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S & H International Concert Review


KIROV AT CARNEGIE HALL: Opening Night Gala of Carnegie Hall's 113th Season Wagner, Lalo, Rimsky-Korsakov, Maxim Vengerov (violin), Valery Gergiev (conductor), Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, Carnegie Hall, October 1, 2003 (BH)

 

I confess that this entirely commendable concert, which I had been anticipating all week, left me slightly disappointed -- only because in recent years the heady experiences with this often-brilliant conductor and his splendid group have given me a huge amount of pleasure. As Gergiev strode out, dressed in his trademark black shirt and jacket, the audience acknowledged his reputation with a loud ovation as he took his place -- interestingly, standing squarely on the floor without a traditional podium. Whatever his intention, it was a gesture that seemed to create a more direct, immediate feel, both with the audience and no doubt with the orchestra.

A serene and majestic opener, Wagner's Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin made me highly curious to hear Gergiev's complete Ring cycle, which he premiered last summer in St. Petersburg and will do in Baden-Baden in January 2004. Although the conductor has resolutely made his mark in Russian repertoire, he clearly loves Wagner and this care was summoned here as well.

I am probably not the best person to comment on Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole, a piece that generally leaves me cold. But in this case, it would be hard to stay frigid when the violinist is Maxim Vengerov, in my book one of the top two or three violinists in the world. This performance included the middle "Intermezzo" movement, often omitted, but most welcome; even a Lalo Grouse like me couldn't figure out why someone would not want to include it. Throughout, Mr. Vengerov appeared to be almost chuckling, dashing through the sometimes staggeringly difficult skittering passages, as if daring any of us to dispatch them with similar ease. This was a gutsy performance that was often just plain fun. Further, he often seemed to be playing like two completely different violinists. His tenderness during the penultimate "Andante" was delicious, but in the final "Rondo" he seemed to change into a more spiky character, and added even more ferocity.

In the ever-popular Scheherazade, there were gorgeous moments throughout, but the performance made me mull over what I had discussed with friends last week about Lorin Maazel (Hartke and Mahler), and the opinion of some who feel he occasionally pulls the musical line out of shape. I'm not sure I agree with the assessment of Maazel, but I felt some of that tendency last night. Somehow the performance just never soared, despite Gergiev's confidence in launching into the dramatic unison opening, and some vivid work by the orchestra. The guest principal violin, Ilya Konovalov, was pretty rapturous, with his sweetly expressive, meditative solos filling the warm Carnegie space. His success was especially notable since he was given the daunting assignment of following Vengerov, whose fireworks just a few minutes earlier were no doubt still ringing in the ears of many listeners. But the first two sections of the piece had a few ensemble intonation problems here and there, and somehow seemed slightly stalled, although the final chord at the end of "The Tale of the Kalendar Prince" was nailed with a visceral precision.

By the time we arrived at "The Young Prince and the Young Princess," with a somewhat slower tempo than usual, the orchestra seemed a bit more comfortable and relaxed. The cello section sang, really outdoing itself here. Gergiev launched into the final "Festival at Baghdad" at a speed that astonished me; I didn't think the orchestra could maintain definition, but I was mistaken, and there were again many fine effects, with some particularly haunting clarinet and flute work. The enthusiastic percussion players also seemed to be having a grand time in "The Ship Wrecked on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior," with gleaming gong and cymbals. But overall the performance seemed merely good, rather than spectacular. (Having just heard this group over the summer sounding glorious in operas at Lincoln Center, I know they are capable of astonishing heights.)

Gergiev is known for his ambitious scheduling, and is currently conducting La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera in between these performances. Whether this demanding routine is fatiguing or invigorating him seems unclear at the moment, but in any case, he remains overall one of the world's most electric conductors. I am hoping that the next two concerts -- the first with Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony and then Prokofiev's complete Romeo and Juliet -- may prove even more compelling.

The opening night audience was remarkably considerate. As Konovalov and the orchestra floated Scheherazade's final chords, Gergiev held his hands aloft in blissful silence for a few seconds -- and not even a cough, anywhere in the hall. Only when he relaxed his arms did the applause begin. I wish there a way to encourage more of this behavior! Then two trumpet players sneaked onstage -- background activity that always makes me smile since it indicates more music is coming up. Not many conductors seem to bother with encores any more, at least here in New York, but Gergiev is usually very generous in this regard. It's a tradition I greatly enjoy, and on this night we got the famous waltz from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty.

Bruce Hodges


 

 


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