Last Friday night at NJPAC, it’s probably the most intriguing orchestral performance I’ve been to, one of the few times during which I didn’t take a nap. And I’m glad that J likes it as well.

Learning from the program note (which was taken verbatim from the orchestra’s website), the more than 200-year-old Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre has been a staple of the great Russian school from Glinka to Shostakovich. It also saw all the major faces from Berlioz to Schoenberg. Valery Gergiev, now 53, has been at its helm since 1988 and reclaiming its fame world wide.

I have a 2-CD set of Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra, and Friday’s pianist Alexander Toradze playing all 5 concertos of Prokofiev, which seems to be a definite recording. It sounded too “modern” to my classically inclined ears, so I don’t care much about it and haven’t listened to it often. But now I feel they’re probably more accessible than Shostakovich’s 8, so I should pay some more attention to them.

Some peculiar things that I noticed, before I talk about the music:

  • Gergiev didn’t use a podium. He wasn’t overly animated like Bernstein, so it doesn’t seem like a safety concern.
  • The location of the viola section and the cello section are swapped, with the violas sitting on the front right rows. From a picture in the program note, it’s not their normal position. The viola doesn’t seem to play too pronounced a role in either piece, so I’m not sure why the unusual arrangement.
  • The vast majority of musicians look like Russians, with only one female violinist with a slight East Asian look, and a male trumpeter with a definite Mid Asian/Mongolian look. These days it’s pretty hard not to see an abundance of Asian faces in a western orchestra, so I guess the Russian tradition is still too cold (literally and figuratively) to break.
  • The Prudential Hall stage is covered by grey wood flanks instead of the usual natural brown wood floor in dedicated concert halls, probably due to frequent dance performances there. It looks pretty ugly for an orchestra, and for some reason Toradze made a lot of noise knocking the floor when pedaling, which was a bit distracting.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is undoubtedly one of the biggest crowd pleaser in classical repertoire. I first heard its intro on a 9″ black-n-white TV as the background music for a surfing clip–must be early 80’s, and what an eye and ear opener it was! The clip was shown an awful lot of times due to either popular demand or the sheer lack of programming šŸ™‚

The most distinctive thing in the performance is the slowness of the first movement. I have a CD by Argerich, Kondrashin, and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, which I like very much–the combination of Rachmaninoff 3 and Tchai 1 is like winning the lottery after your startup just went IPO. So a Tchai 1 with trademark Argerich swagger and speed is deeply ingrained in my head, and I was quite shocked by the moderation and tenderness in Gergiev and Toradze. It’s a bit dragging at times, but mostly it’s surprisingly lyrical. Toradze didn’t seem to have warmed up well, though, playing some fast passages in the 1st movement in a murky and blurry way, but when he got to 2nd and 3rd his fingers started to catch fire.

It’s really some extraordinary feeling when the whole orchestra burst into the most magnificent parade at the finale: 4 5 4 | 4 – 2b3 | 24 1 2 | (lower octave) b7 5b7 4… Live music is magical, in whose swelling and scorching and scintillating waves and overtones can one be completely submerged and subsumed and sublimed.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 seems to be at the other extreme of a dichotomy, compared with Tchaikovsky 1. The only connection seems to be the composers’ common homeland. Where Tchai 1 is pleasant and melodic and accessible, Sho 8 is everything but. Given the context of the composition, the Soviet rhetoric against it is ridiculous, yet not surprising at all: the triumphant No. 7 was composed in 1941 (completed on 12/27) at the near victory of the Germans, and now in the summer of 1943 after the pivotal turn at Stalingrad, No. 8 came out as tragic as can be, whose side are you on?! It’s not unappropriate, though, that the Soviet later named it “Stalingrad”, suggesting that it commemorates the sacrifices in the bloodist battle in human history.

I’d never listened to any of Shostakovich’s symphonies before. Got a CD (Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, 1960 UK premiere) from the library just one day before the performance, and when I played it at home while we had dinner it was totally unbearable. No it’s not for what some Amazon reviewers called “legendary coughing” in the live recording–I simply couldn’t hear it because I had to turn the volume way down to try not to be bothered by the brutal dissonance. I thought it’d be excruciating to sit through more than an hour of maddening fanfare and shrieking violin, which would be particularly unfit for J.

Then on Friday during work I listened with headphones, and found it a bit more acceptable with some nice passages. They’re still not pleasant in the classical sense, but any hint of tonality and melody after a disarray of seemingly random phrases and rhythm is like finding water in the Sahara. In general that’s how I feel about modern music, and sometimes jazz, that some short moments of harmony and the resolution/transition towards them is good enough to make me enjoy the whole piece.

Come the live performance, it’s no doubt more grotesque and gripping and desolate than the recording, but strangely enough I found it quite enjoyable at times. The simmering and shimmering glimpse of hope in C major at the very end was particularly sweet and moving, after all the ear-screeching, heart-wrenching, soul-crunching bombardment of extreme discord and motor rhythm, regardless if those were meant for the German tanks or the Soviet regime. Yet the ending is nowhere near a flag-waving, crowd-cheering, street-dancing celebration. It’s merely a suffocated survival on scorched ruins. The fragility and brevity of hope makes Shostakovich a prophet for the subsequent half-century of more suffering inflicted upon the Russian people, and the ensuing chaos from the brutal capitalism shock therapy and ironhands that murder truth-seeking journalists.

Another thing that made us enjoyed the performance is that there’re many solo (or with slight accompaniment) passages by almost every instrument, especially in the wind section, so it’s interesting to look for the soloist for a visual match with the sound. I should watch out for a concert with Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.