Majestic Music with a Russian Accent

By Bradley Bambarger

There’s a Russian theme running like a red thread through the classical music season at NJPAC. The sun doesn’t both rise and set in the East, of course: The lineup for 2013-14 includes some of today’s most beloved American performers (such as violinist Joshua Bell) and Western works that are as iconic as music can be (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony).

Yet NJPAC is bringing music lovers in the Garden State an opportunity to revel in the grand Russian tradition from Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky to Rachmaninoff as performed by artists for whom this repertoire is their mother tongue: human whirlwind of a conductor Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra, lifelong piano luminary Evgeny Kissin and rising keyboard star Denis Matsuev, sage conductor Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and suave violinist-conductor Vladimir Spivakov, among others.

The classical season kicks off Oct. 13 in Prudential Hall with Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra – voted one of the world’s greatest by Gramophone magazine – in a program that’s virtually the alpha and omega of early 20th-century Russian Romanticism. Stravinsky’s kaleidoscopic ballet score The Firebird is steeped in folksong melodies and age-old Russianness, while Rachmaninoff’s ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 3 is a virtuoso showpiece in the grandest style. The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini offered evocative praise for a recent account of The Firebird by Gergiev and the Mariinsky at Lincoln Center, saying that it was “a performance so organic, intense and haunting that this repertory staple came across as the pathbreaking stunner it was in 1910.”

Gergiev celebrated his 60th birthday in May, and this is the 25th year since he first took the reins of the ensembles of the Mariinsky Theatre, or the Kirov as it was called then. Throughout Gergiev’s tenure with the orchestra – a relationship that’s like a blood bond at this point – he has also collaborated with the finest Russian singers and instrumentalists. One of the latter is Siberian pianist Denis Matsuev, who will solo in the program’s “Rach 3.” He made a live recording of the piece with Gergiev and company in 2009. The Times of London was bowled over, saying: “Matsuev holds that most titanic of piano concertos in a passionate embrace, lavish with his rubato, devastatingly certain in his articulation, sensitive to color and balance, aware of how to pace and thus make coherent the architecture of this massive work.”

There is perhaps no piece in the Russian repertoire more familiar to American concertgoers than another, earlier concerto: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 – a work that became more popular than ever thanks to the Cold War triumph with it in the Soviet Union by Texas pianist Van Cliburn, who passed away earlier this year. On Feb. 16, 2014, NJPAC presents the St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by the veteran Yuri Temirkanov (Gergiev’s predecessor at the Kirov, who has been described as “an icon” on the Russian music scene), with young prize-winner Denis Kozhukhin as the soloist in the Tchaikovsky concerto.

When Evgeny Kissin recorded Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with Gergiev in 1988, the former child prodigy was already an old hand, though still in his teens. Kissin’s famous otherworldliness has often made it seem as if he were born and bred purely as a vessel for keeping the flame of the golden-age Russian piano school alive – but he has begun to speak out politically in recent years. Kissin’s March 6 solo recital includes works by one of the more eccentric figures in Russian music history: Alexander Scriabin, the messianic synesthete who also composed some of the most ravishing piano music of the fin-de-siècle.

Before violinist-conductor Vladimir Spivakov and his Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra close the classical season on May 16 with sweetmeats by Vivaldi, Boccherini, Rossini and Tchaikovsky, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra will perform a wide-ranging program on May 9 under Music Director Jacques Lacombe that includes Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture – a piece with dramatic tunes that can be affecting no matter how many soap operas have plundered them. Along with works by Ravel and Grieg, the NJSO program will feature superstar Joshua Bell performing the Violin Concerto of the great Finn Sibelius – a 20th-century concerto as thrilling as any ever written.

Beyond the Russian theme, the season includes an all-Beethoven program on Jan. 10 with violinist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman leading the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Along with the atmospheric yet rarely heard Overture to Prometheus and the granitic Symphony No. 5, the concert will see Zukerman both soloing and directing the English orchestra in Beethoven’s lyrical Violin Concerto. Returning to NJPAC is a group that helped inaugurate the hall in 1997: the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, a favorite of conductors from Leonard Bernstein to Gustavo Dudamel. Excellent Milanese conductor Gianandrea Noseda will lead the ensemble in a program that includes Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique; this programmatic fantasy was ahead of its time in 1830, pioneering a kind of sonic theater that would influence virtually every film composer more than a century beyond.

A former critic for The Star-Ledger, Bradley Bambarger writes about music for Listen, DownBeat and various other publications. He lives in New York City, where he founded and curates the Sound It Out concert series.

Sept. 27, 2013
 

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