By Robert D. Thomas
Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily News
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. Valery Gergiev, conductor; Alexander Toradze, pianist
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1919); Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1
Tuesday, October 18, 2011 • Valley Performing Arts Center
The Valley Performing Arts Center on the Cal State Northridge campus fills a major cultural hole in the San Fernando Valley. It hosted the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of Russia last night.
With about 1.75 million residents, the San Fernando Valley — were it to be a city — would be the fifth-largest municipality in the United States (can you name the other four? See the answer at the bottom of this post) and the only one of the top five without a major concert hall … until this year, when the Valley Performing Arts Center opened on the Cal State Northridge campus.
Apparently not everyone in the Valley has gotten the word of the new hall’s opening; last might’s concert by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of Russia — one of the world’s great ensembles — didn’t fill all 1,700 seats in what is known as the Great Hall.
Last night wasn’t the first orchestral concert at VPAC (the China Philharmonic appeared last spring) but it certainly was a major test of the auditorium’s acoustics, one that the Great Hall (as the main room is called) passed with flying colors to these ears. Moreover, the hall is visually striking inside and out (more on the hall later in this post).
The Mariinsky Orchestra and its music director, Valery Gergiev, are in the midst of a grueling 17-concerts-in-20 days, coast-to-coast-to coast trip that began October 4 in New Jersey, continued with three concerts to open the season at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, then dropped down to Fairfax, Virginia, before heading to California. In our state, they played Thursday in Costa Mesa, last weekend (twice) in Berkeley, Monday back in Costa Mesa and last night at VPAC. From here it’s on to Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa in Canada before they return home (if they haven’t dropped dead from exhaustion). Oh, and by the way, from Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, the group was in Bejing.
Most of the tour stops are getting some combination of the six Tchaikovsky symphonies, but last night’s concert eschewed the popular Russian composer; instead, it played all 20th century Russian fare, opening with Stravinsky’s 1919 suite from his ballet The Firebird.
Many people believe that the Mariinsky Orchestra (during the Communist era it was known as the Kirov) is one of the last orchestras in the world to retain some sort of nationalistic flavor in its playing. If that means deep, resonant low strings and brass that manage to meld an interesting combination of bite and mellowness, then they’re right. Last night’s performance wasn’t always tidy but the sound was rich, the orchestra sounded better overall than I remember from hearing it five years ago in Costa Mesa, and 2/3 of the concert was top-notch.
One reason for the occasional untidiness is that Gergiev has one of the most unusual conducting styles of anyone plying their craft these days. He uses neither a podium nor a baton (but did use a score for all three works last night). He stands on the floor and his hands are almost constantly fluttering, so much so that it almost seems as if he’s afflicted with a tremor. In many ways, he’s a minimalist with his gestures; there were times (e.g., in the transition to the Infernal Dance in The Firebird) when a more violent gesture might have gotten a bit more bite from of his players.
Gergiev also likes to luxuriate in his orchestra’s rich sound and his tempos can turn glacial, occasionally. That, of course, gives his section leaders chances to spread their wings (so to speak) in The Firebird, with kudos going to the oboe, cello, clarinet and, in particular, to the horn solo at the opening of the Finale (the program lists individuals by names in sections but doesn’t identify the winds, brass or percussion section principals).
What was most impressive about The Firebird was how mellow everyone — but particularly the brass sections — sounded in the majestic conclusion, even from a fifth-row orchestra seat when one might have expected to be blown away. Nothing of the sort occurred; an acid test for the hall, from my perspective.
After intermission, Gergiev and Co. closed with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1, which is a pretty gutsy (or foolhardy) choice for a tour program.
Shostakovich wrote the piece in 1925 when he was 19 years old as a graduation piece at the Leningrad Conservatory. Even for a world that had been turned on its ear sonically by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring 12 years earlier, one wonders what faculty members judging this precocious, 35-minute, four-movement must have thought.
From the perspective of time, we can see evidences of what was to come from the composer, especially the first piano concerto (the piano plays a prominent role in the symphony’s second movement). An occasional rough patch notwithstanding, Gergiev and the orchestra played the symphony boldly and brought out its occasionally sardonic, occasionally cheeky humor with panache.
Prior to intermission, Alexander Toradze was the soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The program bio lauds Toradze’s “unorthodox interpretations, deeply poetic lyricism and intense emotional excitement.” To my ears (a decidedly minority opinion, judging by the audience reaction), Toradze bludgeoned the outer movements, displayed little, if any, poetic lyricism, and his “intense emotional excitement” consisted of flexing his muscles before launching into each of the many pyrotechnic sections and bouncing off of the piano stool when he ended said portions. He made Lang Lang’s rendition in Hollywood Bowl last summer seem positively elegant by comparison.
The orchestra’s accompaniment was the highlight of the piece for me, although there were a couple of times when things slowed down so much that the high strings turned squeaky in ultra-soft moments.
As noted, the audience was euphoric over the Prokofiev and The Firebird. It seemed less sure about the Shostakovich but eventually brought forth enough enthusiasm so that Gergiev and Co. offered a witty encore: Anatoly Lyadov’s Baba Yaga.
More on the VPAC:
Set on the south side of the CSUN campus, the Valley Performing Arts Center is a striking stainless steel and glass, four-story structure surrounded on two sides by a fountain and a park in which 173 new trees were planted (to go with 14 already in place). The outside concrete plaza has lighted strips embedded and metal benches; the entire facility has an open, pleasant feel especially on a balmy evening (as we had last night). The VPAC cost $125 million and contains 166,000 square feet of space.
The inside lobbies use 6 million light beige floor tiles that create a light, airy feel (although each of the four levels could use a few more benches for seats). In addition to the multi-purpose main hall, the facility has a 178-seat black box theater, 230-seat lecture hall and new broadcast space for KCSN, the university’s public radio station.
The light feeling continues inside the Great Hall, which is essentially a rectangle but the wooden sides gave me the feeling of sitting inside of a Longaberger Basket — not unpleasant, just interesting. Since the facility was built to handle all sorts of performances (upcoming events include the New York City Ballet, CSUN Opera’s Cosi Fan Tutte, and The King’s Singers — links to all three HERE), the stage has side and back walls and no rear seats, such as you find at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The whole facility is a great addition to the Valley scene. One hopes more people — including students — will learn about it in the months to come.
• Quiz answer: the top five cities by population are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston (which are larger than the San Fernando Valley) and Philadelphia — No. 5 on the list — which is smaller than the SFV. If the Valley were subtracted from Los Angeles, L.A. would drop to third, just above Houston.
• The printed program included not a word about the new facility.
• Last night marked the third of at least four performances of the Prokofiev third concerto that we will have heard or will be hearing locally within a four-month period, beginning with Lang Lang to open the Bowl’s classical season. Xiayin Wang played the piece with the St. Petersburg Symphony earlier this month at the new Soka Performing Arts in Orange County and Yuja Wang will be the soloist when James Conlon and the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform the concerto at Walt Disney Concert Hall Nov. 4, 5 and 6 (LINK).
(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.
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