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Friday, October 11, 2013

Concert Review: Dance 'til You Drop

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra return to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev. Photo by Aleexander Shapunov
© 2013 Columbia Artists Management International, courtesy CAMI.
You can say one thing for Valery Gergiev: he's determined to focus on music.

Last night, the conductor had his second encounter this season with protesters from Queer Nation. They lined up under Carnegie Hall's glass portico to express their displeasure with Mr. Gergiev's close association with Russian leader Vladimir Putin--and his lack of comment on the Putin government's laws banning so-called "gay propaganda" within Russia.

Mr. Gergiev is known (even notorious) for his habit of programming long evenings. This concert, a marathon of the "big three" Stravinsky ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring) was also an historic occasion, with the conductor becoming the first to lead a complete performance of these three scores in one evening at Carnegie Hall. (Stravinsky himself once led the three works in chronological order at the Hall, but chose one of the Firebird Suites over the complete ballet.) Although heavy evenings like this sometimes take a toll on the orchestra's musicians, the Mariinsky forces seemed fit and eager for their first concert at Carnegie Hall this season.

The orchestra took the stage, and Mr. Gergiev entered. As the Mariinsky Orchestra players readied their instruments, shouts broke out from (what sounded like) both sides of the hall.

"Gergiev! Your silence condemns Russian gays!"

As the shouts echoed and redoubled from the upper levels, they were answered by some claps of approval and loud booing from other seat. The conductor remained in "ready" position, hand raised to start the low rumbling bass notes that open The Firebird. With the protesters removed, he started, the chords rumbling out of the huge orchestra like ominous storm clouds. The Mariinsky forces have their own sound quality, deep, dark and earthy, and that tinta served them well in the opening pages of this famous score.

This proved an unusual Firebird, with heavier emphasis on the dramatic flow of narrative than the big showy climaxes. Mr. Gergiev kept the emphasis on story, highlighting early minor-key themes in the score which placed the later dances in dramatic context. Each section was shown interrelated to the next, as the narrative drove forward into the work's dream-like middle section and the savage dance that announces the arrival of the demonic King Kaschei. The last pages were prefaced with a glorious, unearthly shimmer of strings before leading into the final, brassy celebration.

Petrushka followed. This  ballet score combines tragedy and brutal farce, with its tale a love-struck puppet that is torn to pieces in the middle of a Mardi Gras celebration. Mr. Gergiev seemed to take joy in the bustling rhythms of the Shrove-Tide Fair, before laying into the grim, bitonal passage that depicts Petrushka's imprisonment. The orchestra sparkled in bright primary colors, with a garish, parodic waltz for the Moor and the Ballerina that dripped with Stravinsky's characteristic wit. The end was diamond-hard and unsentimental. Primal rhythms depicted Petrushka's fate, and a sudden return of his sardonic theme in the very last bars.

Mr. Gergiev and his troops played The Rite of Spring like an assault squad, taking the pounding, chugging rhythms at a healthy sprint. Despite the speed, the emphasis was again on narrative, with details emerging in the turmoil of sound. The players pushed themselves to play loud and fast, pausing to grind out hammer-blows in the heavy percussion and tubas. Even the timpanist, playing a rhythm that most drummers make "jazzy" chose to hold his beat by half a note to make the whole thing go slightly, and wonderfully askew. It was exciting stuff. The orchestra breathed and heaved as if exhausted in the Procession of the Sage before throwing itself back into the vicious mosh-pit rhythms of the Dance of the Earth.

The second part of the Rite opened with a bit of a respite before gearing up for the final sections of the work. Mr. Gergiev took each of Stravinsky's double repetitions as an excuse to turn the screws tighter, building up to the sheer brutality of the Final Dance and Sacrifice. As the last chords slammed home, the pent-up energy released itself, answered not with boos or cat-calls but roars of approval. The music, and the Mariinsky forces had triumphed.

Following the applause, Mr. Gergiev briefly addressed the audience. However, his subject was Verdi. He explained that it was the composer's 200th birthday and that Verdi had written La Forza del Destino for the Mariinsky Opera. The Overture to that opera followed  Verdi's driving chase rhythms and bustling little portraits gave opportunity for the demonstration of musicianship. The swelling strings of "Madre, pieotosa Virgine" sounded particularly sweet in contrast to two hours of Stravinsky--and the orchestra demonstrated professionalism and sheer stamina in this unexpected encore.

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