On how Valery Gergiev made New York City sound like Mahler
I. Mahler and New York
Gustav Mahler and New York hold an intimate relationship. Mahler lived the final years of his life in the city, from 1908 until 1911, where he conducted the Metropolitan Opera right after leading the Vienna Court Opera, where he was praised by his outrageous performances and also established the strict -and still existent- protocol concertgoers must follow in terms of dress code, behavior and applauses. In 1909, Gustav Mahler would become the Musical Director of the New York Philharmonic.
Mahler's years in New York were bittersweet. His tenure at the Metropolitan Opera was acclaimed by the media, but his first season with the New York Philharmonic was frustrating throughout the 46 concerts it offered: it gained him harsh criticism because of his program choices, and the box office revealed significant losses.
In spite of these hard circumstances, Mahler kept on conducting the New York Philharmonic through 1911. At the beginning of that year, Mahler would start to complain about a persistent pain in his throat, an injury that failed to bring down his drive of conducting and writing music. On February 21st, 1911, Mahler conducted his last concert at Carnegie Hall. From that moment on, his health gradually worsened until he passed away on May 18th, 1911.
This year represents Mahler's 150th birthday, and 2011 signifies the centenary of Mahler's death. New York paid homage to one of the most important composers ever -and one of its most prominent conductors- through a cycle of some of his symphonies performed by one of Europe's finest ensembles: Mariinsky Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev.
II. Gergiev, his theater and his orchestra
Valery Gergiev is not just one of the most remarkable conductors nowadays. This Russian titan is also one of the most emblematic cultural managers of these times. General and Artistic Director of the Mariinsky Theater, Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Honorary Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera are all roles that have earned him the title of "the hardest working conductor".
Gergiev has run the Mariinsky Theater since 1988. Since then, he embarked himself on making it into one of the best cultural institutions of the world, an already achieved goal thanks to his deep-rooted patriotism, a sharp group of politic skills and lots of work: the Mariinsky Orchestra is the opera ensemble with the largest annual number of performances and it's also the best paid in the world.
One of the main objectives Gergiev has set himself with his orchestra is to exalt the music from Russian composers of the twentieth century like Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev, one that was vetoed throughout the last century by several orchestras due to their strong political attachment. Gergiev has firmly called the attention to their music: "You have to stop associating Shostakovich's music with Stalin, in Shostakovich's music there's just his music, and it's beautiful music", the Russian conductor declared in a recent interview with Charlie Rose.
This sensitive liaison between politics and art, so inherent to Russian culture, is something that is very difficult to assimilate and hence to understand for the American society -one wherein art isn't well viewed when it gets too political. Additionally, Gergiev has been severely criticized in the States because of his close relationship to Vladimir Putin.
However, Gergiev's effort to turn his beloved theater into one of the most important cultural complexes around the world, rather than looking diminished, it keeps on growing vigorously. In 2012, he hopes to inaugurate the new Mariinsky Hall, a venue that's been built with the most advanced technology for operatic spaces. If that wasn't enough already, Gergiev has also founded a record company by the name of Mariinsky Label to release high quality recordings with his orchestra -something that, according to him, isn't possible to get anymore from the already established and big classical music labels. The releases include a complete cycle of Shostakovich's symphonies and other works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and critics and listeners have already praised them.
All of these initiatives might respond to the ultimate goal Gergiev looks forward to achieve: inspire young people to make music. "Just like Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky decided to become composers after being at the Bolshoi and Kirov Theaters, that's what I hope it happens when one kid enters and experiences one of my concerts at the Mariinsky Theater". (When he performed Mahler's Fifth Symphony, the first four rows in the Orchestra section of Carnegie Hall were indeed occupied by kids from public schools of New York.)
III. The verdict
According to The New York Times, Mariinsky Orchestra's distinctive sound consists of "mellow, warm strings; reedy and soft-edged poignancy woodwinds; and weighty and rich brasses". However, when this journal reviewed this series of concerts, it remarked some inconsistencies during the performances of the Second and Eighth Symphonies. (The Times attributed this imprecision to the frantic agenda the orchestra had to face in the course of its New York run.)
(Just so you have an idea of how much it takes these two symphonies to be played, it's been said that in terms of production it could take even a year to coordinate between the orchestra, the venue and the large number of choral ensembles involved. That's why many consider it's highly unlikely that there's any other orchestra in the world capable of playing a group of six Mahler symphonies in just five days -one that especially includes the second and eighth.)
Gergiev has stated that a great conductor's role "is not to order, but to inspire". And even though some of his musicians have complained about their exhaustive rehearsals, they do not hesitate to admire and celebrate their Maestro's energy and leadership.
I always dreamed of watching Gergiev and his beloved orchestra doing their thing. When it finally came true, I could witnessed his impressive way of conducting and noticed how his musicians played inspired guided by his baton.