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Review: Russia's most controversial conductor, Valery Gergiev, is back with a sound heavier than black bread

Review: Russia's most controversial conductor, Valery Gergiev, is back with a sound heavier than black bread
Music Director Valery Gergiev leads his Mariinsky Orchestra at the Soraya. (Luis Luque / Luis Luque)

There is no more divisive major conductor than Valery Gergiev, who just finished a controversial whirlwind West Coast visit with his famed Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg Thursday night at the Soraya in Northridge. The program was all Stravinsky, highlighting the fascinating transitional period for the Russian composer between 1931, when he was a stellar European émigré, and 1945, the year he became a naturalized American citizen after the fleeing wartime Europe for Los Angeles.

Stravinsky’s American assimilation, especially in Los Angeles, the city in which Stravinsky lived longer than any other, is well-trod music history. But as the most prominent Russian cultural figure today both inside his country and internationally, Gergiev needs only show up in many places to attract protest. His close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t help, but in musical circles the manically nonstop conductor has also long been slammed for lack of preparation.

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In between concerts and educational activities in Orange County last week and L.A. this week, Gergiev dashed up to San Francisco for programs Sunday and Monday with the Mariinsky Orchestra and was treated to both protesters outside Davies Concert Hall and panning for his concerts inside. “Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra slog through two crude, sloppy evenings in SF,” read the San Francisco Chronicle headline.

There were no protesters when Gergiev was here to conduct the Colburn Orchestra in the conservatory’s annual Walt Disney Concert Hall gala or at Cal State Northridge. Mahler once famously quipped that tradition is sloppiness in his necessary effort to bring a questing rigor to an overly sentimental musical Vienna. But one person’s sloppiness can be another person’s revelation. I don’t always agree, but in this case, I’m voting revelation.

The Colburn program was anything but slovenly, not when Gergiev has other serious business to attend to first, namely getting a student orchestra used to thinking about technique to concentrate on sound — his sound. That meant building a foundation in the basses as dark and heavy as Russian black bread. With that, everything else is sour, sweet, tart, pickled, vegetal, meaty, fishy, fungus-fortified topping.

Keeping with the focus on education, Gergiev brought excellent young singers from his own young artists program at the Mariinsky Theatre for excerpts from the Tchaikovsky opera “Eugene Onegin.” Dominic Cheli, a graceful young pianist studying at Colburn who already has something of a recording career, was soloist in Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto.

The bass foundation Gergiev was after is one that immediately puts you in the presence of a composer’s innermost thoughts and was best realized in the concluding performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. But otherwise Gergiev was unusually cautious, concerned with getting the basics. Instrumental solos were clean, fresh and impressive. Putting his young players before all else, he did not drive the ensemble beyond its means in order that it appear remarkably professional.

Caution with the Mariinsky, however, was thrown to the Stravinskyan wind. Gergiev began with an explosive “Fireworks” and ended with the suite from “The Firebird,” the young Stravinsky’s earliest attempts at enhancing his Russian training with cosmopolitan modernism. Within that frame, Gergiev placed Stravinsky’s 1931 Violin Concerto; his 1940 Symphony in C, written in the midst of his emigration to America; and his 1945 Symphony in Three Movements, his first big L.A. piece.

All three works have strong American connections. The Violin Concerto was written for a young violinist from Oregon. The Symphony in C might be heard as representing the hope of a new life in a new world; it is an optimistic score by a composer who had just lost his wife and daughter and was losing his Europe. Stravinsky took his impetus for the Symphony in Three Movements from wartime newsreels, and, in the lilting middle movement, refashioned music he had written for, but was never used in, the Hollywood film, “The Song of Bernadette.”

All three works also fall squarely in Stravinsky’s neo-Classical period, his radical attempt to remove any overt musical references to his Russian origins and write a pure, exquisitely structured, modern music for modern times. Yet musicologists and analysts have revealed that Russian fingerprints are all over these scores. Stravinsky presented himself as a groundbreaking modernist, but not unlike Gergiev, he was a very complicated guy in the end.

We should not be surprised. In my own encounters with Stravinsky in his latter L.A. days, I was always struck by just how Russian he looked, talked and acted, and how strange that seemed given the music he was writing and the inexpressive way he conducted it. The modernism did matter. Stravinsky changed the way we thought about music. But it is also good to be reminded how remarkable the Russian roots are in it.

Bring on the sloppiness or, I should say, the essential sloppiness. Against a strong rhythmic drive, Gergiev encouraged his players to produce exaggeratedly expressive solos, the kind he needs for, say, Dmitri Shostakovich and the kind Stravinsky adamantly did not want. But once you hear them — wow. You know where they come from, and these scores take on another life. This really is the same composer who wrote “Firebird” and “Rite of Spring.” Old wine has matured but defiantly not mellowed in new bottles.

For the Violin Concerto, Gergiev found a Hungarian soloist, Kristóf Baráti, of similar disposition. He has technique to burn and a dark, raw sound. Not a moment sounded hands-off neo-Classical; all that was pure was the drama.

Rather than carry coals to Newcastle with American and L.A. Stravinsky, Gergiev brought something far more welcome. By making vivid the Russian origins of a music that has long pervaded our landscape (Hollywood very much included), a divisive conductor offered, instead, a reminder of a common musical DNA.

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