Gergiev’s Gripping Shostakovich with Mariinsky Orchestra in Chapel Hill

By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Chapel Hill, NC – University of North Carolina – Memorial Hall

On October 30, 2012, Carolina Performing Arts presented the Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, in the second of two back-to-back concerts. The orchestra and the conductor again upheld their well-deserved stature in an all-Russian program (a different set of Russian works was on the program the previous night).

The 1,400-seat hall was filled to capacity. The big draw ostensibly was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but the audience gave its warmest and most intense applause to a gripping performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra

Gergiev immediately established his connection with the music, leading the players in the quietly emotional first movement, a Largo of nearly 20 minutes that uses a minimum of melodic material for fascinating variations employing a wide range of wind and brass solos and duets. Gergiev gave it an unbroken arc that held attention throughout. The Allegro second movement skipped along jauntily, exploring all the little side trails of animated phrases, while the Presto third movement sped dizzily forward in circus-like merriment, ending with a brilliant blaze of percussion and brass in the finale.

Watching Gergiev signal the various hairpin cues and subtle dynamic changes was an entertainment in itself. The orchestra’s supremely confident, virtuosic performance made it hard to imagine a more exciting second half.

Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Home of the Mariinsky Orchestra

And, indeed, it was not. The U.S. premiere of Rodion Shchedrin’s “Cleopatra and the Snake” gave soprano Ekaterina Goncharova an opportunity to show off her impressive breath control and appealing tones as she easily negotiated the composer’s penchant for long-held notes on one syllable. The text by Boris Pasternak (based on Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”) has the Egyptian queen speak bitter and resolute thoughts of death as she summons the snake to do her bidding. Shchedrin uses darkly moody underpinnings for the vocal lines, interrupted by military fanfares, to good effect, but the short piece doesn’t retain much interest with so many unrelenting, drawn-out vocal lines.

The performance of Rite was highly anticipated not only because of the performers but also as a final flourish for an international multi-day conference on campus celebrating the 100th anniversary of the work. The orchestra played the piece with expected authority and precision, but Gergiev’s involvement and connection seemed the total opposite of that in the Shostakovich. He kept tight reigns on the rhythms and phrasings, taming the score’s inherently raucous edge into a machine-like performance of smooth regularity, giving the impression that he simply wanted to the get the thing over with. The percussion and brass again blazed out impressively and created huge walls of sound where needed, but for all the performance’s finesse, the lack of visceral excitement seemed quite odd.

Nonetheless, audiences in the Triangle (Chapel Hill-Durham-Raleigh) are lucky to have such rich classical music fare. Thanks to Emil Kang, head of Carolina Performing Arts, we’ve had Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra three years out of the last five, each visit with two concerts offering different programming. Chapel Hill’s stop was the fourth in a planned five-city tour and the only one with two nights of concerts (unfortunately, Hurricane Sandy caused the cancellation of the orchestra’s final stop at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on October 31st).

Despite the disappointing Rite, this concert was worth the trip, not only for the thrilling Shostakovich but also to experience a truly world-class ensemble.