Tag Archives: Kennedy Center

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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Angela Gheorghiu at the Kennedy Center

                Watching the great Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu at the Kennedy Center on Saturday night felt a bit like spending time with a married couple who have just had a colossal argument, or a family dinner at which everyone is diligently and resentfully avoiding the elephant in the room. There was a walking-on-eggshell vibe to the whole affair, with conductor Eugene Kohn struggling to keep the Washington National Opera orchestra in synch with the temperamental but wildly talented singer. He didn’t always succeed.  On a program over-stuffed with orchestral bonbons, Gheorghiu’s first aria was a disaster. Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” simply fell apart at a couple of moments and at one point I looked up to see the conductor gripping the singer’s hand, apparently giving her direct, tactile rhythmic guidance.

                A Mozart aria wasn’t much better, and the orchestra sounded scrappy in its overtures and light classics (Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” gave the soprano time to change into one of the three frocks she wore for the evening). But Dvorak’s Song to the Moon from “Rusalka” was magical, and in arias by Massenet Gheorghiu seemed to lose her self-consciousness sufficiently to sing with the abandon that, when summoned and channeled, makes her the most exciting soprano today.

                But a singer of her stature shouldn’t be giving such a scattershot performance. Too many of the songs were rendered without much real thought or passion until the very end, at which point she turned on the smokiness in the voice and pushed the intensity, as if giving the bare minimum of the  “Gheorghiu” sound necessary for the illusion of a genuine performance. I wondered, watching her, if she’s struggling with some serious demons. She has always had a tendency to get a little mannered, a little over fussy in her interpretation. But Saturday, the first time I’ve heard her in recital as opposed to onstage in an opera, was beyond the usual level of solipsism.  Is it stage fright? Some kind deep shyness for which she is overcompensating?

                It’s frustrating. The sense that she’s in her own world, completely fused with the character she’s enacting, is what makes her so exciting when she’s at her best. But she often seems to disappear into a deeper, more neurotic place, with musical results that are unsatisfying. Tempos are erratic, and the simplicity and clarity of the line is lost. In any case, she didn’t seem to really enjoy herself until after the official program was over. She moved one of her calling cards, Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” from the main program into the “encore” category, and it proved some of the best singing of the evening.

                But we’ve heard her sing this before. Too many times. Gheorghiu needs someone to challenge her as an artist, to get out more, try new repertoire, learn new roles, and use her formidable skills more broadly. I would hate to see her follow the sad path of Kathleen Battle.

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Rafal Blechacz

The young Polish pianist is very much worth hearing. He came through Washington to make his local debut at the Kennedy Center this past weekend. I reviewed it for the Post. One of the things I most enjoyed was his courage to confront what I call Chopin’s “memory effect”:

There is a recurring trope in Chopin’s music that one might call the “memory effect.” Out of inwardness, darkness and anxiety a melody will emerge, simple, childlike, barely adorned, like a nursery rhyme remembered in the midst of a shipwreck. The power of these terrifying flashes of something sweet and uncorrupted embarrasses all too many pianists.

Photo courtesy Washington Performing Arts Society

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Better in silence

            It’s a hard choice: Watch Carl Theodor Dreyer’s cinematic masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, in total silence, or with Richard Einhorn’s 1994 cantata Voices of Light, which was inspired by the film and is now included as an optional soundtrack on the Criterion Collection DVD. I’m not a big fan of those hyper-intense, minimalist-inspired, long-winded forays into spirituality that were so popular in the 1990s, but I wasn’t feeling very disciplined either, and it’s hard work watching a film in a total silence. So I chose Dreyer with Einhorn over the mute play of Dreyer’s stark study of warts, wrinkles and bodily fluids.

            Einhorn’s music feels like it was whipped up by folks in the marketing department of the old Sony Classical company. It was composed shortly after the release of a wildly popular 1992 recording of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, which introduced so-called sacred minimalism to a wide audience. Einhorn wrote his oratorio to feature prominently Anonymous 4, a women’s vocal quartet that was another fashionable sound of the mid-90s, when souls newly liberated from the fear of Cold War annihilation sought refuge in mass-produced spiritual balms and escapes. Anonymous 4, which burst onto the scene in 1993 with a best-selling recording called “An English Ladymass,” gave Einhorn’s oratorio an instantly ethereal, otherworldly texture throughout much of its hour and twenty minutes of repetitive modal singing, slow moving harmonies and insistent and hypnotic off-beat rhythmic figures. They lent a veneer of authenticity to the composer’s  exercise in faux-medievalism, which borrowed in spirit from Orff’s Carmina Burana without ever attaining that piece’s crude power.

            In 2001, I reviewed the oratorio (at the Kennedy Center) performed in concert with a screening of the Dreyer. The Einhorn was not particularly noisome but not very good either.  Now music and film have been paired on the Criterion Collection DVD, which raises to a whole new level the question of the oratorio’s suitability to accompany this exceptionally powerful film. We live in a society that self-educates, and DVDs are an essential and vital part of that process for many cineastes. But people new to Dreyer might be misled into thinking that this pairing is both historically sanctioned and commensurate with the genius of Dreyer’s film. Neither is true.

            Minimalism is a fast and easy solution to the silent film music problem, filling the creepy aural void without saying too much in particular. So long as the composer occasionally changes harmonies or textures in synch with the film, the style works well, unobtrusive but not accidentally related to the action of the film. Einhorn’s music, composed in large, bland arcs of repeating patterns, does that.

            But it fails to support or underscore the power of Dreyer’s vision which dissects human cruelty and suffering through intense close-ups, while  suggesting the inevitability and ecstatic acceptance of religious martyrdom on the part of Joan. Dreyer’s vision is intensely physical and spiritual at the same time. The knock-off chant forms and two-note descending melodic fragments that Einhorn employs ad nauseam aren’t believable on a religious, spiritual or historical level, and they are too blunt and slow moving to respond to Dreyer’s excoriating magnification of the real, and his often-expressionist camera movement. If ever a film called out for a score of electric intensity, atonal if necessary, it is The Passion of Joan of Arc. Of course it would have been torture for Anton Webern to write film music, and he wasn’t exactly a master of long-form composition. But Dreyer’s film is Webernian in its combination of sparse imagery and architecture, its intense fidelity to an uncompromising process and its explosive psychological ruptures.

            Of course, maybe I’m not being fair to Einhorn and over praising Dreyer. When Dreyer’s camera isn’t focused squarely on the  furrowed and wart-bestrewn face of one of his subjects, it is moving in a slow series of diagonals. Joan is constantly looking up and out of the frame in exactly the same direction a figure in a Baroque painting would look up at a dove in the sky or a saint in the background, through a strong formal play of angled lines. Is the filmmaker borrowing as bluntly from the tricks of earlier painting as Einhorn borrows from an earlier language of music?

            If so, Dreyer does more with his borrowing than Einhorn does. And in his importation of these diagonal lines into film there is at least an act of formal innovation, an interpretation from one art form to another. Einhorn doesn’t add much to the music he appropriates, other than organize it in repetitive blocks. Without Dreyer’s imagery, Einhorn’s music quickly becomes boring and meaningless. And even when seen with Dreyer’s film, the music drones on in its own, separate universe, not even dimly aware of the power of what it is ostensibly supporting.


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Philadelphia Dazzles

            Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand for Piano and Orchestra lasts just under 20 minutes. It is fiendishly difficult, but still a light night’s work for a famous pianist given top billing on an orchestral program. So on Wednesday evening, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet supplemented the Ravel with a riotous performances of Liszt’s Totentanz, a set of demonically virtuosic variations based on the Dies Irae.

            The Dies Irae also shows up in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances from 1940, which anchored the second half of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s entertaining appearance at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Under the baton of Charles Dutoit, the orchestra offered a coherent, balanced, intelligently assembled program, all of it very much under the Gallic star. If the Symphonic Dances were written under the shadow of the Second World War, Ravel’s La Valse, which finished the program, was finished in the aftermath of the First World War. And it was striking to hear connections between La Valse and the much later piano concerto, and to hear hints of Stravinsky and Chinoiserie in Dutoit’s coloration of both Ravel works.

            It is also a delight to hear an orchestra play with an easy, reliable and tight ensemble. Dutoit’s conducting is loose-limbed and seemingly casual, but there is nothing haphazard in his leadership. He is currently serving a caretaker role, filling in as chief conductor and artistic adviser as the orchestra weathers a leadership crisis which includes a search for a new music director. But he has been conducting this orchestra for almost three decades, and orchestra and conductor are now symbiotically linked.  The barest hints of a tempo change, lightly telegraphed, produced electric results.  

            Thibaudet’s mix of Liszt and Ravel in the first half was performed as if Liszt were the dominant muse. The Ravel opened with more than the usual fury in the piano’s bass range, pushed to metallic brilliance, and perhaps pushed so far that later treble passages could only sound somewhat weak by contrast. Thibaudet seemed determined to make this a self-consciously big performance, importing some of Liszt’s virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake into the more subtle gardens of Ravel. The Left Hand concerto is one of Ravel’s most overtly emotional scores, but this was more about display than emotion.

            The same approach, applied to the Liszt, was dazzling and deliciously absurd, a performance so outrageous in its athletic extravagance that it left one smiling. Thibaudet’s glissando finger got a stern workout, and the pure, almost Prokofiev-like brilliance of the performance made the music seem trashy in a good way, lovably vulgar, even strangely radical in its contrast between inert substance and perpetually changing surface.

            Dutoit was a deft accompanist, though the ensemble was more reliable in the Liszt than the Ravel. In the Rachmaninoff, he held the reins more loosely, and the performance grew more diffuse, especially in the waltz movement. But it’s also possible that this was a deliberate interpretive choice: To emphasize the autumnal, to find the darker reflective spirit of the music, which often seems as much a summing up of a bygone age as Ravel’s La Valse. The woodwind ensemble, in the first movement, was a lovely, marred only by the slightly too-large sound of the very expressive saxophone.

            La Valse was urbane, and volcanic, a mix of refinement and violence. This piece almost always works, and sometimes it works so well as to be terrifying. This one of those times. Dutoit whipped it up rather like Joel Gray whips up the cabaret, creepy, knowing, insinuating, and suddenly crass. It was the Philadelphia Orchestra in very fine form, which is encouraging given their recent troubles.

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