Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra

         Some conductors, standing in front of an orchestra, seem to draw forth sound, sculpting music ex nihilo. Valery Gergiev, the head of the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, seems more inclined to contain it, as if the orchestra is an insuppressible force which he merely delimits around the edges, holding back crescendos lest they spiral into chaos, topping off magnificent fortissimos before they do damage to the back walls of the auditorium. It is exciting to watch, if the music is energetic and calls for great quantities of sound. If the music isn’t big and bravura, if it is delicate and wants shading and color and refinement, Gergiev can be shockingly disengaged.

            Gergiev brought his Mariinsky Orchestra to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday evening for a generous, exciting and fascinating program of Stravinsky: The three major ballets written before the First World War for the Ballets Russes. With two intermissions, and a running time of almost three hours, he and his indefatigable players presented these magnificent scores in chronological order, the 1910 Firebird, the 1911 Petrushka, and the 1913 Rite of Spring (celebrating its centennial this year).

            This is the sort of program that American orchestras should be doing, big, challenging, engaging and easy to love. It’s a shame, and a sign of the appalling silos that separate arts institutions in Washington, that the concert—or a similar program—wasn’t presented in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art’s Ballets Russes exhibition.

   Hearing all three ballets in one evening gives one a much more comprehensive sense of Stravinsky’s remarkable evolution during these epic years, and it helps the ear detect common elements of his musical language that might not be so easily detected if each work is listened to in isolation. The full-length Firebird suddenly seems more experimental and less cohesive, and things that might sound uniquely explosive and anarchic in Rite of Spring are clearly gestures deriving from early work, when heard in the context of its predecessors.

            And Petrushka sounds more magnificent than ever. It was the highlight of the evening, because it is a better work than Firebird, and because Gergiev was more attentive to its nuances than he was with the Rite of Spring (played last, and everyone seemed a bit exhausted). The Mariinsky found colors I’ve never heard in the piece, a busy, full-orchestra shimmering, a dozen shades of blinding white and glinting silver. The orchestra doesn’t necessarily exploit the entire spectrum of sonic color, but when it comes to the brilliant hues, the percussive sounds, the nasally high pitches of brass or woodwinds pushed to the point of shrillness, here they can divide and subdivide a small patch of color into seemingly infinite nuance.

            Petrushka ends inconclusively, one of Stravinsky’s wry, bitter gestures. It isn’t a grand summation, just a flick of the wrist and the comic-tragic story is over. Gergiev dispatched this anticlimax with just the right imperious indifference.

            Firebird and Rite of Spring build to noisier endings, and were rewarded with noisier demonstrations. But the latter felt constrained. The opening pastoral elements were already forceful and aggressive, not so much a scenic introduction as a formal, musical setup for what became a seemingly unstoppable drive to the end. The piece was presented as a single, through line of music, rather than a succession of episodes, but one had a sense that Gergiev was in a hurry. His haste in Rite was preferable to his palpable boredom throughout much of the first part of Firebird.

            Is the Mariinsky a great orchestra? Section by section, soloist by soloist, you can always find something wanting: Horns that can produce that round, full, faraway sound; oboes with a honey-colored tone; flutes that sound like they’re made of old wood. The dry string sound, exacerbated by the Kennedy Center Concert Hall’s dismal acoustics, is generally bright and heard to best effect during fast passages. They are, however, far better rehearsed than most American orchestras. Of course they are on tour, so the repertoire is being repeated. But the music is clearly deeply engrained in every player. Gergiev’s responsibility isn’t to traffic cop the complexities of Stravinsky, but resist and direct the impulsive flow of music from his expert players. Spending a few hours without one tentative sound, one loose joint, one scrappy misplaced note, is a pleasure. More American orchestras could do this too, if they had the time and will.

            The concert was presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

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