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Concert review: Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev's exhaustive and exhausting journey through Stravinsky's Paris ballets

By John Terauds on October 6, 2013

The Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday afternoon (John Terauds phone photo).
The Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday afternoon (John Terauds phone photo).

There were two marathons in Toronto on Sunday. On the streets, it was Run for the Cure. At Roy Thomson Hall it was the Mariinsky Orchestra and its music director Valery Gergiev’s dash through three iconic Parisian ballet scores by Igor Stravinsky.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

The house ensemble from Russia’s premier opera and ballet house in St Petersburg didn’t have to perform three full ballet scores. But it did, turning the programming itself into an endurance challenge added atop the technical and musical challenges already contained in the music itself.

Under Gergiev’s leadership, the Mariinsky Orchestra put forward a spectacular showcase of everything a large, modern symphonic ensemble of about 90 is capable of. They have technique to burn and are capable of a remarkable dynamic range while producing a gorgeous tone.

Then there are the three revolutionary ballet scores.

The ballets The Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring were the first original works written by a young Stravinsky — he turned 28 in 1910, the year Firebird had its premiere — for Les Ballets russes in Paris. Heard in sequence in honour of this year’s 100th anniversary of The Rite of Spring, they are an effective and compelling showcase of the composer’s musical coming of age.

We heard Stravinsky’s language gradually evolve into the gut-smacking power of the Rite.

Gergiev’s unique contribution was to add the sort of texture and colour to the scores that fans of orchestral music normally can only dream about.

So far, so good, but the concert was not without flaws, the most significant of which was sheer length, lasting for more than three hours, including two intermissions.

With The Firebird, even Stravinsky realised later that less was more, inspiring him to create a much shorter, concert suite of the score. Unfortunately, we had to listen to the full, 45-minute-plus original, which sags badly in its extended midsection when there aren’t dancers to behold on stage.

On the other hand, Petrouchka, already a sparkly, spiky, lyrical outing, bounced and shone brightly. It is part piano concerto, and was executed in high style by the orchestra’s pianist. Gergiev goosed the interpretation with all sorts of significant silences and lightining-bolt dynamic flashes — then went all-out overboard to close the fomal programme with the Rite of Spring.

That last and most famous score flew by in a blur, jet-fuelled in rhythm, speed and dynamics.

The combined effect left this listener dizzy and overwhelmed. Perhaps that was the intended effect, to recreate the disorientation of hearing this daring music for the first time in Belle Époque Paris. But, fabulous playing and all, it was really too much of a good thing.

At least it was a concert that everyone present will remember for a long time to come.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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