Philippe Jordan applauds his father for exposing him to the world of conducting

Kurt and Ken-David Masur. Neeme and Paavo & Kristjan Järvi. Arvīds and Mariss Jansons. Jesús López Cobos and François López-Ferrer. Michail and Vladimir & Dmitri Jurowski. Erich and Carlos Kleiber.

These are just some of the famed father-and-son conductors in the classical-music world. Also on the list is Philippe Jordan, whose father, Armin Jordan (1932-2006), was widely known in France and Switzerland and served as principal conductor of the well-regarded Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva in 1985-97.

Indeed, it was because of his father that Philippe Jordan expressed a wish to follow suit when he was only 9 years old. “My father was a conductor, and I was fascinated by what he was doing,” he said. “Just making wonderful music together with a lot of people, and of course, traveling all over the world.”

The younger conductor has fond memories of his father leading The Magic Flute when he was 8 or 9, as well as Die Walküre at the Seattle Opera when he was about 11. “That was, for me, one of the most incredible experiences,” Jordan said of the latter. “It was clear from that point that I would love to go in that direction.”

Jordan, 49, will return Nov. 16-19 to guest-conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a program that culminates with Igor Stravinsky’s visceral, still-revolutionary 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring. “Even for our time and our ears, it’s still a very modern piece,” he said.

Sometimes, conductors group contemporary with works with The Rite of Spring that were in some way influenced by it. But Jordan is taking a different tack, looking first at the kind of Russian folk music that inspired Stravinsky via Modest Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain. But on this program, Jordan plans to present Mussorgsky’s 1867 original, titled St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. “The first version by Mussorgsky is actually pretty extreme and pretty close to The Rite of Spring already,” he said.

The second work on the program is Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 2, written about 20 years after The Rite of Spring. It shares certain characteristics with the earlier work. “It’s about the same period and has these aspects as well — Eastern Slavonic folk music, Impressionism, Expressionism and modernism,” Jordan said. “It’s a nice kaleidoscope of this period of time.” Featured as soloist will be violinist Leonidas Kavakos, in the second of three engagements this season at Symphony Center.

Early in his career, Jordan served as kapellmeister (a kind of deputy director) and assistant to James Allen Gähres at the Theater Ulm in Germany and went on to hold the same positions under Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin State Opera in 1998-2001.

More recently, after serving as music director of the Paris Opera from 2009 through 2021, Jordan has held the position of music director of the Vienna State Opera since 2020-21. He is set to step down in 2024-25.

“I think it’s very clear after 12 years at the Paris Opera and five years at the Vienna State Opera, there is no other big house where it makes sense to continue with opera,” he said. “It was very fulfilling, and I gave everything I could in those years.”

At the same time, Jordan derided the controversial tendency of some contemporary stage directors to impose all manner of updated and sometimes exaggerated interpretations on operas, a practice known as Regietheater.

“I just don’t see any future and fulfillment in the war between the staging, especially in Europe, and the music,” he said. “Too many times, things don’t work together anymore. Of course, I‘ve tried all these years to obtain a unity between music and theater. I think that is what opera is about. But to be honest, I’m not seeing a good way where opera is going.”

Jordan wants to devote more of his time to symphonic conducting. “I will always return to opera the rest of my life — one or two productions a year as a guest conductor, hopefully under good conditions. I would never leave opera. But now, I think it’s time to start a new adventure with a symphonic orchestra.”   

In this interview, Jordan discussed the ups and downs of having a conductor father, his careful career progression and balancing operatic and symphonic conducting:

You have a French name, yet you grew up in German-speaking Zurich. What is your native language?

Especially for American audiences, it’s quite confusing. Actually, I have a German background because I grew up in Zurich. My father, a well-known conductor, was considered to be more French, which is not true. He is both German and French Swiss from his parents and where he grew up. My mother’s side is more complicated because she was born in World War II in the German part of what was Czechoslovakia at the time. Then, my grandfather moved to Ireland and got a job there. So my mother grew up in Ireland, and that’s why, actually, my native language is English. So I grew up with English even before I started speaking German, and French, I started speaking in school. My parents wanted a French first name [for me], so that’s why it is considered French.

Did having a father as a noted a conductor make it harder or easier for you to pursue a similar career?

It’s both. Of course, you have access to the music and to the job. I could visit a lot of rehearsals with my father. I could see the scores. We could talk a lot about music. He could give me good advice. So I think this was the good part. The more difficult part is to make your own name and get out of the big shadow of your father, especially in Switzerland and France, where my father had a big name. It was very hard for me to not get compared. We are definitely very different personalities. As a young conductor, it was very important for me to escape the area where he was very well known, and that’s why I went Germany and Austria, where my father was a little less present.

You seem to have built your career the old-fashioned way, one job building on the last. Is that how you see it?

Absolutely. Not only that, it’s also the traditional way through the old kapellmeister system, which was, until the 1980s or ’90s, the absolute normal way to learn your job. It was very unusual for all the great conductors not to start in opera. Opera conducting is the base. Of course, it’s important to do both. If you only do one thing, you’re half a conductor, I would say. Not only because of the way the job works, but because of the kind of repertoire you are missing. But opera is the most solid way to have this foundation, and you can’t learn it later in your 40s. You have to learn it when you are very young.  It’s changed nowadays. I see fewer and fewer good opera conductors, which were the norm at the time, and a lot of good symphonic conductors.”

Much of your career has been devoted to opera. Do you view that as your central conducting focus?

As I said, to be a full conductor, you have to do both. The first 15-20 years were very much dedicated to opera with symphonic music on the side. But when I got my job as music director at the Vienna Symphony, I basically balanced my work 50-50 between both. It has only changed now in the last three or four years, because of the job at the Vienna State Opera, which is such a big responsibility. You need to be present there a lot, so that’s why I’m not having another symphonic orchestra beside the Vienna State Opera. So I’m probably back to 60 percent opera, 40 percent symphonic — something like that at the moment.

Much of your career has been focused on Europe. Do you reside in Vienna?

At the moment, yes, in Vienna. Before it was in Paris, and now in Vienna. Basically, when you work with an opera company, you have to live in that city. Opera needs that attention and time.

How often do you get to the United States?

I would say once or twice a year for symphonic conducting.