Mariinsky in Chapel Hill, part 2

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

Jeffrey Scott Detwiler plays Shostakovich in Europe Central, 2008. Photo copyright Jason Fagg, used by permission of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern.

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.

Denis Matsuev played the daylights out of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Oct. 29. Photo: Sony Music Entertainment/CPA.

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SACRED SIGNS Crowns Mystical Silk Road Ensemble Concert in Chapel Hill

Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky in 2009.

As many times as I’ve listened to recordings of the Silk Road Ensemble, and those of several of its members–some of whom I’ve heard live–I was unprepared for the magnificence of the Ensemble’s live concert in Memorial Hall as Carolina Performing Arts’ year-long exploration of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring got underway. I attended the second of the two nights, on Oct. 1, so the two new works were receiving their second public performances. The best part of a great evening came after intermission, when a dozen musicians from 8 countries played Sacred Signs, a CPA-commissioned work by the Uzbeki composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, which draws on aural fragments from Stravinsky, takes inspiration from the writings of Nicholas Roerich, who designed the set and costumes for the original Ballet Russes production of The Rite in 1913.

Composer Igor Stravinsky (right) and impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Seville during their Ballets Russes collaboration. (Photo by Hulton Archive, Getty Images). 1921

The ten-section composition exceeds in beauty all works by Yanov-Yanovsky I’d heard previously. The structures are interesting, and it’s fun to pick out the Stravinsky phrases, but Sacred Signs goes far beyond the mechanical. Each section (charmingly, the sections are dedicated to various members of the Ensemble) has a distinct emotional quality and feels complete in itself, but together they comprise an emotional journey, starting with “In the Morning,” and ending “At the Last Gate.” A rich panoply of aural texture, color and volume, made possible by the Ensemble’s combination of instruments, arrays itself in these pieces. Some have percussionists running back and forth among their many playthings, while Sandeep Das at the center creates multiple brisk rolling rhythms on his tabla; others rely more on the honeyed flow of Yo-Yo Ma’a cello under the reverberant ringing strings of of Wu Man‘s pipa.

Silk Road Ensemble, photo by Jennifer Taylor. Front row, L-R: Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Cords, Yo-Yo Ma, Kayhan Kahlor.

All the strings, all the mouth instruments and maximum percussive items go at once as Sacred Signs culminates in a glorious roar. After I could think again, I knew I’d been to a place of fundamental wisdom. Sublime is the correct word for this music.

Carolina Performing Arts has commissioned twelve works for this season. It’s staggering—this is arts patronage on a very significant scale. Not every piece will be a masterpiece for the ages, I’m sure. The CPA-commissioned video backdrop for Sacred Signs, by Hillary Leben for one, is a less-than-successful endeavor. A combination of overhead landscape photography and animation of Roerich’s drawings, with some vague shapes “dancing” now and then, the video is incredibly simplistic and jejeune, especially compared with the sophistication of the musical composition and its expression by the brilliant musicians. Even if the video had been great, I would not have wanted to divide my attention between it and the players. And in the case of Sacred Signs, the conductor. Ordinarily, the Ensemble works by listening carefully and playing together passionately, but for the complex, long, new work with its many shifts in tone and tempo, Alastair Willis conducted. Tall and very slim, he rises still taller at the crescendi, going up on his toes and stretching long arms high and wide. In quieter moments, he hunches a little, his shoulder blades pressing out sharply like little wings pushing out of his jacket. Watching these people make music is almost as good as hearing it.

The evening opened with a wonderful arrangement, by four members of the Ensemble, of John Zorn’s Suite from Book of Angels. The sounds wind and soar, wrapping one with a silken sense of colors in motion. This ravishing work was followed by Colin Jacobsen’s mystical Atashgah. Jacobsen was greatly influenced by his travels in Iran, and this piece has to do with elemental things: air, fire, the rising spirit. It features the incomparable Kayhan Kahlor on kamancheh, and the unworldly sound of the gaita (Galician bagpipes), played by Cristina Pato. These two pieces were a foretaste of the sweets to come after intermission.

But before that was a brand new, Silk Road-commissioned piece by Vijay Iyer, called Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, referring to the infamous opening night of The Rite of Spring, music and ballet. Here, too, you could hear occasional Stravinsky phrases surface, and the overall feeling was jumpy, aggressive. It was jarring at the time, because of the very different feeling of the jazz piano, and the contrast with the smoothness of the earlier pieces. However, in terms of the whole program, it made an excellent change, an unexpected break in the proceedings, that made one all the more receptive to the unfolding surprises of Sacred Signs.

The Silk Road Ensemble has a well-developed relationship with Carolina Performing Arts now, and will undoubtedly be back another year. But some of the Ensemble members will return much sooner, on Nov. 16, for what promises to be a fantastic concert by the super-quartet Brooklyn Rider, along with some of their friends. Colin Jacobsen, Jonathan Gandelsman, and Nicholas Cords will be joined by fellow Rider Eric Jacobsen, and Gabriel Kahane and Shara Worden. The program will include Stravinsky, Bartok and lots of new work, including more Carolina Performing Arts commissions, one a new piece by Colin Jacobsen.

Colin Jacobsen. Photo by Sarah Small.

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