Mariinsky Orchestra at George Mason University

Mariinsky conductor Valery Gergiev.
Mariinsky conductor Valery Gergiev. (Courtesy Mariinsky Theatre)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

Valery Gergiev's right hand inhabits a world of its own. Most conductors' hands work independently of each other, but the very fingers of Gergiev's right hand appear to be on separate tracks, pursuing thoughts and ideas within the music that are not necessarily even audible. The hand supplies its own subtext. It dances, mesmerizing and odd, like a peculiarly agile crab. And it did so especially in excerpts from Prokofiev's "Cinderella" Suite, which opened Gergiev's performance with the Mariinsky Orchestra -- still generally known by its Soviet name, Kirov -- at George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Friday night.

The program was at once heavily Russian and determinedly innocuous, both artistically and politically. The political part is worth noting, since Gergiev, who has led the orchestra for 20 years, took a determined pro-Russian stance in the conflict with Georgia this summer: He performed with the orchestra on the steps of the bombed-out parliament building of South Ossetia -- he is himself of Ossetian heritage -- in memory of those who had died in the five-day conflict, while Georgian villages literally burned in the background.

On Friday, the Russianness was restricted to the playing style -- thick and rich, and a little nonchalant -- and the nationality of the featured composer, Prokofiev. The only message to be read in the programming of the "Cinderella" Suite No. 3, Op. 9, and Act 3 of "Romeo and Juliet" is that New York's Lincoln Center is in the midst of a Prokofiev festival, and the orchestra came to Washington between appearances there. As often happens, Washington got a rather defanged encapsulation of the New York programs, which included more challenging pieces such as the "Scythian" Suite and excerpts from the seldom-played ballet "Le Pas d'Acier." By contrast, Friday's program yielded another, inadvertent message: This much ballet music without the Mariinsky dancers, however idiomatically played, is an awful lot of ballet music.

Leavening the mix was Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto: It, too, had a Russian accent, the heavy flow of the orchestra supporting the firework fingers of the soloist, Alexei Volodin, a frequent Gergiev collaborator. The piano, which appeared to be an American Steinway, produced a jarring metallic tinkle in the top notes, though Volodin did his best to turn it into something more malleable. The result was enjoyable, though more as a showcase for the players than for Beethoven.

Gergiev projects a sense of spontaneity, even informality, especially in GMU's shallow, modern concert hall, standing among his musicians without benefit of podium or baton. Certainly "Cinderella" kept making unexpected turns, the lacquer-rich strings suddenly going bright and glassy; the percussion offering, in cartoonlike slow motion, the ticking of the threatening clock. In "Romeo and Juliet," the playing seesawed between mastery and routine. The winds' entrance with the love theme at one point sounded like a yawn, and the concertmaster, far from embodying the romantic ideals about Russian violinists, played peremptorily in a couple of his solos. Offering a whole act of this piece, rather than the more familiar concert excerpts, is a mixed blessing; you get the dramatic integrity of the work but also fewer highlights and slower pacing. Even Gergiev's right hand was subdued, by the end, into something approaching conservatism.

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