Several years ago, Valery Gergiev conducted Bruckner’s massive Symphony No. 7 in a modest-sized church in the small Finnish town of Mikkeli. All through the performance, the fiery Russian conductor seemed intent on finding out just how far he could push his Kirov Orchestra in an in-your-face acoustic. It was a wonder that no windows shattered.
So it was a good bet that Gergiev would not hold back when set loose for the first time in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. That time came Saturday night, with Gergiev guest conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. True to form, he played the hall for all it was worth. And it was worth plenty.
Amazingly, Gergiev achieved his spectacular results under what might have seemed less than promising circumstances. The Russian program -- which included Prokofiev’s usually written-off last symphony and the Mussorgsky warhorse “Pictures at an Exhibition” in the customary Ravel orchestration -- was not particularly challenging.
Besides that, Gergiev had to fit L.A. into his ever-frenetic schedule. Just off a couple of Wagner “Ring” cycles in Germany and now at the Metropolitan Opera for a Stravinsky triple bill, he flew in and out of LAX last week for Philharmonic rehearsals, and limited his appearances in Disney to a period of less than 24 hours -- concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
But the conductor learned years ago to transcend time zones. Saturday night he was operating on Gergiev Standard Time, which meant a total involvement in the hear and now, making every second matter. Leaning over the orchestra, waving his arms, wiggling his hands, he was like a sonic sorcerer molding sound while cabalistically stirring the Philharmonic pot.
Certainly Gergiev’s performance of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony was an alchemist’s art. Written in 1952, a year before the composer’s death, the symphony was the product of an ill, desolate, broken victim of Stalin’s rancor. Prokofiev intended the symphony for Soviet children’s radio and fell back on the style of his popular ballets, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Cinderella,” a sudden departure from his great, brooding and probing Fifth and Sixth symphonies.
The Seventh is rarely performed, and not even Gergiev can elevate it into one of Prokofiev’s greatest works. Prokofiev was clearly trying hard not to offend any Soviet know-nothings. But Gergiev found in sweeping melodies a poignancy that underscored those internal struggles.
Gergiev, for example, demonstrated that a sweet tinkle might have in it the quality of agitation along with that of play. He found an underlying quiet hysteria in happy-on-the-surface waltzes. He, of course, restored Prokofiev’s original questing ending, which the composer had replaced with something trivial and upbeat to satisfy his Soviet handlers.
And Gergiev created a striking context in which to appreciate this Soviet-bedeviled symphony by preceding it with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Dubinushka.” A jolly four-minute curtain-raiser written in 1905, it was based upon a worker’s Revolutionary song Rimsky heard on St. Petersburg’s streets. Prokofiev, then a 14-year-old music student, surely heard it too as he fell under the Revolution’s spell. The Seventh Symphony is the final, tragic break of that spell.
But it was Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” that really showed what Gergiev could do. Gergiev builds his orchestral sound from the lower instruments up, and given Disney’s incredibly rich bass response, he transmitted a tremendous instrumental weight that not so much undercut as Russianized Ravel’s colorful orchestrations.
Uncanny Slavic sadness engulfed the saxophone’s folk tune of “The Old Castle"; the weight of centuries hung over “The Catacombs.” These weren’t old oils in ornate frames, they were scenes come to life in 3-D Imax. At the end, the “Promenade” theme blasted euphoria with a sound strong enough to test just how well the organ pipes were glued on.
All evening, the Philharmonic played, not perfectly, not exquisitely, but as if possessed. Gergiev may not, on his schedule, always know what day it is, what city he is conducting in or care much what time it is -- he is notorious for showing up at concerts at the last possible second.
But Saturday night he knew exactly what kind of concert hall he was conducting in, the full potential of the orchestra he was conducting and just how much power this music can unleash.