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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 28, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 43
Concert opinions test limits of friendship
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Concert opinions test limits of friendship

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Mariinsky Orchestra
October 19
Benaroya Hall


This concert, under conductor Valery Gergiev, began well enough. Three selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suites were so compellingly dispatched that they left us wishing we could hear the whole ballet. This theater music could not have been in better hands, and the unique sound of the Russian orchestra made it all the more fascinating. Horns with vibrato, aggressive woodwinds and brass, less attention to smooth balances between sections, and more emphasis than most American orchestras on the lower instruments, making the overall sound very warm and very big & all this was exciting and fun. The ballroom scene music brought Prokofiev's brilliant scoring to life and made one sad that it was over so soon.

It was thus a bit of a comedown to move to the utterly lovely but less exciting 'Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33' of Tchaikovsky. I have never heard a more honey-sweet, smooth cello sound than that of 19-year-old Ivan Karizna. Tall and baby-faced, the young Russian with a cherubic smile played flawlessly with no apparent effort. He made his instrument sing beautiful legato lines with a sound that soared easily to fill the hall. Gergiev supported him sympathetically but swamped his sound a couple of times.

I would never miss a visiting orchestra, especially a Russian one, and the added attraction of Tchaikovsky's 'Pathétique' symphony meant cancelling other appointments to attend. I brought with me Zeke Hecker, a composer/oboist friend for 50 years. I hold his opinions on music in great esteem. It is in part because we believe strongly in the importance of being able to agree to disagree that we remain friends after Gergiev's treatment of this 'Pathétique.'

We agreed that this was an extreme approach. Tempi varied greatly from the norm. Everything was energetic from the beginning to near the end. Other sections of the orchestra drowned out the violin pizzicati, and sometimes the brass were brought forward in an extreme manner. Gergiev danced around like a Georg Solti on steroids, so much so that one could hardly stop watching him. He sometimes looked like a madman! On all these, Zeke and I could agree.

But Zeke was engrossed every minute, whereas I became disengaged and angry from the first notes. For me, the opening moments must come out of deepest despair, with the strings and bassoon barely able to muster the energy to speak, almost at the threshold of hearing. At no point in the whole symphony did Gergiev bring the orchestra down to a ppp. Instead, we began this caffeinated reading with a full-bodied mezzoforte, and from there the energy kept building. Granted there were some thrilling sounds, but they came easily, rather than being earned after a difficult struggle with despair.

In general there was an almost complete lack of restraint, with so much driving energy in the first two movements that the exultant third movement march lacked impact. It hardly contrasted, as it must, to what came before. I sat there amazed that I could be bored by this great work.

I did like that Gergiev launched almost immediately after the crashing close of the march into the downward plunge of the opening of the fourth movement. This should shock the audience and bring the energy suddenly way down before the yearning attempts to climb back up, doomed to failure after repeated attempts. But Gergiev seemed too eager for the big energetic moments, making them come too fast and blowing them way out of proportion.

I couldn't make out exactly what story this conductor was trying to tell. It seemed to me, rather, that he was just grandstanding, making the most thrilling noises he could find in the score. To me, it was all superficial and way off target. I left the concert angry and disturbed. Oh, Vladimir Jurowski, why did you have to spoil me with the perfection of your performance of this work a couple of years ago with the Russian National Orchestra? If I hadn't heard that, the most moving orchestral concert of my 73 years, I might have accepted Gergiev's self-indulgent showpiece with greater grace.

The audience, however, loved it.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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