The Russian maestro Valery Gergiev has never been a stranger to controversy. Whether he actively courts it or not, Gergiev, the director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Orchestra, has been one of the most idiosyncratic conductors of his or any other era. Now in his sixtieth year, the eccentric Gergiev is touring North America yet again with the Mariinsky, and their stop at Chicago's Orchestra Hall brought a remarkably ambitious program to town: a complete performance of Igor Stravinsky's three most seminal scores, the ballets The Firebird, Petroushka, and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). A concert could easily feature any one of these and would draw an enthusiastic audience. But to feature a Stravinsky-thon of all three in their entirety made the concert, even before it began, one of the most exciting prospective attractions on the classical calendar this year.
The Mariinsky orchestra no doubt can perform this music in their sleep, but their performance in Chicago could hardly be described as soporific. The evening reached its high point at its beginning, with The Firebird. One could not ask for more ideal playing than that of the orchestra in the early stages of the ballet score. The score, which features a fairly steady dynamic and color for its first two thirds, was beautifully modulated, not at all “soft-pedaled,” particularly in the strings, who produced a superlative sound throughout the night and, despite the prominence given, both in Stravinsky's scores and Gergiev's conducting, to the horn sections, clearly ran away with the evening. At times, the score seemed to dance above the heads of the audience. In the two most famous and intense passages, such as the “Infernal Dance of All of Kaschei's Men”, perhaps the most exciting four and a half minutes in music, and the climactic final scene, one of the great concluding acts in music, we got a preview of what was to come, as the orchestra's tempo was blazing, the ferocity and intensity of all the players, particularly in the horns, was ratcheted to a fevered pitch (and pace.)
The concert continued with a full presentation of Stravinsky's 1911 ballet, Petroushka. Gergiev emerged from the wings and, without seeming to break stride, launched the orchestra into the frenetic opening. The players were ready, but their interpretation of the piece was simply too wild, too rushed in the fast parts, and too soft in most of the quieter moments. Gergiev seemed intent on extracting a performance not unlike an unstable EKG from his musicians, demanding furious crescendos from the brass and breathlessly rapid playing from the winds. This trend continued into the orchestra's performance of Rite of Spring. Rite is one of the most important and spectacular works of art created in the twentieth century, or, for that matter, in all of music; celebrating its centennial this year, the work is (to those who know it well) a work which rewards many returns no matter how familiar one is with it. It is a demanding score, and conductors often have to be responsible for protecting the orchestra, as if they were nearing the edge of a cliff. Gergiev went the opposite direction and pushed the orchestra toward the precipice about as far as any conductor possibly could; it was like night and day to compare the performance, perhaps unfairly, with Charles Dutoit's same conducting of the piece at the same venue with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a performance I had a chance to see in person last year. Clearly, Gergiev was interested in emphasizing the violence of the work; the score's climaxes were faster and more furious than I could have imagined them being and, in my opinion, far more so than would be advisable.
Despite the orchestra's incredible facility (much more so given what they were put through), Gergiev's role in directing the Mariinsky remains inescapable in discussing the overall outcome. Conducting without a podium, using a small baton (he sometimes employs a toothpick), the maestro's idiosyncrasies are what shone through the most. The audience, at least those familiar with Gergiev, should not have been surprised, yet I seemed to register it among many in attendance. The audience was in a near state of shock, particularly after the bone crunching performance of Le Sacre that literally shook the floors. The ferocity of the orchestra was something to see (I don't think I'll ever forget the twin kettle drummers, banging away with a controlled fury), but that didn't mean it was great music-making. Why Gergiev put his players through the ringer, I don't know. Perhaps he didn't want a complacent, automaton-like interpretation; perhaps he wanted to wear the orchestra and the audience out (he succeeded on this one); perhaps he wanted to see if the string players could set their instruments on fire if the played fast enough. Whatever the case may be, I hope that, with the exception of The Firebird, this was not an introduction to Stravinsky for most of the audience members. As for those who are seasoned in Stravinsky, privilege though it was to see Gergiev and the Mariinsky, it was a night we won't soon forget, though perhaps not for all the right reasons.