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Music review: Gergiev in Orange County and the Valley

October 19, 2011 |  3:01 pm

Valery Gergiev
Valery Gergiev does not exhibit the traits of a patient man. But he is an extraordinarily patient artist, as his restlessly urgent but also relentlessly probing recent concerts with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in Costa Mesa and Northridge certainly proved.

The miraculous Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, which Gergiev has headed since 1988, obviously hasn’t become Russia’s most thriving cultural institution by standing still. He tours with his company, and fund-raises for it, compulsively. He recently built a celebrated new concert hall in St. Petersburg and has a second opera house for the opera and ballet company under construction. He has made the Mariinsky the centerpiece of one of the world’s great music festivals, White Nights.

Compulsive, indeed. Gergiev also heads festivals in Finland, the Netherlands and Israel. He is music director of the London Symphony. He has begun record labels at the LSO and the Mariinsky. This summer he added the Tchaikovsky International Competition to his portfolio, bringing a new luster to Russia's fabled but faded contests in piano, violin and voice.

Yet what his concerts here proved — and especially his performances of four Tchaikovsky symphonies at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall on Thursday and Monday — is that Gergiev has slowly, unwaveringly and, yes, patiently, built an orchestra with a uniquely powerful and soulful sound. Through tireless repetition, he has just as patiently explored new depths in Russian classics.

Monday’s Segerstrom program of Tchaikovsky’s Third and Fourth symphonies had all the greatness of Gergiev’s performances of the Second and Fifth the previous week (ever on the go, the Mariinsky ran through all six symphonies in between). At the Valley Performing Arts Center, the Mariinsky focused on youthful works by Russian composers written in the early 20th century — Stravinsky’s “Firebird” Suite, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s First Symphony.

Gergiev’s Tchaikovsky was on fire. Heaven knows how many times has he performed the Fourth Symphony. But he seems never to tire of his mission to bring life to Russian art, and this Fourth had a passionate cogency that would be hard to find anywhere else. It was also played with dark, bass-intense instrumental colors.

Gergiev has lately turned his attention to buying better instruments to enhance the Mariinsky sound. Although he is sometimes criticized for hobnobbing with Russia’s ruling elite and oligarchs, he does so with a purpose. The Mariinsky now has an enviable collection of great instruments, and it shows.

The Mariinsky sound in the Valley, though, was not as fulfilling. This is far and away the most important orchestra to play in the year-old hall, which I’ve found satisfyingly transparent, if a tad dry, from seats somewhat back from the stage. Listening, though, to a very liquid “Firebird” and Prokofiev’s concerto, with Alexander Toradze as soloist, from a row very close to the stage was not always pleasant.

The incredibly ethereal pianissimos that Gergiev achieved in Stravinsky’s ballet score hovered magically. Solo wind passages were robust. But when Gergiev pushed in climaxes, the Mariinsky’s sound was not, as in Segerstrom, even more than the sum of its parts.

Toradze and Gergiev are old friends who have performed together hundreds of times. They are also close in age and geographical background (Gergiev was born in 1953 and grew up in Ossetia, Toradze is a year older and from neighboring Georgia). Toradze can be impulsive. In the lyrical middle part of the concerto’s last movement, he was as if lost in rapturous reverie, then woke with an ants-in-his-pants thrilling percussiveness.

Gergiev read the pianist’s mind, and as wild or extreme as Toradze was, he sounded as though he were part of the orchestra. But from my seat, he sounded too much part of the orchestra, since the piano appeared to project over my head and to the rear of the hall.

For Shostakovich’s First Symphony I moved back — despite what should have been a tremendous draw, the hall was not, unlike in Orange County, full. The acoustical improvement was significant enough to restore much of the Mariinsky's visceral punch.

Shostakovich’s symphony is quite early (the composer was 19) and precocious. As Gergiev did with the early Tchaikovsky symphonies, he maintained a serious, heavy (and, as his trademark, vibrating) hand. He emphasized everything that was modern about the score. The hints of the later Shostakovich’s grotesqueries and spiritual anguish were no longer hints but the troubling mood swings of a composer who had his own issues with patience.

Gergiev gets it and made sure we got it too — in the solar plexus.


Music review: Gergiev & Mariinsky play Tchaikovsky at Segerstrom

Music review: Valery Gergiev conducts Mahler with the Mariinsky

Review: Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony in Costa Mesa

— Mark Swed

Photo: Valery Gergiev with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall Thursday night. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times.