Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Articles

Impressions of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony Conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Gergiev Festival in Rotterdam, The Netherlands

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for September 22, 2006, under headline,

When Gergiev leads, musicians take note

Now I'm convinced. Valery Gergiev, the Moscow-born Ossetian conductor, is a genuine musical phenomenon.

Although I'm still struggling through the pea-soup fog of the jet-lagged after my return to the Bay Area in pre-sunrise hours this morning (Sept. 19), I feel an urgency to share highlights from my intense week in the Netherlands. It was spent under the Olympian shadow of this remarkable conductor during rehearsals and ultimate performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 on September 17 in Rotterdam. The concert represented the culmination of a 10-day Freedom Festival under Gergiev's leadership. (Gergiev comes to the Bay Area on October 16, in a Cal Performances presentation in Berkeley.)

I was traveling with the Yale University Alumni Chorus, which, with a similar group from the Cambridge (England) University Music Society, was chosen to work with Gergiev and the Rotterdam Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of the Beethoven masterwork.

It was a roller coaster ride rocked with twists and turns of mighty Sturm und Drang. Gergiev, 53, as with past geniuses of his ilk, has been called "difficult," "distant" and "dismissive." Many say he is a tough, even merciless, taskmaster. But alongside these cants are rosier descriptors like "brilliant," "intense," "mystical" and "uncannily profound."

According to my experience, he appears to be ALL of the above. Like some of his musical genius predecessors, he can be demanding and mercurial. Think Wagner, Mahler and even Beethoven. But other aspects are redolent of Tchaikowsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. One thing is sure: The man is totally dedicated to his art.

In a still-relevant interview for the June 1992 issue of Opera News, my distinguished ANG music colleague Stephanie von Buchau quotes Gergiev as saying "Classical music is more than temporary pleasure. Art is not about revolution, politics or who is in power. If we mix these, as they did in the past, it will be dangerous, and I'm not going to allow it in my theater."

"His" theater, is the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, home to the Kirov Ballet, Opera and Orchestra. At the time of the quote, he was referring to the crumbling Communist leadership of the former Soviet Union. But his comments can be universally applied today. They neatly describe the Rotterdam Festival title: Freedom (in Dutch, "Vrijheid").

Following the chorus' first encounter with the Maestro during the evening rehearsal Sept. 15, reactions were none too positive. "The first word that came to my mind," said one of the more tolerant of the participating Yalies, was `dismissive.'" Another more kindly comment from another Bay Area-based chorus member was,"He needs work on his people skills and in time management."

Others were angrier. Their main reason was, that after arriving at the agreed-upon rehearsal time, Gergiev told them to sit in the back in the auditorium and wait until he was finished with the orchestra. They sat for two long hours during what one person called "Gergiev's long master class for the orchestra."

When they were finally called to join the rehearsal, there was no apology for the wait, nor a particularly warm welcome or acknowledgement to the chorus for its pro-bono effort. After a terse "hello," the Maestro simply launched into the music.

My first chance to observe the real, live Maestro was when he appeared before the assembled, waiting orchestra and chorus for the rehearsal of Arnold Schoenberg's "A Survivor from Warsaw" the next day. Again, Gergiev offered only a curt "hello" to the musicians, and, a bit later, a comparatively warm welcome to Maximillian Schell, the German-speaking world's answer to Sir Lawrence Olivier, who narrated the work.

Attitudes, however, changed dramatically AFTER the performance. Where there was once doubt, there was now unabashed praise and even wonderment at what most interpreted as his almost mystical skill in communicating exactly what he wanted from them, and all the while, totally (but wordlessly) convincing them that he knew the composers' minds.

The actual performance was a Beethoven's 9th like I've never before heard. Both the chorus and the audience were euphoric afterward. There was an intensity about it, that, although still respectably refined, maintained a seething, almost raw power about it. It had an almost Russianized Beethoven in its power and passion. Even during its precise, contrapuntal-like passages, as well as its gently expansive slow movement, Gergiev was able to keep the mood taut and intense and clearly headed toward some great ultimate goal. Although he certainly kept the lid on the figurative pot, one had the sense that it was always just about to boil over.

Was there enough juice left for the piece's "Ode to Joy" finale? Yes indeed. The chorus glistened with a resplendent and balanced sonority and power. (I was sitting in the audience, not among the chorus). Quite simply, the singers, mostly amateurs, had never sounded better. The diction was faultless to a fare-thee-well and the cohesion with the orchestra and the Maestro total.

The fantastic finale was breathtaking — there was a pause of a few seconds before the audience rose for a fortissimo-level standing ovation.

In effort to try to analyze technical things he did to achieve such dramatic effects, I noted that Gergiev eschewed both baton and a podium. Instead, he relied on his eyes, arms, hands and fingers, as well as rhythmic body movements, to transmit his intentions to the instrumentalists and the chorus. At brief times during rehearsal he used a small stylus, or pencil-size baton, but it was set aside while his fingers fluttered like butterflies whose wings seemed to re-create the inner pulses of the beat — or, perhaps they were in sync with the violinists' left-hand vibrato on their instruments' strings. Whatever the reason for this unusual technique, its ultimate effect contributed mightily to the stunning results.

The same could be said about the kinetic use of his body. He often took an actual step toward whichever instrumental section he was cueing, and his conducting style often included rhythmic up-and-down, in-place body movements duplicating and transmitting sub-pulses within each beat.

I asked some Yale and Cambridge singers to describe the experience.

"It was a total thrill," said one California-based Yale singer. "He's aware of the tiniest sound we make."

A Connecticut-based singer commented, "During the rehearsals he seemed to be taking everything we did into his mind. Then, when it came time for the performance, he was able to get us to do just what he wanted. He was totally convincing. He gave us each cutoff and nuance. He required, and got, our total attention. We knew he would accept no less."

"He always seemed to be striving to an ideal," said another musician. "It was as though he had an inner-recording of exactly how the composer wanted the piece, and an equally strong will that enabled him to transmit it to the musicians."

An Alaska-based singer metaphorically summed up the Gergiev magic method: "He oesn't do spring-training or batting practice. He flies in for the big game and then gives his all — and gets it."

A New York City-based recent Yale graduate member of the chorus put it the most graphically. "One of the reasons Gergiev is so significant is his intensity and emotive power as he conducts. He's the first conductor I've ever worked with, who, after the concert was over, had sweat so much that his tie, as well as his shirt, was wet through!"

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