The Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre under its music director Valery Gergiev gave an incredible all-Prokofiev concert at Avery Fisher Hall this afternoon. The orchestra unleashed a dark, burnished, husky, full-bodied, and blood-pumping sound that just washed over the near-capacity audience. It was a baptism by sound. When these folks step up the volume, it is a gigantic roar. A beautiful roar, but a roar that gets your heart racing.
It was great to finally see Gergiev in action. He has a completely unorthodox conducting style. He doesn’t use a baton and his hands constantly flutter as if he has an affliction. His beat is unclear, but his emotions are evidently understood by the orchestra as if he were one of them. He is a large man with large hands, and he doesn’t use a podium. He stands about a step or to towards the orchestra and the concertmaster and principal of the second violin section position their chair so that they face him a little bit. That is, the front couple of rows are slightly curled in. The basses are on the left side behind the first violin section. Gergiev conducts with vigor, even in passages that are tender and almost languorous. He’s a force of nature, and the sound that he gets out of this orchestra is nothing like I’ve ever heard before.
The program consisted some of Prokofiev’s best known ballet pieces plus a couple of rare ones. First up was the “Scythian Suite” with its sonic depiction of a pagan ritual. Brutal, barbaric, bombastic, piercing, nasty, and at times warmly serene, the orchestra created more sounds that made me think that I was had been abandoned on the Steppes with a hoard of blood-thirsty nomads. The ending was bombastic and crushing, nearly stunning everyone in the audience.
This was followed by the Suite from “The Tale of the Buffoon” (“Chout”). This work takes 12 movements from the original work that Prokofiev wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1921. The waddling bassoons, the wailing cellos, the death strokes from the percussion and the harsh trumpets were very evocative of the strange folk talke about the adventures of a bawdy buffoon. The finale was a whirling dance the seemed on the edge of going out of control.
After intermission, we heard selections from “Cinderella.” Contrasting a swirl of sarcasm for the evil sisters with the lush lyricism that represented Cinderella and the prince, this music danced all over the place. Yet the most lasting impression was the extremely loud clock, played on the wood blocks, which hammered like Thor in unrelenting passion as the midnight hour struck. That was followed by a tonal wallop at that end, and everyone in the audience went nuts!
The last piece on the program was the Suite from “le pas d’acier” (“The Steel Step”). Again, this was full-contact Prokofiev, brutal and rhythmically driven to the extreme. The awesome tonality in the final measures brought the audience to its collective feet. While Gergiev and the audience accepted the wash of applause, a woman came out of the audience to hand him a bouquet of roses – a gesture that I haven’t seen in years.
Gergiev and the orchestra responded with an encore from Romeo and Julliet. Again they just let the sound fly and that caused another overwhelmingly enthusiastic ovation. The orchestra and VG responded with another selection from Romeo and Julliet – one of the ones with the incredibly wickedly fast passages for the strings. Another standing ovation from the audience ensued. But that was it. This incredible concert was finally over.
Without hesitation, I can say that if you can hear the Kirov Orchestra with Gergiev at the helm in a concert of Russian music, you won't forget it. In fact, I’m hoping to hear them one more time before leaving New York.