Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Notes from Abroad (2)

One of the things the cellist Jan Vogler is trying to do as the new head of the Dresdner Musikfestspiele is to expand the range of performers who show up on the schedule. So on Tuesday night in the Frauenkirche — the large and beautiful church in the city center, destroyed by bombs in 1945 and painstakingly rebuilt in the subsequent decades — Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic performed music of Sibelius and Shostakovich. The VPO tours far and wide, but this was the orchestra's first appearance in Dresden in 12 years and the locals were in a state of high anticipation.

My God, it was magnificent. There's no way to listen to the VPO without feeling some tinge of moral unease at that unbroken sea of white male faces (some of my fellow critics amused themselves during the applause by scanning for the two or three women that are now scattered among the orchestra's ranks). But it's just as hard to resist the magical sound of this orchestra — the warm, fluid string textures, or the glowing, utterly distinctive brass.

And Gergiev was in top form (not always a sure bet with this notoriously uneven artist). The Sibelius First was full of dark splendor, its rhetoric forceful but unconstrained. After intermission came "The Firebird," in a rendition that mixed dramatic urgency (the opening low string passages pushed forward like some kind of techno rhythm track) with vivid pictorialism. Even the weather was in on the game — the whole performance was punctuated by lightning bolts flashing through the upper windows of the church. Sounds corny, but when the last one came exactly in time with the downbeat for a big orchestral chord, it sure seemed like something unusual was going on.


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