Philadelphia Orchestra, Kimmel Center

Stravinsky, Schostakowitsch, Prokofiev

I rushed up from Washington to Philadelphia in time to hear Valery Gergiev conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in three very different symphonies by Russian composers. What Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, Schostakowitsch’s 9th, and Prokofiev’s 5th had in common was intriguing rhythmic combinations, which make them fun, if difficult, to play.  The Philadelphians proved themselves up for the challenge.

The Stravinsky might be the oddest of the lot.  Written over a period of a couple of years, it is not quite clear that the composer ever had a clear vision or plan for this work.  The creativity came in the rhythmic shifts and juxtapositions across the instruments.  A medium-sized orchestration never became too overpowering, and the Philadelphians played the work with dexterous delicacy: tender moments prevailing through jarring jabs of sound.

In some respects, the orchestra sounded as though it had started the concert by going mostly through motions, taking a while to warm up during the piece.  The playing was fine, but some sparkle lacked at the outset.  Part of that may have been Stravinsky’s lack of clarity in this work.  Certainly, by the time the Schostakowitsch came, the Orchestra was now ready.

Schostakowitsch’s work marks a triumph of his own spirit at a time of triumph for his country.  The communists expected a major work to crown their victory in the Second World War, and Schostakowitsch gave them a sarcastic one.  The work dances – maybe not with as much syncopation as Stravinsky’s or with the balletic sweeps of the Prokofiev that followed, but nevertheless it showed a certain celebration alternating with dark brooding.  Although Soviet Russia had defeated Nazi Germany, it remained Soviet Russia, its peoples enslaved.  The irony did not escape notice that the Orchestra took its cues from Gergiev, a close friend of (and apologist for) current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.  But politics aside (and sticking to music-making), Gergiev successfully shaped this symphony with his clawing fingers, giving it a fuller and more meaningful reading than the Stravinsky.

The Prokofiev symphony after the intermission provided something more in line with what the communist regime would have wanted.  Written shortly before the end of the European war, as the Red Army advanced to liberate (and re-enslave) Eastern Europe, Prokofiev could use dramatic language and large forces to portray both the uplifting triumph and sad laments of the battlefield, while still maintaining a modern musical language characterized by its own dancing rhythms.  The Orchestra’s sound came across full when it had to, but the solo lines throughout emerged with sensitivity and virtuosity.

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Mariinsky Theater Orchestra and Chorus (St. Petersburg), Tschaikowsky Hall (Moscow)

Kruglikov, Verdi

Tonight’s special concert of Verdi’Requiem with the Mariinsky under Valery Gergiev was for the benefit of victims of the disaster in Japan.

This was an extremely dramatic operatic reading of the Requiem.  This piece is already rather operatic, but tonight it was so expressive that the Mariinsky almost acted it out.  The Tschaikowsky Hall was absolutely packed, standing room only, but the orchestra’s sound managed to fill the hall.  I suppose that since they are used to playing in an orchestra pit, they know how to project up and out.  What I liked about this performance, however, was the way in which Gergiev drew out the woodwinds, who have some fascinating and dramatic parts that often get obscured by the strings and brass.  Tonight, I could clearly hear these interior lines.

The soloists all came from the Mariinsky roster.  Of them, only Olga Borodina (alto) is internationally known.  The other three were the sort of relatively young singers that Gergiev likes to showcase.  In terms of drama, stage presence, and beauty of voice, they all matched up to Borodina, particularly Viktoriya Yastrebova (soprano) and Ildar Abdrazakov (bass).  The fourth soloist, Sergey Semishkur (tenor) had a very beautiful voice, but came from the Russian school of dramatic tenors that I don’t personally like.  In Russia, dramatic tenors tend to have lighter (although not weaker) voices that tend towards the counter-tenor range rather than with supportive lower registers like European dramatic tenors.  This is purely a stylistic issue, and he certainly sang beautifully and dramatically.  All four easily projected over the orchestra and chorus.

The concert opened with the world premiere of Mourning Music by Feliks Kruglikov, a Russian who defected to the US in 1979 and became Zubin Mehta’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic.  The piece was sort of post-Schostakowitschian, although it did not really say anything.  Not unpleasant, just uninteresting: had Schostakowitsch lived longer, he would have had something to say.

Mariinsky Theater (St. Petersburg), Bolshoi New Stage (Moscow)

Bartók, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

The Mariinsky Theater performed Bartók’s dark psychodrama Duke Bluebeard’s Castle on the Bolshoi New Stage, with Willard White as Duke Bluebeard, Yelena Zhidkova as Judith, and Valery Gergiev on the podium.

It is obviously hard for me to judge proficiency in Hungarian language, but the two non-native speakers (White is Jamaican, Zhidkova is Russian) gave a fluent and chilling reading. The staging was nonsense – the opera was originally rejected in 1911 as a submission by Bartók to a theater competition because the judges did not consider this opera to contain any theater. Staging should be minimal, and the ability of the two singers to portray the psychological drama determines a successful performance. Although not over-staged, the director was trying to do something on stage, but that something was unclear. White and Zhidkova essentially ignored the stage and got on with their jobs, fully supported by Gergiev and his orchestra in the pit.

I decided to keep my cashmere scarf on when I checked my coat (and my wool scarf). This was a good thing – although the theater was not cold, the performance gave me chills and having the scarf proved useful. The audience stood for a moment of silence before the performance in memory of the victims from today’s terrorist attack on Domodedovo Airport – something which certainly added to the chill.

Mariinsky Theater

Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina

For Mussorgsky’Khovanshchina at the Mariinsky, conductor Valery Gergiev used the Schostakowitsch arrangement, which is probably the best available option (Mussorgsky never completed the opera, leaving it unorchestrated, so there is no “original” Mussorgsky version – the version traditionally used was Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but he butchered the music; then there was a Stravinsky/Ravel collaboration which flopped badly and is never performed; then came the Schostakowitsch version in 1960 which respected Mussorgsky’s music, albeit orchestrated like Schostakowitsch; and finally there is a hybrid version which mostly uses the Schostakowitsch version with some portions following Stravinsky, particularly in Act 5).

The Schostakowitsch version had its premiere on this stage in 1960, and the Mariinsky is still using the same production. The sets and costumes are very traditional. The stage direction, however, is a bit static. The director also appears to have taken some liberties with the plot, simplifying elements and leaving some odds and ends out completely (notably Peter the Great’s soldiers never do show up at the end to massacre the Old Believers – which does not affect the plot, since the Old Believers have already set their church on fire with themselves on the inside burning to death – but just seemed odd).

However, the cast was tremendous. Not only could they sing, but they could also act. So it did not matter that the blocking was static, given a sensible set the singers took over and interpreted their roles. It makes me wonder why more emphasis is not put on acting for opera singers in conservatories, because being able to act makes a huge difference.

As Prince Ivan Khovansky, Sergey Aleksashkin made a striking characterization. He carried out the role traditionally in the first two acts, portraying Khovansky as arrogant and tough. But when the scheming Fyodor Shaklovity (cunningly portrayed by Nikolay Putilin) storms on stage at the end of Act 2 and announces that the Tsar has uncovered the plot (without saying that he – Shaklovity – is the one who both invented the plot and informed the Tsar), I could almost see the heart drop out of Aleksashkin’s Khovansky. When Khovansky returned in Act 3, he was a broken man. And, in Act 4, when the plot usually calls for him to continue his arrogance, Aleksashkin portrayed him as someone who was still resigned to his fate – arrogant, yes, and hopeful that he might prevail, but also clearly aware that he was likely a doomed man.

But Aleksashkin did not dominate the opera, since he shared the stage with other first-rank performers. This was most clear in the second act, when Prince Vasily Golitsin (performed by Aleksey Steblyanko) sits alone in his study being sarcastic. Then Khovansky storms in without knocking, and the two of them try to outdo one another in their sarcasm. Then Dosifei (Vladimir Vaneyev), leader of the Old Believers (traditional Orthodox Christians persecuted by Peter the Great) joins them, also without knocking. The three of them are, of course, alleged to be co-conspirators, but they don’t like each other and the scene actually is quite amusing, particularly with these three performing the roles.

The main female role, Marfa, was performed by Olga Borodina. All I have to say is, why aren’t there any female singers in Moscow like her? Moscow is awash in good male singers, but I have not heard any women approach her level. In an opera full of dominant men in dominant roles, she asserted herself and could not be ignored when she was on stage.

The supporting cast was excellent. So was the orchestra (a lot better than when I heard them at the Dom Muziki in Moscow – but as I suspected, that hall has famously dreadful acoustics and Maestro Gergiev told me over dinner that there was no way to get his orchestra to be heard properly in that building, since they could not play with subtlety and be come across in the dry room). I heard the orchestra as Gergiev did, since my seat (costing only about 35 US Dollars) was first row center aisle and I sat behind his left shoulder.

The sensible audience clearly appreciated the performance. Indeed, the applause continued even after the fire curtain descended, and they had to re-open the fire curtain for an additional round of bows.

This was my first live performance of Khovanshchina. I’ve heard it on the radio live from the Met many times, and various recordings on the radio, and I myself own two recordings, but finally I got to hear it live in person. This was the way to do it.

Mariinsky Theater Orchestra (St. Petersburg), Dom Musiki (Moscow)

Schostakowitsch

I found the antidote for Thursday’s dull performance of Schostakowitsch’s 7th: tonight’s performance of Schostakowitsch’s 7th. The Mariinsky Theater Orchestra may not have played the notes as perfectly as the Russian State Symphony Orchestra (or maybe they did – more on the acoustics in a moment), but Valery Gergiev got far more emotion out of it than Gorenstein did on Thursday.

Unfortunately, the acoustics in the Dom Muziki are dull. The hall itself is basically a big slotted wooden cylinder. Looks tasteful enough for a modern hall, but I think designed more for pizzazz than for sound quality. Still, dull acoustics obviously beat a dull interpretation.

The building itself (around the hall) is also reasonably pleasant looking, until you realize it is a fire disaster waiting to happen. They have essentially made clusters of seats directly accessible only from specific doors. There is almost no room on the narrow landings outside each of the doors, so everything turns into a huge crowd. Then the stairs and escalators – of which there are too few – all converge on themselves, piling more and more people into less and less space (and the silly design means this is somehow true both going up to take the seats and going down to leave after the concert). Even the lobby is not really the lobby, but is itself only accessible by a single set of narrow escalators wrapped around on themselves from a foyer two levels further down, which itself doubles as the main entrance of another chamber concert hall. I don’t really know how they managed to build this place, unless someone as a practical joke substituted an Escher print instead of the correct architectural sketches.

Vienna Philharmonic, Musikverein

Sibelius, Stravinsky

The Philharmoniker, under Valery Gergiev, accentuated the Brucknerian and Schubertian influences in Sibelius‘ 1st Symphony.  Sibelius had conceived this symphony when he studied in Vienna (although he wrote it later).  Bruckner was Sibelius’ favorite living composer, and Schubert was of course Bruckner’s model, so the concept worked.

The concert concluded with the suite from Stravinsky’s Firebird.