Like a regiment of soldiers deftly escaping a potentially devastating attack on their unit, the Mariinsky Orchestra narrowly stayed one step ahead of Hurricane Sandy by getting one of the last flights out of Newark International Airport, arriving in Chapel Hill late Sunday night. This is no small feat, especially considering that this is no scaled-down touring group but an enormous orchestra with nearly one hundred players. This was their third engagement with Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) in the past five years, but tonight’s concert had the feel of a very special occasion, which indeed it was. If a performance can be considered a musical keynote address, this was it. CPA’s yearlong, internationally recognized celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had an early apex with this, the only full orchestral performance in the festival of this revolutionary work.

The Memorial Hall stage had every inch filled but there were no musicians yet, in keeping with the non-American tradition of all members of the orchestra walking out and being seated as one, rather than subjecting the audience to one hundred players practicing their parts as well as simultaneous concerto excerpts. Conductor Valery Gergiev strode out to lead the Mariinsky Orchestra and we were under way.

This was an all-Russian evening that showcased the strong traditions of the Russian people as well as a U.S. Premiere. The order of the program was changed a bit as the entire first half was now completely devoted to a powerful performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6. It would be hard to beat the enormous critical, popular and political success in 1937 of his fifth symphony, while the sixth, written two years later, had a tepid reception and remains relatively obscure. The sixth symphony, originally conceived by the composer as a mammoth work for orchestra, soloists and chorus and dedicated to Lenin, was scaled back to a non-programmatic, non-political, work with a somewhat unusual structure. This is a three movement symphony with the opening Largo taking up nearly as much time as the following two, markedly more extroverted and fast movements. This work sounds and feels like an epic journey from the depths of depression to an almost giddy euphoria. It was played not only with utmost technical brilliance, but that indefinable Russian character that perhaps can only be revealed by musicians who possess that deep within their DNA.

The second half began with what was programmed to be the concert opener: the U.S. Premiere of Cleopatra and the Snake by the very prolific Rodion Shchedrin, born in Moscow in 1932. Perhaps this piece was moved back to give soprano soloist Ekaterina Goncharova a little more time since she was a late replacement for the originally scheduled soloist. The text is based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and gives us a revealing look at the anguish of the Egyptian queen. Ms. Goncharova was radiant and regal in a deep, dark green gown. Much of the work was on the quiet side and she displayed great vocal control and beautiful tone across long, intimate lines. Her bearing and physical involvement effectively supported the text. The music was as difficult as anything played and Shchedrin had some moments of orchestral effects that were completely new to these ears. Gergiev expertly balanced the precarious relationship between orchestra and soloist, and this new work was warmly received by the audience.

Myths are fun, but it has now been generally accepted that it was not the music, but the costumes and choreography that caused the riot in Paris on May 29, 1913 when the world first heard Le Sacre du Printemps. Nevertheless, one hundred years after – as evidenced by the International festival going on at UNC all year – The Rite of Spring remains the most influential musical work of the past century, for players to scholars and everyone in-between.

Part 1: “The Adoration of the Earth” begins with the most famous bassoon solo in the entire orchestral literature. Another myth buster is that this sinewy, eerie solo is not entirely from Stravinsky’s fertile mind, but clearly based on a Lithuanian folk song. However, the following transformations and joining with the other woodwinds to this day still arouses, amazes and astounds even the most sophisticated musician. After this opening subsides, if we had previously been lulled by the sensuality of the opening, we are now bolted out of our dreams by the brutal, pounding of the strings and the ancient rites begin in earnest.

If I were dropped into this orchestra, even discounting the difficulty of the parts, I would have had trouble following Maestro Gergiev. From my vantage point he appeared to be from the school of conducting where a clear, discernible beat is not what he is there for. Gergiev is a musical sculptor who communicates the essence of the composer’s vision. This, combined with my real belief that there is that indescribable extra something that musicians with a unified cultural background can bring to music of their past, resulted in a performance that transcended anything many of us had previously experienced.  If anyone had previously doubted the reasoning for a yearlong celebration of this epochal musical miracle, I’m sure their minds were changed tonight.