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Gergiev the Great

Kirov kicks in masterfully for a tardy maestro

Latecomers to Thursday's Kirov Orchestra performance at Jones Hall didn't have to suffer through the first half of the concert waiting outside to be seated after the intermission. The 8 p.m. start came and went while the concert crowd continued to swell. Ten minutes later, the stage was still empty of players save a lonely harpist tuning her instrument and a few orchestra members setting up chairs and music stands. This was no familiar Houston Symphony-style warm-up followed by an always-punctual Eschenbach to get the show rolling.

When the resident orchestra of St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theater (the birthplace of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty as well as 19th- and 20th-century masterpieces of opera and ballet) filed on stage and took their seats, they became conspicuously quiet. It was now their turn to wait -- a third-row cellist twiddled his thumbs -- making the arrival of famed conductor Valery Gergiev seem even more suspenseful. Gergiev, whose appearance was sponsored by the Society for the Performing Arts, is probably the most sought-after conductor in the world. And Jones Hall listeners soon understood why, having been treated to the 45-year-old Russian's intensely physical, emotionally charged interpretations that left the audience ecstatic and on their feet through three encore demands.

While no stranger to the western canon of great composers, Gergiev's program was an unusual combination of late 19th-century Richard Wagner and early Russian modernists Alexander Scriabin and Anatol Liadov, both less widely performed, followed by this century's most influential Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. Rather than aim for a collection that was distinctively Russian, Gergiev sought an eclectic mix coupling the ritualistic quest of a true Christian knight alongside pagan expressions of nature at her most violent.

Gergiev's reading of Wagner's prelude to the opera Parsifal was appropriately slow, its sound gorgeously balanced by the full compliment of violins. Sporting his characteristic three-day beard that gives him a world-weary look, Gergiev immersed himself so deeply in this and every score that each finger and muscle appeared taut and poised to act out all musical nuances. His fingers strummed the air above the violinists and cellists surrounding him.

The orchestra elicited a fairy-tale aura with Liadov's "The Enchanted Lake," published in 1909. Through distinctive flutes, cello and enchanting violins, Gergiev sustained a beauty and simplicity in a rarely heard work by the reclusive Russian composer -- the one Stravinsky claims was relieved at not being hired to compose The Rite of Spring.

The night's most refreshing selection was Scriabin's "Prometheus, Poem of Fire," a symphonic work for piano featuring soloist Alexander Toradze, a frequent accompanist to the Kirov. Composed in the early modern style, the Kirov version of Scriabin was colorfully dissonant and remarkably satisfying, even to classical music fans who've never warmed up to the early modern masters. Toradze's handling was masterful, especially when played against the lower octave reaches of the orchestra. This piece garnered a standing ovation, and from that point on Gergiev had everyone positioned for the wild, shockingly sinister rhythms of The Rite of Spring.

Gergiev presented Stravinsky's original version of the ballet as the finale. It's hard to imagine that this seminal modern masterpiece incited a riot among those who tasted it first at the Champs-Elysees Theater in Paris on May 29, 1913. In writing the ballet, the composer was inspired by the cruel harshness of the Russian spring. It's the story of a young virgin sacrificed to the pagan gods of spring, forced to dance herself to death. Through a sequence of tribal rituals, Stravinsky's music conjures violent scenes of pagan Russia.

I've never heard anything so frenetic -- nor heard cellos beat as menacingly as the tribal drums surrounding a ritual sacrifice. This, coupled with the frightening screams of horns, made Gergiev's rendition unforgettable. After the final movement, "Sacrificial Dance," the audience was hard-pressed to let Gergiev off the stage.

When presented with Gergiev's incredibly visceral show, it becomes impossible to shut the eyes and just listen to the music. Instead, the audience is riveted to his every action, seeing his power to move the musicians. It is easy to recognize how, in Gergiev's hands, Stravinsky's cellos can be much more menacing and the horns, much more ominous.

The conductor continued to captivate even after the finale. Perhaps sensing that his show had appealed in the modern direction, he treated his guests to three 19th-century staples by Wagner, Glinka and Berlioz during a very demanding round of encores. Gergiev must have been hypercharged from the frenzied directing of Stravinsky when he started in on Wagner's Lohengrin. Or perhaps that gives him the benefit of the doubt. But I've never heard it played quite that fast, and I hope I never will again.

He seemed to settle down for Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila, ready to show off the true gifts of the Kirov by refusing to direct any part of the piece with his hands, confident they could take it where it needed to go. It was hard to read anything egocentric into this gesture after having witnessed the powerful display of sympathy this conductor and orchestra shared throughout the evening. No, this man's refusal to wave his arms was a labor of love, a testament to the players' passionate willingness to be inspired by him.

It is even more impressive that Gergiev, despite his prodigious touring and recording schedule, refuses to abandon his native Russia during its present economic strife for a less harried life in the West. Maybe that's why concert hall directors can tolerate his unpredictable nature and down-to-the-wire appearances. They know they're getting a maestro whose principal desire is to inspire others to experience music as vibrantly as the composer would have wished.

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