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The Idea of East

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
02/13/1999 -  
Claude Debussy: La Mer
Bela Bartok: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin
Alexander Borodin: Symphony #2

New York Philharmonic
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

The field of ethnomusicology is only about 150 years old but it has already influenced many of the great works of music since its inception. The connections between Western classical music and Asian folk music have been explored since Liszt published his tome on the music of the gypsies. Three of the most significant works of this crosspollination were performed last night by the New York Philharmonic under guest maestro Valery Gergiev. Inspired by the gamelan music at the Paris Exposition of the 1890's, Debussy developed his whole tone scale around the turn of century as an exotic variant on Western ideas with a largely Chinese pentatonic influence (interestingly not a variant of the slendro tuning of the gamelan). What he borrowed directly from the Balinese was the colorful use of instrumentation layered in a feathery tapestry creating the diaphanous moment. His masterpiece, La Mer, is the supreme example of his unique art.

Hungarian music, like the Magyar language itself, is directly descended from its Asian roots. No one was more aware of this than the most distinguished ethnomusicologist since the beginning of the discipline, Bela Bartok. Although many of Bartok's pieces have the tinge of the Orient, only one, the phantasmagorical ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, is an attempt to synthesize East Asian scales and motives and present them in a twentieth century Western manner.

The amateur musician Alexander Borodin (he was a chemist by profession) had the most personal connection with Asian culture of the three composers featured on the program. He was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and always had the sound of the Caucasus in his ear as he composed primarily for his own pleasure. The most famous example, of course, is the Polevtsian Dances from Prince Igor but perhaps a more representative embodiment of the Central Asian musical world is Khan Konchak's aria from the same opera. Echoes of the steppes permeate the beautiful Symphony #2.

If I were going to cast a film about crime bosses in Odessa or Brighton Beach, my lead would be Valery Gergiev. He has a very tough look about him, accentuated by the fact that he always seems to have not shaven for three days (how does he do that?) and a certain air of the sinister about him. It takes a tough man to make a tender orchestra and Gergiev proved last night that it is possible to tame this notoriously recalcitrant ensemble. Having survived the Communists he has done a wizard's job of keeping the Kirov orchestra and chorus together in the face of dire economic times at the Maryinsky Theatre, become the principal of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, inaugurated major festivals in St. Petersburg, Finland and Israel and become the heir apparent to James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera. His festival of Russian opera last spring was the most important event of the entire season at the Met. Gergiev is also responsible for introducing the great operas of Rimsky-Korsakoff to Western audiences and his recordings and videos of The Maid of Pskov and Sadko are highly recommended. He had planned a complete retrospective of the entire Rimsky opera output at the Kirov but ran out of money half way through.

The Philharmonic really responded to this charismatic man. La Mer was nothing short of spectacular, with all of the layers of gossamer clearly punctuated and combined into a fabulous whole. The Play of the Waves section, often considered the first legitimate piece of twentieth century music, was tremendously exciting and the violin solos of Sheryl Staples were gorgeous. The Miraculous Mandarin was frenetically executed and its rhythmic complexity flawlessly reproduced, with Gergiev frantically turning pages in his conductor's score keeping up with his Mach III tempi. The trombone section, led by Joseph Alessi, deserves special mention, not only expressively navigating this difficult score but imbuing the biting phrases with a hint of Bartokian burlesque reminiscent of the fourth movement of his Concerto for Orchestra.

But as great as these two performances were, the highlight of the evening was the heroic reading of the Borodin. Mr. Gergiev is the master of this music and he wrung every scrap of emotion out of his uncharacteristically pliant forces. This was music making of the highest order. Regular readers of these pages know that I am pleased to see young people at classical concerts and at this event I was delighted to notice several hundred attending as a group. Concerts like this one renew my faith that the great music of the ages will survive our era of pop supremacy.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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