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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Stars Fell on Carolina Last Night

In the early-falling dark, golden leaf-stars drifted down, skittering against the windshield, plastering themselves to the shining blacktop. They blew into shallow drifts against the steps of Memorial Hall as theater-goers hurried out of the chill wind, turning their umbrellas right side out, eager for the warm light. Inside, the mood mixed relief (the storm was not for us, this time) with somber anxiety (this storm is going to hurt a lot of people we know) with anticipation (we are about to hear one of the world’s finest orchestras) and a lashing of potent privilege (we’ll be the first in the U.S. to hear this commission), and the crowd buzzed quietly. We settled early into our seats; the Mariinsky Orchestra into theirs, rank after rank of chairs filling the stage. Silence, all awaiting Maestro Valery Gergiev and the two featured trumpeters for Matthias Pintscher’s Chute d’Etoiles, Part 1. Only the fricative rub of rosin on bow strings disturbed the quiet. We were “gathered together in the name of music,” as Emil Kang of Carolina Performing Arts said in his introduction. Music to drown a hurricane; music to outlast death.

Carolina Performing Arts co-commissioned, along with the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, Pintscher’s work as part of its grand investigation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The composer (b. Germany 1971) worked with a two-trumpet theme from The Rite, but perhaps more importantly was inspired by  German artist Anselm Keifer’s (b. 1945) Chute d’Etoiles. Keifer has often used lead in his paintings/constructions, and its qualities of density, malleability and muted reflectivity are all evident in Pintscher’s music.

In the permanent collection of the NC Museum of Art: Anselm Kiefer, Untitled, 1980–1986, oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, lead, charcoal, and straw on photograph, mounted on canvas; with stones, lead, and steel cable; in three parts: (panel with boulders) 130 1/4 x 73 in., (panel with ladder) 130 5/8 x 72 5/8 in., (panel with funnel) 130 1/4 x 72 7/8 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina, W. R. Valentiner, and various donors, by exchange.

Listening the the 10-minute work, I felt very much as I feel grappling with our Keifer at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Time compresses and expands. Lines shoot toward the viewer, arrowing in, then race away. Velvety murk muffles and confuses. Space opens out. Something resolves itself, but remains a mystery. Traces glow in memory. Now when I see Keifer, I will hear muted trumpets, beckoning, calling up infinite distance.

There was more, of course–Shostakovich, and R. Strauss’ Heldenleben, dedicated to the memory of Bill Friday–but it will have to wait. Tonight the splendid orchestra will play the grand mad Rite, and I need to get there.

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