Music review: Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Kennedy Center

GRANDIOSE: Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra and three choruses in Mahler's Eighth Symphony at the Kennedy Center.
GRANDIOSE: Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra and three choruses in Mahler's Eighth Symphony at the Kennedy Center. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010

Valery Gergiev is a conductor for our time. His is a multi-tasking, Internet-linked approach to music. He likes it loud and flashy; he loves big events; and he really prefers scheduling that other conductors would go out of their way to avoid.

In March, you'll remember, he offered Prokofiev's mammoth opera "War and Peace" and a run of concerts at the Kennedy Center at the same time he was conducting Shostakovich's "The Nose" at the Metropolitan Opera and Berlioz's "Les Troyens" at Carnegie Hall. This extends musical endurance almost to the level of a hot-dog-eating competition: It becomes about stuffing in as much as possible.

So doing a selection of Mahler's sprawling symphonies at Carnegie Hall (six in five concerts), a 4 1/2 -hour opera at the Metropolitan Opera ("Boris Godunov") and hopping down to the Kennedy Center for one of the biggest pieces in the repertory is right up his alley.

On Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, he offered Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand," and one felt he might really have been happier if there actually were a thousand people before him onstage, rather than -- according to the Washington Performing Arts Society's president, Neale Perl -- a mere 300 or so. On Wednesday, he was scheduled to return to Carnegie Hall for Mahler's Second Symphony, or "Resurrection," another behemoth, followed by another Eighth on Thursday. On Monday, he conducted "Boris Godunov." In short: just the kind of week Gergiev likes.

All that helps fuel a kind of surface excitement that's Gergiev's stock in trade. There's so much going on, so much loudness and brightness and sparkle, that it can be positively beguiling. After all, we want music to be exciting, to reach us viscerally, to move away from the ivory tower and the realm of the cerebral. Gergiev does this in spades.

The massed forces onstage Tuesday -- including a chorus from Spain, the Orfeón Pamplonés; two choruses from Washington, the Choral Arts Society (featured on his recent recording of the piece) and the Children's Chorus of Washington; eight vocal soloists; and the Mariinsky Orchestra -- echoed the aesthetic of a May Day parade, all in black and white and red, the children, like Young Pioneers, raising their hands to their faces when they sang as if giving out battle calls. (They sang robustly, and very well.)

It's a bit of a circus; and maybe that made it a good echo of the charms of Mahler's Eighth, the most elusive and in many ways biggest and brashest of his symphonies. The Eighth juxtaposes a Latin hymn text with the last section of Goethe's "Faust," and yet it flows more directly than some of Mahler's other purely instrumental works. It might switch from a tenor aria to an orchestral interlude, but less often from a funeral march to a folk dance. Think of wall murals by Gustav Klimt -- golden and shimmering and epic -- and you'll have the idea (and the period; the symphony was premiered in 1910).

The whole thing is so big and overblown, it hovers just on the good edge of parody.

If these are wall murals, Gergiev knows the contours of the room. He can sweep in and find a telling moment (the Spanish chorus's pointillistic entrance, the words like little crisp mosaic tiles of sound; the round warmth of the horns, like oil, antiphonally echoing a melodic phrase from Avgust Amonov, the rather ragged-sounding tenor). His orchestra plays with color and personality -- husky strings, golden brass -- though in places it sounded tarnished. And some of the soloists -- notably the baritone Alexei Markov and the clear, luminous soprano Anastasia Kalagina -- were excellent.

But the down side of Gergiev's hasty approach is a seat-of-the-pants quality that yields, at times, pure sloppiness, as if sound were crashing and careening off the walls. This half-improvisatory air might be a source of some of the performance's excitement. But it would be nice to hear what the orchestra could do if, rather than pulling a performance out of a hat, it actually gave two or three days of careful rehearsal to a single concert. On Gergiev's calendar, though, that's just not possible.

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