Jack-in-the-Box, Wendy’s, Boba Tea, Hookah Smoke Shop, Papa John’s Pizza, Thai Chili House, Cupid’s Hot Dogs and... the Mariinksy Theater Orchestra.
Right. Just what you expect to find in the endless grid of garish mini-malls, gas stations and 7-Elevens that too much define the San Fernando Valley: one of the oldest and most revered orchestras in Russia.
Prokofiev, Stravinksy, and Shostakovich roared and whispered in Northridge Tuesday night, while a few yards away the banal traffic of Nordhoff Street roared and didn’t whisper. Russian music and rushin’ cars.
The Mariinsky, founded in the 18th century and house band for St. Petersburg’s Mariinksy Theater since 1860, provided what was really the first shakedown orchestral cruise for the S.S. VPAC. The so-called China Philharmonic, a clumsy pickup band by contrast, played there .
Under the lack-of-baton (all hands, all the time) of the ridiculously overbooked Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky (Kirov Ballet Orchestra during Soviet rule), brought such grace, prowess and exactitude as to make you forget about analyzing... grace, prowess and exactitude. In such capable care, you need have none. This is a super-drilled and disciplined yet pliant and flexible instrument whose strings are deliciously silken, luxuriant, burnished, unified; whose horns, woodwinds, and percussion seem played by a single hand. And that hand would be Gergiev’s.
Conductor and orchestra are about two-thirds of the way through a 44-date U.S. tour, showcasing the symphonies of Tchaikovsky (played in Orange County and Berkeley last week). For whatever reason, Northridge got romanticism’s deconstruction instead, in the form of Stravinksy’s “Firebird” Suite, Prokoviev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C (with the redoubtable Alexander Toradze), and Shostakovich’s genius-stuffed first symphony.
The “Firebird” is a piece that brings to mind swoops, swooshes and bursts of orchestral color, eerie moodiness, primordial growls and one of the more thrilling, sustained climaxes in symphonic literature. The listener comes prepared for the familiar joyride of Rimsky-Korsakov-influenced, heavily dramatic episodes that young Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev’s “Firebird” ballet in 1910. This listener was not prepared for Gergiev, who yielded a minor miracle of subtlety, restraint, suspense and surprise. Phrases were contemplatively couched, deliberate, patient, yet never without abiding portent, tension. A neat trick. Nothing short of stunning were pianissimo, tremolo string passages, especially just prior to the horn entrance of the climactic motiv. Here quiet went to quieter, gossamer to bare shimmer, with absolutely no sense (or sound) of bows touching strings.
The sunlit architecture of the climax was rendered all the more impactful for the carefully staged understatement that preceded it, although there was anything but sentimentalism at hand. The big, broadly bowed—almost chopped—notes in the strings that march up to a triumphant final brass theme were clearly, clinically enunciated—Gergiev revealing the dismantling of romantic cliché, and foreshadowing of more icily architectural and rhythmically fragmented Stravinsky to come. (Yes, he has recorded it.)
One can almost see cubism in Prokofiev’s third piano concerto, written mostly in 1921. This is music that punches, pinches, rocks, rolls with explosive, percussive angularity. It is inhabited by imps and gnomes; it is prankish, driving, madcap, schizophrenic in moodswing—from frantic to manic to maniacal to what “stately” might be on methamphetamine. It is also a champion showpiece for both pianist and orchestra, from fistfuls of diamond-hard notes to woodwinds that are practically demented with oddball lyricism. A less predictable concerto does not come readily to mind. Aaron Grad’s excellent, explanatory program notes (pay attention, L.A. Phil!) aver that the “andante meditativo” fifth piano variation in the second movement is “haunting and sincere.” Well, if it is sincere, that would seem just another trick in the composer’s bag of playfulness here. Call it almost grandeur. Toradze (an old colleague of Gergiev) attacked the concerto familiarly, acrobatically, dare one say passionately, shifting from explication to explosion with an animal vigor that maximized color and vivacity. This was the diametric opposite of gifted machines such as Lang Lang, stunt-players who make everything look easy (and sound cheap.) Acoustic note: from the orchestra section, dead-center, the piano mid-range was lost in muddled overtones. Hard to say if this was a flaw in the acoustics of the hall or a result of Toradze’s bearish technique, or both.
Whereas 30-year-old Prokofiev was almost willfully inventive with his third concerto, the 19-year-old Shostakovich could not help himself. Surely there is no music so fecund with ideas and sheer novelty ever written by a teenager. To even imagine that a young person authored such a work begs credulity. And here, the old saw about Shostakovich writing “movie music” need not be pejorative. He had been working as a movie theater pianist to bring in cash in the wake of his father’s death from tuberculosis, and it is easy to project the impromptu scene-shifts of a cinema screen on to this many-scened score. Suffice to say that Gergiev and the Mariinsky played with the aplomb, verve, buoyancy, control, nuance fit for this densely loaded, often obstreperous thematic landscape, as if it were hardly more demanding than a Bach gavotte. No less compelling was the dispatching of the bitter and gloomy portions of the bizarre, almost grotesque third movement, with its darkness that foretells grim and ironic Shostakovich slow movements to come. It was not difficult to understand that the Mariinsky comes from a rich tradition of illustrating the sudden twists and turns of ballet and opera. There was abundant dance taking place in VPAC, if only in the rambunctious sound waves filling the air (including a gorgeously wrought encore, the exquisite colors of Liadov’s short tone poem, “Baba Yaga”).
One more point about the orchestra. The often garish showmanship and gratuitous gesture of too many ensembles and their “superstar” conductors simply do not exist with Gergiev (one of the world’s great conductors) and this ensemble. This is studious, august music-making by august, studious musicians. There is zero indulgence of personality evident among the players, no soloist-style overwrought fiddling from a random violist, or clarinetist doing chin pirouettes and eyebrow plies. No “orchestra of virtuosos,” as has been said of the L.A. Philharmonic.
Here’s hoping for a return engagement, more VPAC bookings of bands of similar stature... oh, and also that the Mariinsky buses make a stop at Cupid’s Hot Dogs on the way back to the hotel.
Rip Rense is an award-winning author, reporter, record producer and Internet columnist.