Tag Archives: Valery Gergiev

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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Putin, Gergiev, The Met and Onegin

This piece, a much expanded version of what I wrote on the blog a few days ago, got lost in the holiday shuffle. My subject is the so called “gay propaganda” law, recently passed in Russia, that criminalizes any positive (and perhaps neutral) mention of homosexuality, and how protests against the law may play out in the cultural realm. So far, the attention has focused mostly on Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Will gay athletes and visitors be safe? Will anything so small as a rainbow lapel pin be subject to the force of this ugly and dangerous proscription? But there is already a developing cultural aspect to the protests as well, including a fascinating but somewhat ill-directed petition to asking the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin to “LGTB rights.”

I don’t start there, but with the character of Monsieur Triquet, one of my favorite, though also one of the saddest in Tchaikovsky’s setting of Pushkin’s novel in verse. I think it’s clear that Triquet is a closeted gay man. And I think it’s all too clear that the closet is being reinvented, and re-purposed, for new forms of oppression. Here’s a sample:

Much of the world is finally beginning to notice the cultural and historical abundance of Triquets, the closeted characters, the unmarried aunts and uncles, the flamboyant men who never talked of sex, allowing their voices, warped and corrupted by homophobia, to be heard at last with sympathy. But Triquet is also a model for how advocates of a new, reorganized, homophobia would like gay people to live: Allowed into the party on condition of self-denial, alienated from their nature, singing someone else’s heterosexual verses. What’s old is new, and whether it’s Putin’s Russia or the Catholic Church taking aim at teachers who enter into same-sex marriages, Triquet reminds us that the closet that gay people left over the past half-century is being repurposed, refitted to the job of oppression, by laws such as the one being protested so widely today.

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The Met’s Onegin and Gergiev’s Cultural Politics

                An online petition asking the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night performance of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin “to support LGTB people” seeks to connect the Met’s scheduling of Russian artists in a classic Russian opera with an ugly, and terrifying Russian law passed in a political climate of xenophobia and cynicism. Three potential culprits are singled out: The Met, the conductor of the performance (Valery Gergiev) and the soprano (Anna Netrebko). Citing Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality (repressed, indulged but never openly embraced by the composer), and Russia’s law effectively criminalizing any public support of gay people, the online petition argues that the September 23rd gala evening “dishonors” Tchaikovsky’s legacy. But it’s worth noting that opera schedules are worked out years in advance, and Onegin was certainly on the books long before Putin put his pen to the homophobic law.

            The Met and Netrebko have effectively answered the charge that they are participating in anything that dishonors Tchaikovsky. Peter Gelb, head of the Met, noted the company wants to stay focused on art, not politics, and that the institution is committed to treating all people equally. Critics can quibble with whether or not the Met has always been apolitical, and whether it was historically a comfortable place for openly gay people. And large cultural institutions can’t claim blanket immunity from the symbolism of cultural politics. There’s no single or simple rule that determines when an artist or an arts institution should take a stand on a moral or political issue, but there are three factors to weigh: The gravity of the moral abuse, the proximity to the question and the relative importance of the artist or arts group.

           But these days, the Met isn’t anti-gay and its only engagement with Russian politics is tangential at best. It’s certainly understandable why they don’t want to start hanging banners before every performance.  Netrebko, who like Gergiev supported Putin in 2012, issued a statement on Facebook earlier this month affirming her views on tolerance: “As an artist, it is my great joy to collaborate with all of my wonderful colleagues — regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I have never and will never discriminate against anyone.” So there’s no need to bully any further the Met and its reigning star soprano.

            Gergiev, however, should be heard from. He is a major player in Russian cultural politics and a towering figure in Western classical music. A New York Times blog entry says he hasn’t responded to calls for comment. Last October, at the Library of Congress, he was asked about his views on the Pussy Riot situation (a politically oriented punk group jailed for using an Orthodox Church as a setting for an anti-Putin song) and he defended the artists’ imprisonment. So Gergiev is already on record for rather illiberal views of artistic freedom, he is more than a casual supporter of Putin and beholden to the Russian government for huge amounts of support for his opera company in St. Petersburg. If nothing else, perhaps this petition will force Gergiev to be clearer about his moral views, his accommodation with dangerous political actors, and his basic commitment to an open, tolerant and free society. One might ask him: If Tchaikovsky were alive today, and open about his homosexuality, should he be arrested, fined or imprisoned?

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Fit for a Tsar

    When I visited St. Petersburg last May, the Mariinsky 2 was still a work zone. Now it’s open. The new building is undistinguished and even quite ugly from the outside. I haven’t seen the inside yet. But I did write about the controversy over its site, cost and design in this month’s issue of Opera News. A chance to look at the deep authoritarian habits of mind that still rule so much of Russian culture.

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