Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Stravinsky: The Firebird
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Gay rights may have been mercilessly trampled in Russia lately, but the right of speech is by all accounts alive and well in New York City, as Valery Gergiev has experienced at the Met gala a couple of weeks ago, and then again at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night. Although it may not have come as a total surprise considering his obstinate silence about his close relationship to Valdimir Putin and the government-ordered crack-down on gay rights, the first of the three all-Russian concerts by the Marrinsky Orchestra at the hall was greeted by protesters outside the building and two hecklers, who were quickly and peacefully escorted out, inside. After all, as Anna Netrebko and her PR team very well know, all it takes to calm down heated spirits is a short, generic, but politically correct, press release.
It is not as if Carnegie Hall needed this additional headache after its opening night concert got cancelled last week due to a strike by the stagehands' union, which wants to extend its greedy grip into the new educational wing. (I actually want to take this opportunity to let Carnegie Hall's HR Department know that I am more than willing to do the job for half of their mid-six-figure salary, although I may have to revise that since one of the ushers has just confided to me he'd do it for a quarter of it). Frankly, after hearing that the all-Sibelius concert by the Minnesota Orchestra in early November had also been cancelled due to some lingering internal disputes, a couple of friends and I were simply relieved that the Mariinsky Orchestra actually bothered to show up and stay on for their fabulous all-Stravinsky program.
Studiously stoic during the disturbance, Valery Gergiev apparently did not let any of the unrest get to him as he confidently launched a vividly colorful performance of The Firebird, 1910 version. A long-time remarkable ensemble in their own right, the Mariinsky Orchestra’s international prestige has been increasingly solidified through an even more far-reaching exposure under the fiercely dedicated leadership of their artistic director and conductor. Therefore, it is not surprising that the pretty much seamless osmosis among them produced a thoroughly exciting performance, during which all the instrumental sections, from the glowing violins to the elating woodwinds, got a chance to shine. Although this was still fairly conventional Stravinsky, the orchestra made sure to enhance the inherent magic of the fairy tale.
The idea of having the three widely different and constantly challenging scores that Stravinsky composed for the Ballets Russes in Paris presented in chronological order was both obvious and brilliant. And if the musicians resented being put through such a relentless grinder, they did not let it show and gamely played on with awe-inspiring stamina. Next was Pétrouchka, whose music powerfully suggests the child-like directness of the emotions newly acquired by the Russian folk puppet. Far from being a heart-warming tale, Pétrouchka may rile for its biting sarcasm, but it impresses first and foremost for its musical boldness, which the orchestra fully embraced.
After those two preparatory works, we finally got to the mighty Rite of Spring, which still manages to sound as fresh and innovative as ever, even as it has been celebrating the 200th anniversary of its sulfurous premiere this year. Probably connecting with the score in their very own visceral Russian way, the musicians went far beyond the typical pounding contest that can become Stravinsky's irreversibly ground-breaking work, and superbly brought out not only its famous deep-rooted primitivism, but also the inner delicacy of its more subtle passages. Led by a deeply committed master of Russian music, the performance of this giant leap into modernism was both organic and polished.
You would think that after this Stravinsky marathon, conductor and orchestra would be ready to pack up and leave. Not so. The real surprise of the evening happened when Valery Gergiev turned to the audience and announced that in honor of Verdi's 200th birthday, they would perform the overture to La Forza del Destino. So we just sat back down and happily enjoyed this dashing Italian nightcap before everybody eventually, if reluctantly, left the hall.