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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 © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Concert Review: His Last Bow...For Now

Valery Gergiev's last LSO tour stops at Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Protest? What protest? Valery Gergiev returned to Lincoln Center on Friday night.
Photo by Alberto Venzago © 2015 Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Valery Gergiev is a colorful and divisive figure. Colorful for his podium idiosyncracies: fluttering hands, tiny batons and a knack for delivering performances that always seem right on the edge of falling apart. Divisive: for some of those same reasons--plus his close association with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, one that repeatedly draws placard-carrying protesters from New York's Ukrainian community.

They were out on Friday night, when Mr. Gergiev led the London Symphony Orchestra in the first of two performances this weekend at the newly redubbed David Geffen Hall (which is essentially the old Avery Fisher Hall with a new sign on the front, a new café in the lobby and new carpet on the auditorium floor.) This concert was part of the conductor's farewell tour before he relinquishes the post of Principal Conductor. For it, he programmed a one-two punch of Bartók followed by a Stravinsky ballet: music that played firmly to this artist's particular strengths.

The concert opened with the shortened concert arrangement of The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók's most ambitious and violent ballet. This allowed Mr. Gergiev to indulge his passion for slashing, savage rhythms and big orchestral gestures. The Mandarin is the story of a prostitute and three thugs. They use her to entice men to her sleazy upstairs room, where they beat the hell out of their clients. The last client, a mysterious Mandarin, is beaten, stabbed and hung but refuses to stay dead.

The London players obliged this sordid little story with a tumultuous performance, pounding out the brutal scenario and gleefully tearing through the bloodiest sections of the score. Mr. Gergiev let them have their fun but stayed firmly in control, pounding out the obsessive rhythms and sticking the "concert ending" that ends the work before its supernatural denouement.

Pianist Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra for the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3. Written at the end of the composer's life as a concert item for his wife to play on tour, this is the sweetest and lightest of Bartók's major orchestral works, with a shimmering texture that reflects its creator's affection for his partner and the composer's complete mastery of the orchestra. Mr. Bronfman played the fluid, descending lines with tremendous control and grace, expertly supported by Mr. Gergiev.

The second movement was the chief glory here, a moonlit song for the solo instrument accompanied by bird-song in the clarinet, oboe and flute. In the finale, Bartók finds his old vigor with a traditional Hungarian dance, expertly played here by Mr. Bronfman. Following a warm reception, the great pianist obliged with a Schumann encore (the Arabesque in C major, Op. 18,) with Mr. Gergiev sitting quietly and listening at stage right.

A full performance of Stravinsky's Firebird ended the concert. Mr. Gergiev found much nuance in the early pages of this remarkable score, dwelling in the deep-throated utterances for cello, bassoon and contrabassoon that contrast with the skittering flutes and violins that depict the firebird's acrobatics. And yes, the Dance of King Kaschei had that barbarous power that this conductor can bring to any orchestra, with pounding gran casa, thundering brass and shrieking strings. The joyous finale found the LSO horns in absolute top form. For an encore, Mr. Gergiev offered the muscular Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev: another composer whose output suits his particular talents.

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