Virtuosity and avant-garde with the Mariinsky Orchestra

Its single concert in Cuba was a singular master class on coherence and vitality of the Russian musical tradition as well as a display of virtuosity.

Foto: Tomada del sitio web de la Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (Uneac)

Until a short time ago for us the name of the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre was the patrimony of ballet aficionados. The coliseum dedicated to Maria Alexandrova, wife of Tsar Alexander II, has a special place in the history of that art: Marius Petipa taught there for many years; the canonical productions of classics such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker were performed there. Its hall full of gold was witness to memorable performances by Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Some of us also knew about its role in the history of Russian opera, but only now have we become aware of the value of its orchestra thanks to the single concert it offered in the Avellaneda Hall of the National Theatre of Havana last March 6 under the baton of its director Valery Gergiev, currently considered one of the world’s great conductors.

The group emerged at the same time as the theatre in 1869 and Eduard Napravnik was the first of its steady directors. He remained at the head of the orchestra for more than half a century, premiered it and gave it notable prestige in the European continent. Soon several foreign celebrities occupied its podium: Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Nikisch, not forgetting Russians Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff.


Gergiev, who has also been General and Artistic Director of the Theatre since 1996, is not only an internationally recognised musician for his work at the head of the group but has also revitalised the musical work of the Mariinsky with the supervision of ambitious and daring productions like the tetralogy of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, already reclaimed by other opera stages in the west, without this hindering his work for years as the conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony. With the latter he did a monumental recording of all of Prokofiev’s symphonies.


In the first place, the concert was surprising because of the chosen programme. It was expected that a great deal of the works to be played would be Russian, but contrary to what was expected by music lovers, the most well-known pieces of the symphonic repertoire of that nation were not present, nor Tchaikovsky’sPathetic Symphony, nor Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade, nor Mussorgsky’s Night in the Arid Mountain, much less aflicker of the famous ballet scores that the orchestra has played so many times, nor fragments of light works which almost all groups include in their repertoires to dazzle the audiences of the tours with their brilliance and versatility. Despite the sustained applause by the public at the end and several calls to again come out on stage, the only encore the conductor gave was the repetition of a passage of Prokofiev’s symphony which he had just executed.


While this singular asceticism disconcerted some, the programme offered demonstrated that even though the orchestra does not sacrifice its insertion into universal music and that it could execute Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite and the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony of Gustav Mahler with exceptional quality, it preferred to place emphasis on the existence of a Russian tradition that goes from Tchaikovsky’s romanticism to the singular avant-garde work of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, without having to resort in no case to the most difficult works but rather those that because of the originality, the controversy of their premier already gone by, continue having something to say to current listeners.


Though it could seem strange, the concert opened, not with a brilliant overture, but rather with Tchaikovsky’s melancholic Serenade for Strings. However, the musicians convinced us immediately about the just value of this work in which the composer is not tied as in other scores to a literary programme but rather establishes a balanced commitment between the effusiveness of their romantic ego and the constructive will of the piece that finds support in models of early romanticism like Beethoven and Schubert. The professionalism of its musicians, their respect for the score and at the same time their dominion of the most intimate secrets, their stylistic care, as well as the flawless work as a group, became evident in this work that though it was not conceived by its author for dance was choreographed in 1934 by the Russian George Balanchine for his students of the New York School of American Ballet, conceiving it as a ballet without an argument but that suggests “diverse human emotions and situations.”


Some time ago, a critic decided to enclose Shostakovich’s two concerts for piano and orchestra under the pejorative heading of “congenial and insignificant.” The interpretation of the first of them in this concert – with a young soloist whose name was announced at the last minute and unfortunately no one seems to have retained due to the sudden indisposition of famous pianist Alexander Toradze – served to give the lie to such an affirmation. The work was composed in 1933; the creator had already lived the early success of his First Symphony (1925) and was linked to the most radical artistic avant-garde, to the point that his opera The Nose, based on the story by the same name by Gogol, was condemned by the official criticism as “formalistic.” It still was not the neo-romanticism marked by Mahler’s symphonism and which became conservative after the Stalinist censorship.


In his concert the artist allows himself to parody the immediately previous models, especially Rachmaninoff’s very famous ones, while assuming the Stravinsky’s rhythmic searches inPetrushka and his passion for street themes. On the other hand, the composer confides to the strings noble and enveloping passages, with no romantic taste, which are continuously interrupted and questioned by the dialogue, insistent and caricature-like, between the omnipresent trumpet and the piano. The soloist’s role, of an almost demonic difficulty, is a sort of challenge for the conventional virtuosos. It is a provocative work, scarcely known during the Soviet period, but which gains new life in the history of music. Gergiev knew how to conduct with a special grace in which the stylistic mixture of the score was underlined and the technical complexities were overcome without losing the smile on his lips.


The concert closed with Prokofiev’s Symphony 1, composed in the summer of 1917, when the creator was 26 years old. He himself called it Classic, since according to him that’s how Haydn would have composed it if he had been alive then. The work, which is committed to the small orchestra format in the style of the 18th century and includes one of the popular dances of that century, the gavota, has the grace and brevity of the symphonies of the Austrian author who served as model, though, of course, it assumes the composing acquisitions of a new century. A certain pomp and courtesan style of the score are always in counterpoint with a fine sense of humour, an irony that is manifest here and there and announces the avant-garde creator that would emerge a few years later.


The work soon became popular in Western Europe and the United States and was recorded by famous directors like Serge Koussevitzky, Igor Markevitch, George Soltu and Gergiev himself recorded it for the Philips label, heading the London Symphony Orchestra in 2004. It was executed on several occasions in Cuba ever since its premier in the Teatro Auditorium on January 29, 1950, by the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, precisely directed by Koussevitzky. A few years later, in 1955, Alberto Alonso used it for his choreography Classic Symphony with the Ballet of Cuba, revived in the 1980s for the Ballet of Camagüey.


Compared to other conductors, Gergiev did not emphasise in the work the flavour of the 18th century, gallant, but rather the parodic element given to it by the composer and was careful in highlighting the orchestral brilliance and the rhythmic contrasts of the work, especially in the fourth movement, taking the moltovivace to an astonishing speed and not very usual, producing in the audiences a sort of enthusiastic vertigo.


The only concert of the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre among us was at the same time a singular master class about coherence and vitality of the Russian musical tradition and a display of virtuosity that forms part of the presentations that have become legendary in the Havana tradition. (2016)

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