Two evenings with St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra left me punchy drunk on music. It’s easy to forget, when one lives mainly on small group and solo performances, how exhilarating the ride can be with a huge orchestra, a fascinating conductor and excellent soloists. Each of the Carolina Performing Arts programs was well constructed; together they were brilliant. Both included new works from 2012. Both included pieces by Dmitri
Shostakovich, which occupied a middle ground between old and new—work that sounds “modern” but that isn’t really radical. Monday night’s big piece, played in memory of the late William C. “Bill” Friday, long-time president of the consolidated University of North Carolina, was Richard Strauss’ 1898 Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). On Tuesday, it was, of course, Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 The Rite of Spring—source and subject of this year’s The Rite of Spring at 100 series and the associated academic conference, Reassessing The Rite.
Monday’s opener, Matthias Pintscher’s Chute d’Etoiles (described here) fascinated me aurally and as an indicator of artistic conditions. I would very much like to hear it again—but this music is like so much contemporary visual art being made today. It’s made for the museum, for the exhibition hall, for the concert auditorium. And, it’s made for a very small number of people out of a small audience—it’s not the kind of thing you want to take home and listen to repeatedly. You certainly wouldn’t be whistling a few bars. It’s difficult, like the Anselm Kiefer construction for which it is named. It’s not the people’s music, and in that sense, was the piece most analogous to the Stravinsky in the two nights’ programs. Its difference in method and purpose from the Strauss is enormous, and the clash between them was quite exciting—even with Shostakovich there in the middle, buffering the encounter. When the Strauss isn’t syruping off into sentiment, it does make a fitting honor to Dr. Friday, who really was a hero: a builder and rescuer. Yes, I cried a little at the music’s sweetness and valor, but more from wondering if the age of heroes is past, like the grand sweeping strains of the Belle Epoque.
Tuesday’s new work, Cleopatra and the Snake, by Rodion Shchedrin, struck me as far more predictable and…old-fashioned. Its narrative flow, with some wonderful twinings and swoopings, is punched up by rhythmic martial passages and the whole provides a clear path for the vocalizing of the story, but nothing in it surprised. Soprano Ekaterina Goncharova’s pliant clear voice was beautiful throughout, even in the most contorted passages. The text was in Russian (Boris Pasternak, based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra), but Cleopatra’s anger, pride, suffering and determination came clearly through the voice. It was the feeling, the passion, which made it lead well into The Rite.
The Rite. Huge, glorious, blood-racing. The bassoon! The complex massings and overlays of sound. The freaking percussion—really great. It seemed to me that conductor Valery Gergiev had the orchestra zipping along a little fast at first, and things were somehow both too neat and too blurry, but mid-way he slowed the tempo and all the strands came into better focus. The ending was fantastic: frantic–diminishing energy–renewed frantic effort—collapse. I was danced to death in my seat.
As for Shostakovich, placing him in juxtaposition to these other composers gave me a fresh appreciation for him. I could have left happy after the galloping, almost jubilant, conclusion to his Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54 (1939), which opened the program on Tuesday. His Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 35 (1933) played on Monday was completely delightful following the Pintscher. Denis Matsuev brought out an unsuspected latent lyricism, and a bubbling joy in the jazzy sections, with his flashy technique. At times, he seemed to be literally snatching the music out of the piano, flinging it into our greedy ears.