Conductor Valery Gergiev and Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra receiving ovations from Roy Thomson Hall audience
By Joseph K. So
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Alexander Toradze, piano
Roy Thomson Hall
October 21, 2011, 8 p.m.
Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1919)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10
One of the joys of living in a big city like Toronto is that we are blessed with the occasional - alas far too infrequent in my opinion - visits by great orchestras around the world. In the last few years, we've heard the Vienna Philharmonic, the La Scala Orchestra, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, among others. Now we have the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra with none other than Valery Gergiev on the podium, although I should modify the comment by saying that Gergiev on this occasion eschewed the podium - and the baton! The program was Shostakovich Symphony No. 1, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 and as a starter, the Stravinsky Firebird Suite. Watching Gergiev conduct with his fluttery fingers is a treat in itself. The current issue of La Scena Musicale has a cover story by Crystal Chan on Gergiev and his band, currently in a North American tour. This is a must read.
Gergiev has his champions and his detractors, but one thing is clear - he is a great conductor. It was very much in evidence on Friday night. The first piece, Stravinsky's well known Firebird Suite, never sounded more fresh and organic as in the hands of the Mariinsky forces. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the opening passages were played with such razor sharp precision, incredible rhythmic unison, not to mention vivid, resplendent tone colours that to my own surprise, I found myself conjuring up images of a living breathing animal onstage, something that had never happened to me before. This spectacular opening was followed by pianist Alexander Toradze in Prokofiev No. 3. He may be getting on in years, and no, he didn't jump two feet in the air from the chair like he was reputed to do in the past, but this man is still a bundle of energy. I confess Prokofiev 3rd is a bit too militaristic sounding for my taste but one had to admire Toradze's authoritative performance. In the lyrical moments, he was marvelous, and in the more dramatic moments, totally commanding. The centerpiece of the evening was Shostakovich Symphony No. 1, a rather infrequently performed work, massive, imposing, yet curiously uneven and lacking in maturity - well, what can one expect when the composer was all of 19 years old?! The juxtaposition of two melodies in the second movement, the lyric strings with brassy, militaristic rhythms is really quite bizarre, once heard never forgotten. The precision, acuity of attack, the discipline mixed with supreme freedom exhibited by the musicians took one's breath away. I find the brass section is usually a good indication as to the quality of the orchestra, and the Mariinsky brass section was flawless last evening. Hearing a performance on such an exalted level, it makes one appreciate the transformative power of music. Let's hope Gergiev and his band will return as soon as possible.