View Full Version : Review: Maestro Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra in Chapel Hill, NC, USA

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
October 30th, 2012, 05:20 AM
Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The excellent Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg and its acclaimed conductor Valery Gergiev presented on 10/29/12 a concert in Chapel Hill, NC, at the University of North Carolina Memorial Hall, part of the Carolina Performing Arts series, in general, and in particular, the CPA's celebration of the centennial of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Opera Lively's announcement for the event - which continues on 10/30/12 with a second program - can be found by clicking [here (http://operalively.com/forums/content.php/689-Maestro-Gergiev-and-the-Mariinsky-at-Memorial-Hall-in-Chapel-Hill)], including ticket information (a limited number of seats is still available).

Today's show of a total duration of 81 minutes with a 20-minute intermission, started with a contemporary piece, Chute d'Étoiles, Part I (2012) by Mattias Pintscher (b. 1971), featuring soloists Stanislav Ilchenko, trumpet, and Sergei Kryuchkov, trumpet. It was the piece's American premiere.

The second number was Shostakovich's (1906-1975) Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 35 (Alegro moderato, Lento, Moderato, Alegro con brio), with Denis Matsuev, piano, and Timur Martynov, trumpet.

After the intermission, the orchestra played Richard Strauss' (1864-1949) tone poem Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40., with segments The Hero, The Hero's Adversaries, The Hero's Companion, The Hero at Battle, The Hero's Works of Peace, The Hero's Retirement from this World and Consummation.

Chute d'Étoiles is a very interesting piece. German composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher was at one point a protégé of Hans Werner Henze - who sadly has just died a couple of days ago, leaving behind some excellent operas. Mr. Henze will be missed. Anyway, Pintscher has been heralded as a composer of luminous music with great dramatic impact, and his work has been performed by leading orchestras all over the world. The current piece was commissioned by Roche for the 2012 Lucerne Festival, and Carnegie Hall.

The title - French for Falling Stars - makes reference to a massive installation of the same name by German visual artist Anselm Kiefer created for the Grand Palais in Paris, pictured below. According to the composer, what he tried to recover in his music is the use of lead - a malleable but very heavy metal - in Kiefer's work.


The piece opens with deafening percussion strikes on gongs and sheet metal, marked on the score with the maximum fortissimo, ffff. If I weren't expecting it, I'd have jumped out of my seat. The music continues with screeching sounds evocative of metal grinding in a construction site, with things being torn and bent and dropped to the ground (more loud percussion), all in the middle of street cacophony of engines and horns, while the trumpets resemble birds flying around the structure, and the strings evoke flickering and buzzing insects. Pulleys and shifting gears are suggested, and one seems to be listening to large cranes lifting heavy building parts. Rhythmic impact conjures perhaps the falling stars of the title, making havoc and bringing ruin to a building. There is a rapid succession of brittle percussion and glissandos in the strings. It is all very noise and dynamic. One often gets the impression of electronic music by a synthesizer, and needs to be reminded that actually a large modern orchestra is skilfully generating these sounds. The two trumpets permeate the music throughout the piece (it lasts for approximately 20 minutes) and dialogue in a truncated clucking manner.

The core idea of this piece seems to be the ambiguity between construction and destruction. It all sounds like a building being erect, while at the same time a meteorite rain distorts and damages it. The overall effect is, to say the least, very bold and almost scary.

My companion commented that "this is not beautiful." I countered, "well, it's contemporary music, it is powerful and interesting. It certainly evokes what the composer set out to convey, and in this way it is very successful. This is not easy to accomplish and takes talent." She concluded - "yes, I can see that it is interesting and talent-laden, but still, it is not beautiful." I had to add, "you get used to it and you can find beauty in it."

So, the concert moved backwards, from the very disruptive and edgy 21st century music, to the 20th century, and further back to the late 19th century (R. Strauss' piece is from 1898).

My companion certainly got her share of the melodious kind of beauty she was looking for in R. Strauss, after harvesting some of it in Shostakovich's piece - still, not the easiest music around.

Again, Maestro Gergiev brought us something for which I'll use the same word I reached for to describe the Pintscher: interesting.

Shostakovich's first piano concert certainly qualifies for this term. It also features a trumpet, and a large contingent of strings, with no other instruments. First of all, the trumpet is not fully integrated in what the piano and the strings do. It sounds like incidental music - it seems to change the context around the piece: suddenly we seem to hear the music of a merry-go-round in an amusement park, or the soundtrack of a cartoon. These moments possess a light and merry quality. But I'm getting ahead of myself because these tunes come later.

After a brief introduction, we hear the familiar descending minor triad in the piano that is directly borrowed from Beethoven's Appasionata. This is followed by two melodic lines; the piano very lively and with strong rhythms in a gallop, while the strings are suave and repeat motifs over and over. The contrast is striking and almost funny. Then the piece shifts mood in the second movement, which is slow and melancholic. The piano sluggishly suggests serenity, helped by a legato in the strings, to which the trumpet finally converges. It's a waltz theme, and it soothes my companion who was so rattled by the contemporary music of the first third of the concert. The restful piano plays unaccompanied for some stretches. Then there is a short, rhapsodic third movement (moderato), and we plunge into the carousel music I was talking about. Oh boy, this is eventful! This alegro con brio shifts moods constantly. Are we in a children's amusement park? Well, maybe it's a cabaret. Or are we in a Spanish plaza listening to a fanfare? Whatever it is, it is playful and enjoyable, and after it ends in a ruckus with a bundle of energy, the public erupts in delirious applause. My companion is pleased.

Then, we get to the pièce de résistance - my beloved Richard Strauss. Once more, I cherish Maestro Gergiev's intriguing selection, since this tone poem is fabulous. Its title translates into "A Hero's Life" - and while it is inspired by Beethoven's Eroica which was dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, some argue that the hero in question was R. Strauss himself. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that the movement "The Hero's Companion" was confessedly (as per one of Strauss' letters to Romain Rollard) based on his wife Pauline, with the violin reproducing her soprano voice, and very clearly mimicking her personality. We get it from her husband's words, which the program notes kindly printed for us and are very interesting indeed (and describe accurately the sounds): "très femme, a little perverse, a bit of a coquette, never the same twice, different each minute earlier. At the beginning, the hero follows her lead, picking up the pitch she has just sung, but she escapes farther and farther. Finally he says, 'All right, go. I'm staying here,' and he withdraws into his thoughts, his own key. But then she goes after him."

Well, this sounds like the core premise of Intermezzo, Strauss' autobiographical opera about his marital life. With one major difference: while Intermezzo bores me to death and is one of the only pieces by R. Strauss that I don't like, Ein Heldenleben is exhilarating! It is appropriately heroic with plenty of horns; it has some really giggly parts (like the flute that sounds like a clucking chicken and is supposed to represent the hero's enemies), and it reaches peaks of sublime and serene music ("The Hero's Works of Peace"). Finally, it provides the perfect finale to this outstanding concert by the Mariinsky and Gergiev, since it ends with a quotation of the majestic Also sprach Zarathustra. My companion is very happy, and so am I.

The orchestra was... hm, I need to reach for my stock of superlatives. I've rarely heard something this good. All the transitions were perfect. All the strings sounded like one. There was exquisite equilibrium and precise dynamics. It doesn't get any better than this. Some orchestras have a signature quality. I'd say that the Mariinsky has clarity. It sounds so crystalline, so pure!

Maestro Gergiev was his usual extremely competent self, and I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with him at the end of the performance, and of having one of my CDs of his music autographed by him (Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Moscow Cantata & Marche Slave). We got a first-rate pianist as well: Denis Matsuev, the winner of the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1998, is a regular with the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the London Symphony, and the London Philharmonic. His recording with Maestro Gergiev of this very piece of today, Shostakovich's 1st piano concert, has received from BBC Music Magazine a Five Star rating.

The orchestra came to North Carolina braving Hurricane Sandy. They had a concert on Sunday in Newark, NJ, at 4 PM, and were scheduled to fly to Raleigh-Durham on Monday. Well, fortunately for us, the Chapel Hill public, they decided to fly out of New Jersey at 9 PM on Sunday, or else they'd have been retained in the Northeast by the hurricane, since all airports were shut down on Monday. According to Mr. Emil Kang, once they got into town, exhausted, they had to catch up by having some good vodka!

It was a cold, windy, and rainy night in Chapel Hill, but the concert was more than worth the freezing walk through the long stretch from the parking lot on Franklin Street to Memorial Hall which is right in the middle of campus. We got to our seats quite wet and miserable, but we couldn't complain, given that other fellow citizens further North are having much more hardship with this monster storm; we got spared. Sandy or not, we walked back to our car very fulfilled by this night of great music. Do I need to say A++, highly recommended?

Our local readers should not miss the opportunity to see the Mariinsky again tonight, 10/30/12 at 7:30 PM, when they will be playing the contemporary mono-opera Cleopatra and the Snake by Rodion Shchedrin, with soprano Veronica Dzhioeva, then Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6, and will end the program with Stravinsky's gorgeous The Rite of Spring. Stay tuned. Go to www.carolinaperformingarts.org (http://www.carolinaperformingarts.org) for more information.

October 30th, 2012, 09:44 AM
Mattias Pintscher's music is interesting indeed. This is an intriguing piece, that I think it could appeal to quite a few members: Osiris (2008):

[Link to video deleted by Admin - video no longer available]

October 30th, 2012, 04:18 PM
I just attended festival with (mostly) Pintscher's music. He was present (conducted). My favourites were Fünf Orchesterstücke and Figura III.

[Link to video deleted by Admin - video no longer available]

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
November 1st, 2012, 03:27 AM
Review, Second Part of the Program, on 10/30/12

Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54 (1939), by Shostakovich (1906-1975) - Largo, Allegro, Presto

Cleopatra and the Snake (2012), Dramatic Scene for Soprano and Symphony Orchestra, by Rodion Shchedrin (b. 1932) - US Premiere
Ekaterina Goncharova, soprano

The Rite of Spring (1913), by Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Part I: The Adoration of the Earth; Part II: The Sacrifice


We were treated to another beautiful concert by the Mariinsky Orchestra and Maestro Gergiev. No rain this time, and not as cold. Last night, my companion wasn't with me - a pity, she would have liked this program more, since even its contemporary part was easier on the ear.

Although the original program had the soprano piece as the first one, we started by listening to the Shostakovich. His 6th symphony was composed three years after his fall from grace with the Stalin regime, expressed by the famous negative review published on the Pravda of his popular (and in my opinion, excellent) opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. At the time, Shostakovich even feared for his life, and engaged in frantic attempts to appease the dictator. One of these attempts was his announced intention of composing his Symphony No. 6 as a tribute to Lenin. Accordingly, the symphony was supposed to convey the leader's alleged heroism and grandeur. Well, Shostakovich can't really be trusted in his words, because he was only saying what the regime wanted him to say. It is hard to identify in this symphony anything to do with this supposed homage to the dictator.

The composer claimed that his work contained the moods of spring, joy, and youth. If this is true (who knows, given the political climate and his survival mode, whether or not he meant what he was saying?), certainly these three themes can not match in this order the three movements, for the simple reason that the long Largo that opens the symphony is not springy at all. Much the opposite, it is quite melancholic, solemn, and sad. It opens with plaintiff bass and is permeated with tragic, ominous rumbling percussion. A funeral march comes to mind rather than the budding new life of spring. Towards its end it acquires a tense background in the winds, but it does finish by becoming rather peaceful.

It is true that things pick up considerably in the second movement, which is indeed a very lively Allegro. Still, it evoked for me feelings of conflict rather than joy. There is an E-flat clarinet that is a bit dissonant and disruptive, and seems to be antagonizing the other instruments. The tension seems to build up from there in higher pitched sounds, and if I were to think of this as conveying the spring after the wintry first movement, I'd imagine the competitive nature of an ecosystem in which certain life forms are struggling to survive against other life forms. The second half of the second movement seems to me to grow less antagonistic and more powerful, as if a certain ecological niche represented by some life forms was taking over others and becoming dominant - a gentle growing spur that insists and prevails until in can become serene like a slow flowing river. Granted, my understanding of these figures is rather personal and there is no guarantee that it is any more valid than another listener's impressions.

OK, definitely the Presto that ends the symphony is joyful. It is jumpy, march-like, with a folksy quality. It evolves into a gallop that *very* closely evokes Rossini's William Tell overture, and the last bars engage in a loud fanfare with rhythmic timpani that evoke something as tropical as a Samba.

The Mariinski Orchestra was impeccable, like the day before. I noticed that Maestro Gergiev was conducting with his peculiar toothpick. Why does he use a toothpick instead of a baton? Mystery! I hope that one day I'll find out what the explanation is for the use of this device.

After the intermission, we heard the soprano piece that has been described - a bit optimistically - as a "mono opera." Well, calling it an opera is stretching it a little. It's a scene. It lasts for about fifteen to eighteen minutes. But it is powerful enough that it held me on the edge of my seat, and I'd love to see it turned into a full opera (it's based on the fifth and final act of Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra, which invites one to dream of the complete thing if the composer decided to set the first four acts to music as well).

Ms. Goncharova is a strikingly beautiful and svelte brunette. She was wearing a tasteful and elegant dark green gown. She had the physique du rôle, with the sort of beauty one associates with Cleopatra. The soprano was very successful in her performance and drew long, stand-up ovation from the public. She had a peculiar way to lean forward in the audience's direction, almost as if begging and pleading her case, which added to the dramatic impact of the piece. This was made even more pungent by the fragility conveyed by her svelte figure. She also appeared to be fierce and intense in her acting.


Let's talk about her a little bit. She substituted the soprano that was scheduled for the evening, Veronika Dzhioeva. Well, maybe we got lucky, because this young lady should be watched. She was a semi-finalist at the Operalia, and won the Montserrat Caballé International Opera Singers Competition in Zaragoza.

Here is what I got about her, from her website and from the playbill:


Ekaterina Goncharova was born in Novokuznetsk (Russia) on December 26, 1981.

Currently she is a soloist in the St. Petersburg Conservatoire Opera and Ballet Theatre (since 2009).


1999 - 2003 College of Arts, Novokuznetsk (Russia)

2003 - 2008 Saint-Petersburg State Conservatoire

2008 – 2011 post graduate studies in Saint-Petersburg State Conservatoire


2004 National Competition 'Three centuries of classical romance', St. Petersburg - 3rd prize

2007 International Opera Competition 'Saint-Petersburg', St. Petersburg – 3rd prize

2007 - Elena Obraztsova International Competition of Young Opera Singers, St. Petersburg – winner

2008 - Montserrat Caballe International Singing Competition, Zaragoza, Spain – winner

2009 –International Opera Competition “Operalia”, Italy – semi-finalist


Bizet. Carmen. Micaëla
Gounod. Faust. Marguerite
Puccini. La Bohème. Mimi
Puccini. Gianni Schicchi. Lauretta
Puccini. Turandot. Liu
Rimsky-Korsakov. The Tsar’s Bride. Marfa
Schumann. Genoveva. Genoveva
Tchaikovsky. Eugene Onegin.Tatiana
Tchaikovsky. Iolanta. Iolanta
Tchaikovsky. The Maid of Orleans. Agnes Sorel
Verdi. La traviata. Violetta Valéry

Appearances have included the Opéra de Monte Carlo, a concert under the baton of Mariss Jansons, and a concert with the Philharmonie in Cologne with Montserrat Caballé. Her Mariinski debut was in the 2011/12 season as Tatiana and Micaëla.


This contemporary piece Cleopatra and the Snake is by Rodion Shchedrin, one of the major composers of the end of the Soviet era, who continued to date to enjoy a status of a leader in current Russian music. His claim to fame stems from his ballets The Little Hump-Backed Horse (1955) and Carmen Suite (1967), as well as his piano concerts.

The work in front of us was commissioned by the Salzburg Pfingstfestspiele, and is inspired by the model of Mozart's virtuosic concert arias. The world premiere featured the Mariinsky Orchestra under Gergiev, with Mojca Erdmann, on May 28, 2012.

The scene depicts the queen's suicide in the final act of the play, when she is imprisoned in Alexandria by the Romans, and prefers to die from the bite of a snake smuggled in by a servant, rather than face humiliation.

The lyrics come directly from Boris Pasternak's Russian adaptation of Shakespeare's text, and translated back into English, they go like this:


The day is done, and we are for the dark.
My resolution's placed, and I have nothing
of woman in me: now I am
What should I stay...?
An Egyptian puppet, shalt
be known in Rome?!
Oh no, no, no.
I am the Queen!
Quick - Me thinks I hear Antony call...
Slaves, with greasy aprons,
rules and hammers shall
Uplift us to the view; in
their thick breaths,
And forced to drink their vapor.
Victors will catch us, like strumpets.
And scaled rhymers, ballad us out of tune,
and present our Alexandrian revels.
Some squeaking Cleopatra
boy my greatness
I'm the posture of a whore.

Snake, snake, snake,
Thou mortal wretch, snake,
Snake, snake, with they sharp teeth this
knot intricate of life at once untie:
Oh, snake,
Be angry, be dispatch,
As sweet as balm, as soft as air,
As gentle,... Husband, I come - Antony.


The vocal writing for this piece has the voice initially functioning as an additional instrument that sort of competes with the orchestra. The instruments are hesitant and plaintive in the beginning, with the woodwinds and the voice sounding very melancholic. The singing then turns very tense and proud as the queen displays her anger (the orchestra engages in fortissimo bursts), turns lamenting, and then the soprano stops and the orchestra plays a beautiful and melodic intermezzo, before the last stanza. Then we hear a perfectly rendered rattle snake sound from the maracas; the voice and the orchestra play in unison as if to symbolize Cleopatra's new-found peace in her resolution, and as she is bitten and dies whispering the name of her beloved, we hear rumbling cellos becoming progressively silent.

Wow! After a brief stunned silence, the public erupted in wild applause, maybe the strongest of the five pieces played thus far in two evenings. I really thoroughly enjoyed this piece!

Finally we got to the whole point of this event: the celebration of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps. This staple of the repertory dispenses description. We'll just briefly say that it premiered on May 29, 2013, in Paris, in front of a shocked and rebellious audience that loudly expressed disapproval to the point that the composer stormed out of the theater. Now, the work is completing 100 years, and is a perennial and beloved success! This is the sort of thing that evokes the fiasco of the first Carmen run, and the first La Traviata performance: never trust the reaction of the public in a world premiere!!! (laughs).

The Mariinsky's rendition was rather spectacular, to the point that the grandiosity of this extraordinary piece almost erased from memory the otherwise rather exquisite five previous pieces brought by the Maestro to this program - we seemed to be entering music of a different order of magnitude. It was a true apotheosis for the Mariinsky's presence among us, with its genial inventiveness full of dynamic contrasts, exotic harmonies, rapidly flowing triads with unpredictable pounding rhythm that is always surprising and exciting. The sheer size of the required orchestra is impressive: 20 woodwinds, 18 brass, 6 percussionists, and 60 strings!

All these musicians and their phenomenal conductor left great memories for the patrons of the Carolina Performing Arts series at Memorial Hall. They were headed next back to hurricane-battered New York City, for a concert at Carnegie Hall. They had to cancel. Tumultuous travel was arranged nevertheless, given that they had a gala at the Russian Consulate before heading back to St. Petersburg. We North Carolinians feel very grateful that they took all the trouble of braving the elements to treat us to two gorgeous evenings of great music.

Dear readers, there is more spectacular music coming our way: next, we have outstanding violinist Joshua Bell, an event that will be also covered by Opera Lively, scheduled for this Friday November 2, at 8 PM. Ticket information is a moot point: the event is sold-out.

November 1st, 2012, 09:47 AM
Surely, even a man as politically naive as Shostakovich should have known better than trying to congratiate with Stalin by composing a symphony to the memory of... Lenin. :)

The piece itself is pretty unbalanced, yes. It's three components are fine, but their being together seems a mere juxtaposition.

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
November 1st, 2012, 10:52 AM
Surely, even a man as politically naive as Shostakovich should have known better than trying to congratiate with Stalin by composing a symphony to the memory of... Lenin. :)

The piece itself is pretty unbalanced, yes. It's three components are fine, but their being together seems a mere juxtaposition.

Well, this *is* what happened, it is not a typo. Shostakovich was trying to get back into Russian nationalism, and the 6th was announced as an homage to Lenin, not Stalin, so that Stalin would feel that the composer was back to Russian roots. It was premiered during a 10-day festival of Russian music. Actually at the time of the 5th he was already getting back to good standings, but apparently he felt he should continue to be a good boy. However at least to my ear, the 6th doesn't seem to evoke any of this, so probably, musically he wasn't expressing what he said he was. Yes, it doesn't make a lot of sense; the three movements are wildly different from each other.

November 1st, 2012, 11:02 AM
Well, that's why he was politically naive.

I would have announced an homage to Stalin himself. :)

Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)
November 1st, 2012, 11:11 AM
Oh, OK, I thought you were saying that I had typed the name of the wrong dictator.