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Valery Gergiev in concert: Stunning power, but it can be wearying

Valery Gergiev: Each musical phrase is plotted for its maximum expressive value.

Alexander Shapunov

Valery Gergiev and the Stradivarius Ensemble
Koerner Hall
Friday, October 26, 2012

There aren't many classical musicians that you'd invite to front a gala asking patrons to fork over $1,000 for drinks, a concert and dinner with the artist.

Valery Gergiev is one of them. The Russian-born conductor is a true international superstar, the hardest-working man in classical show business and a powerhouse of an artist.

Gergiev made a rare Toronto appearance with the Marinsky Theatre's Stradivarius Ensemble on Friday evening as part of the Royal Conservatory's season-opening gala at Koerner Hall, playing music by Richard Strauss, Dmitri Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. And I doubt that any of the Gala participants regretted their cash outlay.

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The Stradivarius Ensemble is a string orchestra made up of members of Gergiev's Marinsky Theatre Orchestra, all playing instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius and his contemporaries, thus making an absolutely beautiful blended sound only amplified by the superb acoustics of Koerner Hall. But what made the concert interesting was not the sound of the instruments but the use to which Gergiev put them.

Gergiev is a take-no-prisoners kind of conductor, an artist confident in his ability to create and shape power out of music – a power of contrast, drama, intensity and control. A Gergiev concert is like a military campaign, with each phrase plotted for its maximum expressive value. Nothing seems left to chance, or to whimsical spontaneity. The result is not unmusical – in fact, many find it superbly musical. But the overall effect can be wearying. At least to one listener.

Gergiev's program was especially interesting given his powerhouse style of music-making. Strauss's Metamorphosen and Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, a transcription of his String Quartet No. 8, are almost the same piece; both are tied to the horrifying political realities of the 20th century. A bewildered, 80-year-old Strauss wrote his work in late 1944 and early 1945, as his country and his world faced utter collapse at war's end. A bitter Shostakovich wrote his Quartet in an almost-suicidal frenzy in 1960, having been finally forced to join the Communist Party he detested. Both works have a melancholic, wistful heart.

But Gergiev chose to find the drama in each. The middle section of Strauss's tone poem recalls happier times, but is insistingly called back to tragedy by a motif that ultimately mimics the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. The sharp, cynical rhythms of the middle movement of Shostakovich's Quartet/Chamber Symphony haunt it throughout. But there is more than drama in both these pieces. There is in each a soul questioning itself. Gergiev didn't ignore this aspect of the music, but it was sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer dramatic power of his interpretation.

It was in the famous Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings that Gergiev's insistence on power was most evident. Tchaikovsky was also a composer who suffered his own political tragedy – except, in his case, the political was personal – his guilt and fear about his homosexuality. But in works like the Serenade, Tchaikovsky seems to have sublimated his pain in a fantasy of beauty and grace. Gergiev chose to hear the pain in the Serenade, rather than the charm. He placed the work in the company of Tchaikovsky's achingly personal last symphonies, rather than the glittery world of The Nutcracker. And while that meant some of Tchaikovsky's most subtle moments were paraded across the Koerner Hall stage like tanks at a May Day parade, it also meant the elegiac third movement of the Serenade was given an amazingly dramatic reading, making it the heart of the work.

At moments on Friday night, the entire Hall, and everyone in it, reverberated, it seemed, in unison. A powerful achievement for a powerful musician.

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