Music lovers of a certain age instinctively equate the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande with one name, one face and one sound--that of Ernest Ansermet.
For many of us, the finest orchestra in Switzerland--and, as such, one of the finest in the world--will forever be linked with the elegant, suave and eminently authoritative conductor who founded the ensemble in 1918 and remained its leader for half a century.
Other distinguished maestros eventually followed in Ansermet's formidable footsteps. The podium belonged to Paul Kletzki from 1968 to 1970, to Wolfgang Sawallisch from 1970 to 1980 and to Horst Stein from 1980 to 1985. None, however, seems to have left a particularly individual impression.
Now, the baton has reverted to fine Swiss hands. Armin Jordan, who first worked with the Romande in 1957 when he was 25, officially assumed the music-director title only two years ago. If one may judge by the performance offered Wednesday night at Segerstrom Hall, under the auspices of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, the two years have been very fruitful.
The Ansermet tradition is alive and well, in Geneva and in Costa Mesa.
This should not imply that Jordan resembles an Ansermet clone. He would seem, by nature, to be somewhat more romantic in orientation, more aggressive in temperament, possibly more precise in matters of strict technical definition.
America actually knows him best as a Wagnerian. In Syberberg's bizarre film version of "Parsifal," he not only conducted the sound track but also enacted the agonizing duties of Amfortas (with vocal aid from an off-screen baritone). Although a reputed back ailment forced--enabled?--his early withdrawal, he served as the prime musical architect of the controversial new "Ring" cycle in Seattle.
His interpretations of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole" and Stravinsky's "Firebird" suite here left no doubt about his individuality. He brought out more vigor in the Shostakovich, more piquancy in the Ravel, more drama in the Stravinsky than one might have expected from Ansermet in the distant golden days.
Still, the orchestra sounded, in substance and in stress, much as it did when last we heard it, at Stanford 21 years ago.
Jordan, like Ansermet, favors a lean tone and a transparent fabric. He savors clarity where other conductors strive for bombast. He knows that an abiding aura of understatement will make the legitimate and inevitable climaxes all the more powerful. It is a matter of perspective, not of decibels.
Wednesday, under Jordan's calm, purposeful control, the Romande strings whispered in shimmering pianissimo unison. The winds sang sweetly. The brass played really gently, wherever possible.
In this expressive context, one could take poise, restraint and balance for granted. Under the circumstances, the sensitive Segerstrom acoustic proved especially congenial.
Other conductors and other orchestras may be more adept at--or more concerned with--rattling roofs. Jordan and his players neglected neither dynamic extreme. Still, in the final analysis, they seemed to value refinement above raw visceral impact.
The priority is particularly reassuring at a time when high-powered bombast has become the uncomfortable norm.
In the mighty Shostakovich symphony--which, due to an odd scheduling glitch, had been performed in the same hall two days earlier by the Central Philharmonic of China--Jordan constantly searched for elusive Mozartean calms to offset the inevitable Soviet-heroism storms. It turned out to be an eloquently rewarding search.
In the Ravel "Rapsodie", he focused on the subtle allures of charm and insinuation. Splashy effects, for their own sake, obviously did not interest him.
In the "Firebird" suite he conveyed the inherent narrative exotica in appreciative abundance, without distorting the essential dance impulses or blurring the vibrant colors.
This man understands style. So does his orchestra.
The Philharmonic Society audience clapped enthusiastically, as well it should have, and only in the right places.