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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Concert Review: One Last Sacrifice

New York Philharmonic plays Stravinsky with Gergiev.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Valery Gergiev, looking remarkably like the bad guy in the Vin Diesel movie xXx.

Saturday morning marked the final performance of The Russian Stravinsky, the New York Philharmonic's three-week festival focusing on the composer and his works. At this concert, Valery Gergiev presented a fresh, completely original approach to one of Stravinsky's most familiar scores: The Rite of Spring.

When it premiered, the Rite made its mark as one of the most important scores of the early 20th century. But under some conductors, the incredible clockwork of cross-rhythms, winding bassoon melodies and thunderous blasts of brass and percussion can sound mechanized. Led by Valery Gergiev, the New York Philharmonic made this famous ballet score into a very different beast. This was a wild, turbulent Rite hurtling along like an out-of-control express train, threatening repeatedly to jump the track. But it never did.

The first half of the program focused on the neo-classical Stravinsky, unearthing two of his lesser-known works. The concert began with the Symphony in Three Movements, which was originally premiered by the Philharmonic in 1948. Although this is a piece of "pure music", there are autobiographical elements present in the score. The Symphony written in commemoration of the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Mr. Gergiev led the orchestra with his characteristic efficiency, bringing out the textures and themes, and the contrast between its three movements, and the orchestra played "their" symphony with power and pride.

The strings left the stage for the second work. The Concerto for Piano and Winds is written on a smaller scale than some Stravinsky pieces, and combines the composer's virtuostic skill in writing for the low winds and brass with a piano part that evokes the keyboard music of Bach. Soloist Alexei Volodin played the baroque piano figurations with fluid ease, and Mr. Gergiev made sure that he wasn't drowned out by the mighty trombones and tuba.

From the opening bassoon solo (played with lots of rubato by Judith LeClair) the suspense built. The orchestra muttered, chirped, hooted and howled, with winds and muted brass rubbing shoulders with plucked strings. When the famous "chugging" figure began, the pace was alarmingly fast. Mr. Gergiev kept a brisk pace, but stretched out the silences and portents, showing that Stravinsky's use of the absence of sound was just as important to the work's structure as the music itself. The result, as the orchestra pounded home the thick, slab-like chords of the Final Sacrifice, was an exhilarating performance that allowed the Rite to be heard with fresh ears.
Valery Gergiev. Photo © 2009 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.