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Friday, April 23, 2010

Concert Review: Gergiev (of the Mariinsky) conducts Stravinsky

The second concert of the New York Philharmonic's three-week festival: The Russian Stravinsky,  featured Valery Gergiev leading his own Mariinsky Theater singers and the Philharmonic forces in three major works by the revolutionary Russian composer. 

The program opened with Les Noces, bumped from the Thursday premiere because of travel issues caused by the volcanic ash cloud over Europe. (Mr. Gergiev and his singers did not arrive in New York until Tuesday night.) This set of four dramatic pieces recalls the bustle and energy of a Russian peasant wedding, The four vocal soloists (all regulars at the Mariinsky Theater, Mr. Gergiev's St. Petersburg opera house) traded off in a series of almost conversational vocal fragments, backed by impressive choral singing, four pianos and the Philharmonic's redoubtable percussion players.

The Symphony of Psalms shows Stravinsky bridging Russian liturgical music with Latin liturgical verse. The unique orchestral arrangement (there are no violins or violas used) created a  religious atmosphere well suited to the Latin text. Again, the Mariinsky chorus was superb, singing the  Psalms with power and conviction. Mr. Gergiev drew some unusually beautiful orchestral textures from the stripped-down band.

The concert concluded with the full 45-minute version of The Firebird, the ballet that made Stravinsky's name as a composer in the Western world. This marvelous score was played with Gergiev's power and the Philharmonic's customary precision, although Mr. Gergiev's freewheeling interpretation of the score caused more than one touch-and-go moment in the early movements. The conductor recovered, moving his fingers like the fluttering of a bird and drawing lovely sounds from the orchestra. 

Things improved even more when the orchestra hit the fortissimo passages that dominate the second half of this score. The thunderous "Dance of King Kaschei" shook Avery Fisher Hall. Just before the climactic phrase, Mr. Gergiev slowed the orchestra to a pianissimo crawl, drawing forth a shimmering carpet of sound before letting the heavy brass bring the work to its blazing finish. This was an auspicious beginning to a three-week festival which promises exciting interpretations of Stravinsky's music at Avery Fisher Hall.

Valery Gergiev. 
Photo © Marco Borggreve.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.