Gergiev and Mariinsky mix it up at Kravis

By Greg Stepanich

This has been an important year for a reassessment of the work of Sergei Prokofiev, with the Mark Morris Dance Group reviving the original version of Romeo and Juliet, and a new book out this month from Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison that takes a look at the composer’s Soviet years.

One of Russia’s most venerable orchestras could also be said to be doing its bit for the man who wrote Peter and the Wolf. The Mariinsky Orchestra — which until Monday was known as the Kirov Orchestra in the United States — has brought several of Prokofiev’s important ballet scores, as well as the rarely heard Fourth Piano Concerto (for the left hand), to three venues here in South Florida under the leadership of the leading Russian conductor of the day, Valery Gergiev.

Tuesday afternoon at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, the Mariinsky devoted the second half of its program to the first act of Romeo and Juliet on a bill that also featured the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, with pianist Alexei Volodin, and the prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin (a brisk version of the prelude to Act III served as a crowd-pleasing encore).

Volodin, a Russian pianist with a large, growing career, proved to be an excellent Beethoven interpreter. The Fourth is a groundbreaking concerto that gains in depth what it sacrifices in glitz, and Volodin’s crisp, clean, faultless technique gave this 200-year-old work a fresh sparkle that had the effect of highlighting the ingeniousness of Beethoven’s structural planking.

He was particularly eloquent in the second movement, that remarkable strings-and-piano dialogue, with the orchestra dropping things to a brooding whisper in the final bars before the arrival of the finale. Gergiev and the Mariinsky were ideal companions, matching Volodin hush for hush, and playing the tutti sections with plenty of inner life and fire.

The concert opened with the first Lohengin prelude, legendary for its tuning treacherousness, and this performance was no exception. Intonation was shaky at the beginning and in the closing bars, with a painfully flat third in the closing brass chords. Still, it wasn’t too wince-inducing to take away from the intense, passionate interpretation brought to it by Gergiev, who eschewed the use of a podium this afternoon and who conducts with a mannered right-hand movement that appears to be used for all manner of direction from dynamics to accents.

The special virtues of the Mariinsky are its depth of ensemble across the sections of the orchestra and its special color; there is a warmth to the strings and woodwinds that strikes me as more intimate than the colder precision you often hear from major orchestras. Romeo and Juliet is exemplary for showing this off, and this was a fine reading of this great 20th-century score.

Through all 21 sections of the Act I music, Gergiev and his charges brought out all the beauty and quirkiness of Prokofiev’s writing, to marvelous effect. And things weren’t overdone, either: Instead of going all-out with the huge chord clusters that accompany the prince’s orders, there was just enough restraint to make the chords weighty without being overwhelming.

Delicate moments also were expertly judged, with lovely flute, harp and strings work, and the final Love Dance had a beautiful glow that was no less moving for being warm and personal rather than ecstatic.

8 p.m. Wednesday at the Kravis Center: Prokofiev: Chout (Symphonic Suite), Piano Concerto No. 4, Cinderella (Suite No. 3); Mendelssohn: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. $25-$95. 561-832-7469;

8 p.m. Thursday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami: Wagner: Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin; Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4; Prokofiev: Excerpts from the ballets Cinderella and The Steel Step. 305-808-7446;

Greg Stepanich has covered classical music, theater and dance for 25 years at newspapers in Illinois, West Virginia and Florida. He worked for 10 years at The Palm Beach Post, where he was an assistant business editor and pilot of Classical Musings, a classical music blog. He now blogs at, and works as a freelance writer and composer.

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Wed Nov 5, 2008
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