Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

All Around the Town

October 19, 2011

Valery Gergiev and members of the Mariinsky Orchestra. Photo: mine 2011
Southern California was one of the many regions on the Mariinsky Orchestra’s current tour of the United States with their long-time music director Valery Gergiev. But, of course, Southern California always manages to put its own unique decentralized stamp on things so the three programs offered on this tour promoting the Mariinsky’s latest release of Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, and 6 involved performances in two different locations over 2 hours apart by car spread over 6 days. Plus, a three-day trip to the bay area was sandwiched in between the first and second programs and, unlike other cities on the tour, the local concert stops did not include performances of either Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 or No. 6. But no matter. The Tchaikovsky they delivered was spectacular and thrilling, and everything else provided plenty of interesting listening.

I missed out on the first show of the Southern California set, which was sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County last Thursday, while I was in New York. The Philharmonic Society has enjoyed a close relationship with the Mariinsky Orchestra over the last few years and the orchestra played a big role in the inauguration of the Segerstrom Concert Hall in 2006. So it's a special occasion when Gergiev and his players return there and the second program on Monday, which included Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4, showed off how well things have gone for the hall in the last five years. It was wonder of a program and it sounded great in the space. American audiences in particular may be prone to overlook Tchaikovsky’s Russian heritage. His romantic works are so omnipresent that their familiarity breeds a certain contempt at times among some classical music fans. But if there is any orchestra in the world that can put the Russia back in Tchaikovsky, it’s the Mariinsky players, and Gergiev led these two symphonies in a performance unlike just about any other you’re likely to hear. The rough-hewn, sometimes severe take on even the smallest details imbues the symphonies with an almost folk music-like air. The slow movements have a mournfulness that one might not always think of in these very pretty pieces of music as well. It wasn’t technically flawless playing, but it was undoubtedly exciting. Even the encore from The Nutcrakcer seemed fresh and surprising that evening. The orchestra is not without finesse, and there was an assuredness in these performances that made even the rougher edges seem inspiring.

Inside the Valley Performing Arts Center. Photo: mine 2011
The following evening, Gergiev and his orchestra traveled to the other side of downtown Los Angeles to play a role in the opening of another brand new venue, The Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of Cal State Northridge. It was my first visit to the very modern looking facility, which is pleasing to look at if a little cold on the outside. The “Great Hall” auditorium of the facility is filled with curving wood panels and grey metal accents. And in a parallel to those early shows at the then new Segerstrom Hall, the acoustic issues on Tuesday's VPAC show weren't quite sorted out yet. The Mariinsky Orchestra program was a thoughtful one that provided a 20th Century antidote to the Tchaikovsky show of the previous evenings. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite started things off with a sound and perspective that was more mystical than Disney-esque. This piece can come off like movie-trailer music if you aren’t careful, and the Mariinsky Orchestra gave it a sometimes jarring twist that made it clear it wasn’t advertising anything. Next was Prokofiev’s demanding Piano Concerto No. 3 with soloist Alexander Toradze. It’s a furious flight of music, and here the acoustics got the better of everyone. The piano, at the foot of the stage was largely inaudible over the orchestra from where I sat in the loge and in many other places in the hall from reports I heard. Toradze struggled to rise above the orchestra even in the quietest parts. The sound could be cacophonous and harsh in the auditorium as well which continued into the evening's final offering, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1. This is a tough and rather daring early work from a composer with the opposite problem from Tchaikovsky- he's almost always talked about in terms of his relationship with his homeland and the Soviet Union. And like much of his work, Shostakovich fills this symphony with numerous folk themes as well as its looming, dark middle movements. Despite the harshness of the sound though, it was still a fascinating performance with its darker, edgier attitude. And so life goes on in Los Angeles and its environs as well all piled back into our cars afterwards, some for a long drive home. The city is filled with amazing things, it's just a rarity when they are packaged close together.

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