Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Shostakovich: Festive Overture in A Major, op. 96
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 – Yo-Yo Ma
The Carnegie Hall Neighborhood Concerts series and its mission consisting in bringing the joys of live music to all corners of the five boroughs is undeniably a wonderful endeavor, and the delightful vocal recital last Saturday on the UWS was yet another proof of it, but it cannot match (nor does it try) the real thing. So it was with boundless anticipation that I had been counting down the days to last Wednesday night because it meant not only being back in my favorite concert hall for the opening of a new exciting season, but also enjoying a completely Russian evening featuring Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky (Yeah!) and Rimsky-Korsakov performed by the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by its music director Valery Gergiev. The only non-Russian element on the program was the presence of classical music super-star Yo-Yo Ma, but his talent is so universal that he effortlessly fits right in under any circumstances anyway.
Shostakovich’s Festive Overture opened the concert with the grand, all-out brilliance expected to kick off a new season, and kept on going bright and upbeat, with the innumerable, breathless twists and turns of a wacky cartoon. Crisp, precise and straight to the point, we were decidedly off to a good start.
Nobody has ever had to twist my arm to bring my attention to Tchaikovsky or Yo-Yo Ma, so combining the two of them could only double my pleasure, and it did. A kind-of cello concerto, the Variations on a Rococo Theme is a gorgeous blend of Classical tasteful refinement and Romantic sweeping melodies that goes on for an uninterrupted 20-minute journey through the seven intricate variations of a simple, elegant theme. The Fitzenhagen version that was performed on Wednesday is even more challenging that the original piece, but Yo-Yo Ma handled it all with his signature dexterity and grace, delicately lingering during the contemplative moments, energetically negotiating the blazing speed of the finale.
His spirited friendly competition with the violin section of the orchestra added delicious spice to the proceedings, and total victory was eventually declared for all parties.
Just when we thought that things couldn’t get any better, a substantial encore came in the form of the Andante cantabile movement from Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet for Cello and Strings. Another heart-felt homage to the sheer beauty of Mozart’ music, this beloved work is a melancholic composition rich in transparent melodies and refined textures, which Yo-Yo Ma and some fellow string players from the Mariinsly brought to stunning life in the uniformly hushed auditorium.
Then we moved right on (The VIPs had a post-concert dinner, and the rest of us little people obviously had to stick to their schedule) to another Russian crowd-pleaser with Scheherazade, her fairy tale, her exotic background and all those exquisite violin solos. Maestro Gergiev led his musicians in a rousing account of it, all drama and voluptuousness, and cast on the audience a spell as powerful as the one the Persian princess had secured over the sinister Sultan. The famously sensual violin solos were as seductive as could be, but the other strings did not take a back-seat either and came out in full force with all the other instruments impeccably joining in as well.
Probably to make sure that we wouldn’t feel slighted by this shorter concert, the last encore was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Even if it did not register as strongly with me as the other works, it was still a much appreciated bonus to take all the way home.