The notes emanating from the string section of the Mariinsky Orchestra danced through the air of Zellerbach Hall like ballerinas showing off their most stylish spins and twirls. Vivid and commanding, the ensemble seized the attention of the audience immediately as it launched into Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1. Like a robust, pulsating organism, the orchestra came to life at once, swinging between melancholy, fear and excitement along the intonations prescribed by the composer.
At times racing, at times sauntering from measure to measure, the Russians played without a stammer or a moment of hesitation, with the technique and passion for which they are famed. With a single note held by a bassoon, the audience was kept in suspense until violin melodies rushed in to induce catharsis. Tchaikovsky’s First is characterized by long, silky string vibratos complemented by elegant progressions on cello and bass, which were delivered here with purpose and power. There was no resisting the Mariinsky musicians, and few could help getting swept away by the time the first piece reached its dazzling finale.
The Mariinsky Orchestra, one of Russia’s oldest and most acclaimed, arrived at Cal to perform six Tchaikovsky symphonies over the past weekend. The opening night consisted of Symphony No. 1, known as “Winter Daydreams,” and Symphony No. 6, the “Pathetique.” At the orchestra’s helm is Valery Gergiev, a world-renowned conductor and the Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. Gergiev entered the stage at Zellerbach with the calm authority of an accomplished yet unassuming artist. His conducting was a pleasure to watch as he bounced on his tiptoes or flicked his wrists to the rhythm of the music.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the second half of the performance, was a more somber affair, yet more compelling. Beginning with delicate, interweaving bars imbued with darkness, this piece was where Gergiev showed his mastery. As he articulated the symphony’s rich emotion, there were moments when Gergiev looked to be on the verge of dancing.
The musicians responded to their conductor with undulating intensity. The wind section meandered above a steady violin-plucking rhythm before a full-bodied climax saw the string section attacking their instruments with agile bows. Soon after, the “Pathetique” turned gentle and soothing, converting into a scintillating yet brooding melody. The atmosphere was like the sea after a storm, calm, ebbing, with Gergiev swaying softly like a boat on tranquil waters.
If there was a flaw in the Mariinsky Orchestra’s performance, it was in the staging, not the music. The wind section, which played so beautifully, was completely hidden behind a mass of cellos and upraised violin bows. Audience members craned their necks in search of the clarinets and oboes whose sumptuous sounds reached their ears, but to no avail. Granted, unlike the stages of most symphony halls, the Zellerbach stage is flat, not tiered. But given that the percussion section was raised on a platform, one wondered why the same couldn’t have been done to make the wind section visible as well.
Staging aside, this was a first-rate performance. Interpretation is everything with Tchaikovsky’s work, and Gergiev reads his compatriot down to the very last detail and even further, often finding ways to elaborate on the composer’s inflections. In a particularly expressive moment, the conclusion of the Sixth saw Gergiev pause for a full minute in mid-motion, arms in the air, still as a statue. He seemed to be making sure that the final note would continue to ring, as if to keep the spirit of Tchaikovsky alive.