and be transported to a higher plane.
The four movements of the symphony were packed with every imaginable emotion – swagger, restlessness, euphoria, romance, yearning, devilry, and, ultimately, spiritual redemption. The players must have been wrung out – but they didn’t look it. And neither did Jurowski. As the final bars approached, he was as sprightly and committed as 70 minutes earlier. He even had the good grace to retain his composure as a mobile phone rang out over the tenor’s exquisite solo in the final movement – or maybe he was just too wrapped up in the music to notice.
An industry colleague of mine mentioned last night that her friend has been banned by her partner from mentioning the “J” word – her crush is, it seems, bordering on obsession. I have a feeling that events in our household may be about to take a similar turn.
Sarah Kirkup is deputy editor of Gramophone. She plays flute and piano, and sings with her local church choir. Sarah is a fan of ballet and contemporary dance, and attends as many productions - particularly at Covent Garden - as she can.