It was not without irony that Russian maestro Valery Gergiev was conducting Russian classics by Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich for his two concert evenings in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Gergiev is principal conductor at the London Symphony Orchestra and artistic-general director of the storied Mariinsky Theatre, is a longstanding guest conductor with the Fab Phils.
He has been fielding criticicism where ever he appears lately for his reported close association with Vladimir Putin. In front of the Kimmel Center there were protests against the maestro and Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine. Gergiev’s association with Putin has also ignited protest by gay rights groups who accused him of being anti-gay, a charge he flatly denies, claiming publicly that he was, in fact, for worldwide pro-GLBTQ rights.
Whatever the political truths, concert-goers can’t ignore these issues and decide for themselves if they are making a statement by not going because of the actions, or reputed actions of one player. Gergiev is not the only person on that stage. There are the musicians, the technicians, the theater employees and, indeed, the long gone composers, who in fact were making statements about living under the iron fist of Stalin.
A discussion for a separate article.
Meanwhile, back to the musical ironies, both Prokofiev and Shostakovich worked with impunity under the Soviet Composer’s Union, a censoring mechanism of Stalin who was in control of the Iron Curtain play list. But both composers knew how to disguise the free-expression of their music, below the sanctioned surface.
Gergiev hustled onstage without much of a nod to the audience and he did look distracted (at least) for the opening work Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, and the Moderato opening movement sounded rushed and under-powered. Deeper in the piece, Stravinsky’s razor sharp orchestral turns fueled its surface luster. But this work is more of a pastiche (if witty) Stravinsky, with a quality of a warmed over ballet score. Its balance proved an erratic performance for Gergiev, with hazy mis-en-scenes crowding out more potent sections. Through its bouncy coherence, Peter Smith’s oboe swirled masterfully around all of the orchestral filigrees.
Sharper focus and intensity came with Shoshtakovich’s Symphony no. 9. In a controlled and completely thrilling symphonic arc. Perfect and vital volume fluctuations and striations of the lower strings with Gergiev accenting the Russian effects of fuller bowing. All of the woodwinds stellar and Daniel Matsukawa essaying a solo bassoon line with profound, penetrating clarity, floating over shadowy strings. A passage so intimate that its humanist intent was probably a complete enigma to the Soviet censors.
The capper actually proved to be Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5. Gergiev seeming to go for every detail with attack and clarity- summoning crystallized brass swallowing counter-melodies and clashing against Prokofiev’s cascading strings. Pianist Kiyoko Takeuti ‘s masterful on the composer’s dodgy piano voicings, not to mention the steel chamber violin leads by David Kim. A triumphal performance without doubt. When the maestro finally faced the audience at the end, as the lusty ovation thundered in, he seemed to finally breathe.