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October 20, 2010

A brisk, bracing Mahler 8 from Gergiev, Mariinsky Orchestra in Washington

In the midst of a substantial Mahler fest in New York, Valery Gergiev and his mighty Mariinsky Orchestra zipped into D.C. for a performance of the composer's Symphony No. 8 on Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center.

There are never enough opportunities for live encounters with the so-called Symphony of a Thousand, so this was a must for any serious Mahler nut. It was more like Symphony of the Three Hundred in this presentation by the Washington Performing Arts Society, but that number of performers provided more than enough vocal and orchestral fire power. J

oining the Mariinsky instrumentalists were singers from the Mariinsky Theatre, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, Orfeon Pamplones from Spain, and Children's Chorus of Washington, all packed tightly onto the stage and the balcony overhead. (The only thing missing was the text. Maybe the whole house knew the Latin hymn and the German words from Part II of Goethe's "Faust" by heart, but I rather doubt it.)

Although I had reservations about some of Gergiev's interpretive approach, the experience ended up reaching quite a peak of expressive force and sheer decibels. The last half hour or so were truly magical.

This was a brisk Mahler 8. Gergiev tore through

Part I, "Veni, Creator Spiritus," at a bracing clip. I wouldn't have minded more relaxation in places, but the primary message of this movement -- "Light the light of our senses, pour love into our hearts" -- emerged compellingly. The conductor also seemed in a hurry at the start of Part II. (I still vividly recall how Lorin Maazel, in his final concert as music director of the New York Philharmonic a few years ago, drew out this long orchestral passage to suspenseful and gripping effect, each tremolo from the violins, each pizzicato from the lower strings registering deeply.) Gergiev showed far more interest in the remainder of the symphony. In masterful form, he shaped the music's final rapturous ascent, slowly building toward Mahler's stunning depiction of the ecstatic loosening of earthy bonds.

There was some untidy playing by the orchestra, but also a lot of richly expressive work, including some shining violin and viola solos and warm-hued woodwinds. The choruses handled their demanding assignments with distinction; voice sections in the adult choirs were smoothly balanced, articulation clear, dynamic contrasts sensitively delineated. The children sounded charming (they cupped their hands over the mouths to produce a little more volume).

By and large, the solos singers came through in style. Lyudmila Dudinova sang with particular radiance; her fellow sopranos -- Anastasia Kalagina and Viktoria Yastrebova -- were not far behind in warmth of tone and phrase. Bass Yevgeny Nikitin and, especially, baritone Alexei Markov produced vivid phrasing. Olga Savova's burnished mezzo was another plus. Tenor Avgust Amonov was nearly defeated by the punishing high notes (like Strauss, Mahler expected the unlikely, if not the impossible, from tenors), but he regained his footing and delivered the stirring "Blicket auf" passage quite affectingly.

Mahler's Eighth, conjuring visions of redemption and the eternal life-force that might melt the most determined agnostic, remains one of the most impressive works of Western music. It felt great to be in its presence again.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:48 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes


Ahem, we did not "cup" our hands and they didnt do anything to improve volume, it was psychological, to draw attention to our faces :P can't beleive they didnt tell you that...

Interesting. And odd. TS

Not true, the children were told to cup their hands around their mouths in order to project better. The children during the performance in London with Gergiev and the LSO 2 years ago did the same thing.

Thanks for the report. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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