New York’s two resident maestros, James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera and Lorin Maazel at the Philharmonic, have hardly been idle in getting the new music season under way, but even those notorious workaholics seem lazy compared with Valery Gergiev. The Russian conductor, who has been presiding over performances of La Traviata and the Stravinsky triple bill at the Met as well as an ambitious concert series with his own Kirov Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, has had few free evenings lately. Having tagged along with him for most of his ride in New York, I can report that the trip was seldom dull—even when the going got rather bumpy. Gergiev is famous for his impromptu work methods and a conducting style that some orchestral musicians find inscrutable—I’m not sure how I would respond to such a complex code of nervous finger-twitching. But when the chemistry between him and the musicians works, something memorable almost always happens.
It certainly did on the afternoon of Sunday, October 5, when the Kirov Orchestra presented Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, a rare concert performance of the complete ballet. Everything about this inspired score literally plays into Gergiev’s hands: the dazzling instrumental colors, the expressive gestures, the rhythmic vitality, the rapid-fire sequence of so many genres and musical moods. No ballet pit orchestra could possibly match the Kirov’s virtuosity in this music, and perhaps no Western ensemble would make it sound quite so authentic. While most orchestras now seem interchangeable in matters of instrumental technique and style, the Kirov still cultivates a traditional Russian sonority characterized by a wide brass vibrato and tightly focused string tone, a vibrant sound that was surely in Prokofiev’s ear.
It’s no surprise that Gergiev, who seems to value the inspiration of the moment more than many of his colleagues, gets his most impressive results with the orchestra that knows him best. His work at the Metropolitan has so far been wildly erratic, and the Stravinsky triple bill, which includes works from three distinct stylistic periods in the composer’s life, epitomized that inconsistency. The neoclassical design and the clarity that so vividly define Oedipus Rex failed to materialize in the Metropolitan’s hesitantly conceived, loosely played interpretation. Yet the orchestra’s performance of The Rite of Spring fairly crackled with the sort of rude energy, jagged rhythmic crisscross, and primal ecstasy that makes this seminal twentieth-century classic still sound contemporary.
Gergiev responded most readily to Le Rossignol, capturing the impressionistic mistiness and the delicate chinoiserie of a score that weaves song, dance, and instrumental gossamer into an enchanting confection. It’s been nearly twenty years since this production of Stravinsky was last seen at the Met, a provocative entertainment that shows the composer donning many masks. Most of the magic is provided by David Hockney’s bewitching sets and costumes. What a pleasure to experience this Le Rossignol once again, with its gorgeous drop curtain, redolent with watery symbolism as it billows down from the flies whenever the Fisherman steps forward to propound a tender morality. Or to see those delightfully grotesque Chinese death masks suddenly reverse to show expressions of joy as the cured emperor rises to greet his subjects. The Oedipus Rex is equally ingenious, with its massive central column (an extension of the Met’s own fluted, bronze proscenium arch) separating two blood-red triangular doorways—the perfect space for Stravinsky’s relentless “geometry of tragedy.”
The only major disappointment in the current revival is Doug Varone’s lame new choreography for the Rite, which generates all the barbaric power and dangerous ritual of a seemingly endless high-school track meet. Luckily, however, the casts for the two operas are uniformly excellent; tenor Barry Banks is a particularly plaintive lyrical Fisherman, and soprano Olga Trifonova’s exquisitely turned vocal arabesques are ideally complimented by Julie Kent’s liquidly danced onstage Nightingale.
Meanwhile, back in Carnegie Hall, Gergiev and his Kirov forces led the charge on a second big Russian orchestral showcase, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, describing the siege of Leningrad in 1941. I’d rather they had played the composer’s next symphony, a far more probing piece and probably the most devastating statement Shostakovich ever made about the destructive side of man’s nature. For all that, No. 7 makes a grand noise, and Gergiev knows precisely when to turn up the volume and let her rip. It’s perhaps significant that the Western conductors who rushed to program the piece back in wartime—most notably Arturo Toscanini, who conducted the American premiere in 1942—gladly put it aside when peace came, and of course Bartók wickedly parodied the big march tune in his Concerto for Orchestra. No matter. The Kirov gave its all and only an unforgiving musical ascetic would want to forgo this performance’s adrenaline rush.
Speaking of Romeo and Juliet, Lorin Maazel made his contribution to the Berlioz bicentenary by conducting the New York Philharmonic in three performances of what the composer styled “a dramatic symphony after Shakespeare’s tragedy.” There’s no explaining why this disheveled score casts such a spell—a love duet without voices, two Queen Mab scherzos, a grand-opera finale over the lovers’ corpses that makes Meyerbeer sound puny—but the music seems to get closer to the spirit of the Bard than any of the operas on the subject. In their very different ways, Charles Munch and Colin Davis have conveyed all the poetry, passion, and fantasy at work here, qualities that Maazel never once suggested in his earthbound reading. It was typical of what one hears when the Philharmonic plays these days: astonishing feats of orchestral legerdemain that seem to serve no expressive purpose whatsoever as one soullessly turned phrase follows another. Apparently the Philharmonic adores its new music director. If only some of that warmth and feeling could be channeled into its music-making.