Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra launch tour in Chicago with a Stravinsky pas de trois
Pace the late James Brown, Valery Gergiev must be the hardest working man in classical show business.
In between leading performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Russian conductor is taking his Mariinsky Orchestra on a two-week North American tour (how would you like to have Gergiev’s frequent flyer mileage?), which kicked off Wednesday night at Symphony Center.
Chicago, fortunately, received the most generous and intriguing program of this Mariinsky tour, which offered all three of the ballets Stravinsky write for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. The three-hour concert, with two intermissions, drew a large and enthusiastic audience.
Under his long leadership, the Mariinsky Orchestra has evolved into an impressive instrument, with a polish and tonal refinement more European than what one thinks of as the classic big-and-brawny “Russian” sonority. Still, even in this age of orchestral internationalization, the Mariinsky’s lineage was fitfully apparent in the rasp of the horns and the dark string tone. Their experience as a pit band for opera and ballet is palpable in the players’ rhythmic acuity and flexibility.
Gergiev’s Stravinsky performances proved as individual as his conducting style (and his eternally uncooperative frontal combover). The 60-year-old conductor eschews a podium, standing on the floor of the stage, wielding a tiny baton in his right hand while coaxing the music with his left, employing his patented finger-wiggling technique.
The three celebrated ballets that Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev chart not only the composer’s own fast-evolving development but, more broadly, that of 20th-century music—segueing from the colorful nationalism of the Late Romantic Firebird to the more rugged and edgier Petrushka and finally the icon-smashing originality and primeval violence of Rite of Spring.
Hearing all three ballets in one evening—complete and in what appeared to be their original orchestrations—made for some fascinating comparisons. One heard passing echos of Firebird in Rite of Spring that had previously gone unnoticed. Also, illuminated by Gergiev’s idiomatic direction and long experience in this music, the subtlety and imagination of Stravinsky’s scoring in the quieter passages were even more striking Wednesday than the sonic spectacle of Rite or the big climaxes of Firebird.
What one noticed most in Firebird, the work that put the unknown 28-year-old composer on the map—was how much richer and more complex the complete ballet is then the familiar slam-bang highlights of the more-often-played suites. Gergiev led an uncommonly organic and well, balletic, reading, bringing out the iridescent half-tones and pastels. Kastchei’s Dance was aptly infernal and the finale’s blossoming of the Berceuse theme lovely, yet Gergiev kept the music light and unsentimental, giving each moment its due while avoiding any wallowing in the blockbuster moments, making a convincing case through the understatement and elegance of the performance.
With Petrushka, Gergiev seemed intent on putting across the theatricality of the scenario as much as mining the Russian folk origins. Others have more affectingly conveyed the pathos of the tragic title puppet—Leonard Bernstein in particular—but Gergiev and colleagues concentrated more on the color and invention of the score. The framing Shrovetide Fair scenes were boisterous and richly characterized with its Bear Dance, wheedling drunks and assorted mayhem. Here too, the original 1911 scoring—with the lengthy piano and wind solos—paid dividends. Principal trumpet Sergey Kryuchov received a thunderous well-deserved ovation at his solo bow for his bravura playing of Petrushka’s mutable bitonal motif.
Tackling The Rite of Spring, one of the most demanding scores in the repertory, after a long evening with two nearly as challenging works, the Mariinsky players—like their peripatetic chief—hardly seemed fazed at all. Only a couple passing horn bobbles betrayed any fatigue.
Here too, Gergiev defied expectations, playing down the score’s brutality and rhythmic vehemence in favor of a more “French” approach. There was ample sonic impact but tempos were more steady and inexorable than headlong and exciting. As with the other Stravinsky ballets, Gergiev seemed intent on showing the greatness of the entire score as a unified whole—rather than just highlighting volume and surface excitement, like many who race through the slower sections en route to the next triple fortissimo.
Even after such a long and demanding program—a plane was likely fired up and waiting to take the conductor back to New York for Thursday’s performance of The Nose—Gergiev and the Mariinsky musicians offered an encore of Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake. The gentle luminous performance of this lovely miniature by Stravinsky’s teacher brought us full circle and proved the ideal coda to a memorable evening.