Tireless Trotters, Mariinsky Shines In Stravinsky Bill

Valery Gergiev led the Mariinsky Orchestra in an enterprising survey of early and middle-period Stravinsky on a stop during another never-ending tour. (Luis Luque)

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. – As he flits from city to city, Valery Gergiev continues to live by the credo of his good friend and fellow workaholic Plácido Domingo – “If I rest, I rust.” When not running his multi-pronged Mariinsky Theatre operation and guest conducting all over the place, Gergiev is still pushing his hard-working Mariinsky Orchestra around the globe, playing a staggeringly diverse variety of programs.

Sometimes the results are galvanic. Other times, they can be numbingly routine. Given their breakneck schedule, this shouldn’t be a shock. Fortunately, as the Mariinsky’s latest swing through California neared its end on Oct. 25 in the wilds of Northridge deep in the San Fernando Valley, we caught a good one.

Northridge’s Valley Performing Arts Center, now renamed as The Soraya.

The orchestra landed on the campus of Cal State University, Northridge in a relatively new (opened in 2011) venue that just changed its name to The Soraya after a $17 million gift from Younes and Soraya Nazarian (until this year, it was called the Valley Performing Arts Center, a rather generic name that probably will not be missed). The Mariinsky was the first major classical orchestra to play in this excellent-sounding, modified-shoe-box-shaped 1,700-seat hall a few months after it opened – and they returned with a particularly refreshing all-Stravinsky program.

And not just the usual Stravinsky, either. Whenever Gergiev ventures into the world of his expatriate countryman, it usually means early Russo-centric works like The Firebird or The Rite Of Spring, or the rare Le Rossignol, which I heard him play in New York back in the summer of 1996. But this program, while including early works, also ventured deeply into Stravinsky’s long neo-classical period, providing a more rounded, if not quite all-inclusive, survey of this chameleonic cosmopolitan giant. It also had a local component, for some of this music was composed right here in Los Angeles, where Stravinsky settled for nearly 30 years when World War II drove him out of Europe for keeps.

Stravinsky conducting in 1965. (Dutch National Archives)

The rarest work on tap was the Symphony in C, which hardly anyone plays in live performance these days. The piece straddles the time just before World War II when Stravinsky was in transition between Paris and the United States. Program commentators love to point out that while the piece was written during a terrible time for Stravinsky – driven into exile again, losing his wife and daughter to tuberculosis, and nearly losing his own life as well – the music shows no signs of the stress. I disagree.

During one climactic passage in the first movement, you can hear the desperation breaking through the neat neo-classical textures in leaping minor-key salvos. Gergiev was only too willing to bring the angst of this passage out in full force, and you could sense the unease simmering underneath the surface elsewhere.

Earlier in the program, there was the contrasting Symphony in Three Movements, a wartime piece of powerful rhythms and, in the first movement, slashing violin strokes that have supplied John Adams with a lot of material over the years (which is only fair, since Stravinsky himself was one of the greatest thieving magpies of all time). Right in the middle of the mix was the Violin Concerto, a neo-classical treat that splashes icy water in the faces of those who like their concertos full of virtuoso tricks and flights.

At this juncture, we have to give Gergiev and his touring orchestra many points for enterprise while casting a skeptical ear toward interpretation. During the neo-classical phase of his career, Stravinsky had distanced himself considerably from the lavish colors of his popular early ballets. The writing was leaner, more transparent, the language less tied to a particular country while retaining the acidic Stravinsky harmonic flavors and rhythmic dislocations. Gergiev got the rhythms going good and strong, but poured on the heavy Russian sauce, using all of his large orchestra to pound his way through a lot of music that ought to have a lighter touch.

Baráti played Stravinsky’s spiky Violin Concerto. (Marco Borggreve)

As a result, the tempos in the third movement of the Symphony in Three Movements tended to lumber along, but Gergiev’s patience ultimately paid off with a great splash in that final razzmatazz chord that allegedly celebrates the Allied victory in World War II. The Violin Concerto was laid out thickly, heavily, very much on-the-string by the orchestra, and the 39-year-old Hungarian violin soloist Kristóf Baráti did likewise, following up with the Courante from J.S Bach’s Partita in D minor in which his tone finally could be heard in full bloom.

The remaining two early works, however, found Gergiev and the Mariinsky on firmer ground, where they sounded far more at home. Fireworks was a rollicking fast-paced delight, with textures surprisingly more transparent than in any of the neo-classical pieces. The 1919 Firebird Suite – which Gergiev and company also played here in 2011 – was broadly expressive in the “Firebird Dance,” “Round Dance of the Princesses,” and “Berceuse” (yes, they can play really, really softly when they want to), and the Infernal Dance was sensationally explosive. The personnel of the orchestra looks even younger than what I recall from previous visits – and thick blunt force and all, they do play well, even when tested with the fleet filigrees in the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that served as an encore.

Afterwards, would Gergiev and the Mariinsky give themselves a well-deserved break? Are you kidding?

There is just no stopping the ever-peripatetic Gergiev. (Luis Luque)

They went straight to Mexico City on Oct. 27 for a program of opera excerpts topped off by Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. The next day (Oct. 28) they flew back across the border to Lincoln, Neb., with Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Then without a pause for breath, on to Kansas City, Oct. 29 (same program as Lincoln); Fort Lauderdale, Oct. 30 (Tchaikovsky Nutcracker, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3); two nights in Carnegie Hall, Oct. 31 (Nutcracker) and Nov. 1 (Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, Richard Strauss Ein Heldenleben); the Tilles Center in Greenvale, Nov. 2 (same as Nov. 1); and finally the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Nov. 3 (same as Lincoln) before heading off to an all-Tchaikovsky jet-lag concert in London on Nov. 5. Good thing these musicians are young so they can keep up the pace with their tireless 65-year-old leader.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide, the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America and contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America. He also wrote the Stravinsky chapter in the book, Third Ear: The Essential Listening Companion: Classical Music (Backbeat Books).