The Two Sides of Valery Gergiev
In 1966, Hollywood put out a very funny picture entitled, “The Russians Are Coming.” Well in the Bay Area this week, the Russians aren’t coming; they are already here—and making their presence felt in a big way.
Their leader, a true Dappertutto, Valery Gergiev, has brought the famed Mariinsky Orchestra with him along with a handful of the world’s most talented pianists.
Remember the old television Western, “Have Gun, Will Travel”? With Gergiev, it’s “Have Orchestra, Will Travel”. The Russian maestro wanders far and wide to earn badly needed foreign exchange for the benefit of Mother Russia and his controversial patron, Vladimir Putin. Gergiev and Putin are so close that at least one politically-sensitive artist with a conscience refuses to work with him.
The Georgian violin virtuoso, Lisa Batiashvili, whose country has been colonized by the expansionist Putin, walked out of an engagement with Gergiev in the Netherlands recently to protest Gergiev’s close ties to the Russian strongman.
The good side of Gergiev is that for decades now he has been performing an invaluable service to music lovers in the US by introducing many Russian artists and unknown and underappreciated Russian music to American audiences.
Currently, Russia is producing an astounding number of superlative pianists—a true ‘golden age’. Last evening at Davies Hall in San Francisco, the best of the lot, Daniil Trifonov, gave a superb solo recital-- ‘Hommage to Chopin’-- which featured tributes to Chopin in the first half from such composers as Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and the virtually unknown but superb Catalan composer Federico Mompou whose Chopin Variations—written in 1957 for London’s Royal Ballet—were perhaps the most interesting of all.
In the second half, we heard from the great man himself in his Piano Sonata #2 (Funeral March) along with Chopin’s own arrangement of music from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
This was a long, intense, serious, rewarding and ultimately fatiguing program. A shorter first half would have been appreciated; by the time we got to its first notes of the piano sonata, I was totally exhausted. The 26-year old Trifonov is a lot tougher than his public
The afternoon before the Trifonov recital, Gergiev and 25 of the strings of the Mariinsky Orchestra-- known as the Stradivarius Ensemble of the Mariinsky Orchestra-- came to Stanford University’s Lively Arts Series to play a program of stringed instrumental music, with Gergiev bringing along another fabulous Russian pianist, Behzod Abduraimov, for Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto Number 1 (with trumpet).
Though Abduraimov is not yet on a level with Trifonov, he nonetheless did a spectacular job with the Shostakovich, bringing just the right amount of bite, flair, sardonic wit and poetry to the music. The trumpet though not the co-equal of the piano in this piece, contributes a particularly lovely muted air to the work’s Lento movement. From this early piece alone (1933), one can tell Shostakovich was a genius of the first order.
The last piece on the afternoon’s program was Tchaikovsky’s under-appreciated Serenade for Strings (1880). After the invigorating Shostakovich I thought to myself—“What could beat that?” The answer as I soon found out was the Tchaikovsky.
The Serenade for Strings is one of Tchaikovsky’s very best orchestral pieces. It is not as well known as some of his famous symphonies, perhaps because the strings only serenade is an unusual breed; Tchaikovsky is said to have wavered between writing a symphony or a string quartet before settling on a serenade for a stringed ensemble. It is a gorgeous, moving piece, full of Tchaikovsky heart, and the Mariinsky musicians did it full justice. Special mention should be made of the group’s leader, one Lorenz Nasturica, a big man with big white hair, big sound and big talent. Gergiev may have been the one standing before the musicians waving or should one say ‘trembling’ his hands but it soon became obvious that it was Nasturica who was the true leader of this terrific string ensemble.
One week later after a short detour to Davis, California where the Mariinsky Orchestra played a concert with Trifonov playing his own piano concerto, Gergiev was back in Berkeley for two concerts in the Cal Performances Series, with yet another great Russian pianist, Denis Matsuev, at the keyboard. Unfortunately, I will have to miss these performances due to the fact that Bay Area traffic makes the Berkeley concerts a bridge too far for me.
Here’s an inconvenient truth about Gergiev’s Bay Area concerts: I assume that at least 95 percent of the public at these concerts voted for Hillary Clinton; the Bay Area is solidly Democratic. What must the audiences be thinking about putting badly needed foreign exchange into the pockets of the very man, Vladimir Putin, that helped defeat Clinton in favor of Donald Trump in the last US presidential election—and might be using Gergiev’s current financial winnings to finance further intrusions into US elections? That’s a question a lot of music lovers would rather not be thinking about.