The heyday of touring orchestras is over, thanks to the economy, the collapse of state subsidies, the cost and inconvenience of travel, and numerous other factors. The last great band to appear on the Friends of the College series, in Raleigh, was the Dresden Philharmonic. Since then, our regional ensembles have come to the fore, to fill the void, more or less. But occasional visits by major orchestras, some of which have been world-class, have occurred sporadically at Duke and, in the past three years, at UNC. And it was to UNC’s Memorial Hall that one of the most distinctive ensembles in the world, polished and honed to virtual perfection by Valery Gergiev, came for the first of two mostly Russian programs, presented by Carolina Performing Arts and heard on what our glorious allies still call Armistice Day.

The Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, has been around, in one guise or another, for close to 300 years, but it has leapt to world prominence only under the leadership of Gergiev, despite his many distinguished predecessors. Our shrinking world has played a part in this, but the maestro’s indefatigable energy, his zest, his hunger for performances, and his immense discography, devoted in large measure to Russian musical treasures, have made this team – Gergiev and the Kirov – something with which music lovers everywhere must reckon. The reason for this was on bold display during the ensemble’s debut concert here, for which Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy and the encore, the grand Pax de deux from the Second Act of Nutcracker, bracketed works both rare and familiar by Prokofiev – excerpts from Chout (The Tale of the Buffoon) and Le Pas d’acier (The Steel Step), the second and third ballets, respectively, he composed for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (of Firebird, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring fame), plus a marvelous selection of music from the far-better-known Cinderella.

An old Russian expatriate once explained the magic of the great Russian orchestras, saying, basically, that of course the music is rich and dark-hued and intense, for the language is, too. It’s also a fact that the surnames of the personnel listed in the program – close to 100, including 55 strings, are on this US tour – seem to be largely Russian, which must be one more reason why this orchestra is almost unique in having retained its distinct national color, exemplified in low strings that suggest the basses in the choruses of Mussorgsky operas, in brasses of incomparable heft and sonority, and of woodwinds that speak with almost human vocal qualities while riding crests of musical waves in ways remote from the projections of most of our domestic groups. That said, this is an orchestra that is at one with itself in terms of balance and that is so much a virtuoso ensemble that its sections work with the technical precision of, for example, the most skilled dancers imaginable – Russian dancers, indeed!

Romeo and Juliet was a good jumping-off point, when the leader and the players came onto the stage (without having entertained the audience with a half-hour of pre-concert din…) and began to play. This familiar score took on new dramatic qualities, new voices, new textures, and new colors that brought the music vividly to new life. This served as an ideal introduction to those lesser-known, more modern Prokofiev scores, works that contrasted sharply with the older composer’s Romantic world-view. That said, it is useful to recall that Tchaikovsky was still alive when Prokofiev was born, and the wit, the brilliance, the sarcasm, the humor of Buffoon (and Steel Step, too, to a certain extent) clearly grew out of the long-standing artistic tradition of which these men were part – as the great operas and ballets of both amply demonstrate.

Chances are these first two Prokofiev scores were “new” to some members of the audience. I knew Chout from a long-ago Everest Lp by Adrian Boult (now available on CD!), but I’d never heard Steel Step or any part of it. For a propaganda piece, it has many charms, including a very lovely slow movement and a finale that in some respects out-does Alexander Mossolov’s roughly-contemporaneous “Iron Foundry.”

It was revelatory to hear these works brought to life by the Kirov players – and it’s hard to imagine any more committed readings than these. That this was almost certainly true was brought home in the familiar Cinderella, which many orchestras and ballet companies, too, have given here in America. In Chapel Hill, on this occasion, the accents were more pronounced, the playing, more intense and incisive, the joys and sorrows and the love music more heart-felt, more firmly etched in sound. At the end, there was a huge uproar, with many members of the audience standing to express their enthusiastic approval. Capping an evening of great contrasts that was, in retrospect, a good deal noisier – due to the selections themselves – than one might have anticipated, Gergiev and his instrumentalists offered that serene Pas de deux from Nutcracker, reminding us in no uncertain terms of the artistic and historical importance of this orchestra and its home base, the Mariinsky Theatre, where Nutcracker and its initial companion, the opera Iolanthe, were premiered in 1892. Talk about heritage!

Note: Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra present music from Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet plus Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with Alexei Volodin, tonight, November 12, at 7:30 p.m., in Memorial Hall. As of this writing tickets are still available, starting at $35. For more information, click here.

This teaser appeared on CVNC‘s home page 11/12/08 in connection with the Kirov’s second program:

Special notice: If it’s been a while since you heard a world-class Russian symphonic ensemble – or if you never have – you owe it to yourself to stop whatever else you are doing and call 919/843-3333 for a ticket to tonight’s Chapel Hill performance by the Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, under the leadership of Valery Gergiev. A review of last night’s all-Russian program in Memorial Hall will appear here later today, but meanwhile, the house was not completely full, and some tickets apparently remain for tonight’s program of music from Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet plus Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4, with pianist Alexei Volodin. It’s been 46 years since the Leningrad Philharmonic’s quite unforgettable appearance in Raleigh, for the Friends of the College, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. This pair of Kirov programs at UNC may wind up making comparable impressions in the musical memories of those who hear them. Be there! – John W. Lambert, Executive Editor, CVNC