Valery Gergiev/Photo: Steve J. Sherman, courtesy Carnegie Hall

The Vienna Philharmonic arrived in New York for a three-concert stand at Carnegie Hall. Leading them was Valery Gergiev, the famed and mercurial Russian conductor.

I say “mercurial.” Sometimes he is electric, wizardly, unsurpassable. At other times he is quite surpassable: plain, pedestrian, workaday. You never really know when you show up to a Gergiev concert (or a Gergiev-conducted opera).

On Friday night, Gergiev’s program with the VPO consisted of three staples. Before I get to them, let me record that Gergiev stood on a podium. Often, he likes to stand with his feet on the floor, pretty much even with the orchestra.

Friday night’s program began with the overture to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. In the opening moments, the horns were thrilling. And the overall Vienna Phil. sound! In Carnegie Hall! The combination of that orchestra and those acoustics is well-nigh decadent.

As the overture continued, it was . . . fine. The horns started to falter and smudge. Much of the overture was loud in a blunt way. The orchestra was not at its crispest. And Wagner’s overture did not have its full impact.

Then came a piece out of French Impressionism: La mer, by Debussy. Only a few weeks ago, I was talking to a musician friend about Gergiev. He cited an especially wizardly performance—of La mer, as it happened.

There are three movements in this work. On Friday evening, the first was fine. And the second was fine. They were not very French, lacking shimmer, gauze, and frisson, but they were fine.

The third movement? Gergiev turned on the electricity. I don’t know why. Probably it was unconscious. The beginning of this movement was ominous and tingly. It was as though Gergiev was drawing something scarily primordial out of the orchestra. Throughout the movement, Gergiev’s wizardry was on full display. So was Debussy’s, for that matter.

After intermission came Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (in the Ravel orchestration). This is, in part, a concerto for orchestra, and the VPO’s first-deskmen were up to it—more than.

There was, for example, the velvety trumpet. And the spooky sax. (His long diminuendo at the end of “The Old Castle” was extraordinary.) And the enchanted flute.

From beginning to end—from the first promenade to the Great Gate—Gergiev was musical. That is, he evinced musicality. He was noble, beguiling, and, of course, wizardly. His sense of rhythm was superb. He knew just how much space to allow between movements. In short, he put on a clinic of conducting.

I must say, great as the Ravel orchestration is, I still prefer Pictures in its original piano version. Can’t say why. It’s just a piano piece, somehow.

If Gergiev had had his way, I think he would have conducted a Russian encore or two, after Pictures. Maybe the Grand pas de deux from The Nutcracker. Or the Trepak from that same ballet. Or “The Death of Tybalt” from Romeo and Juliet. Or the march from The Love for Three Oranges.

As it was, he and the orchestra performed a couple of Viennese numbers—which was right, I suppose, this being the Vienna Philharmonic and all.

Outside Carnegie Hall, before, during, and after the three concerts, there were protesters. They were protesting Gergiev’s friendship with, and strong support of, Vladimir Putin. I must say, I understand these protesters entirely. One young woman handed me a flier about Ukraine.

Saturday night’s concert included a new work, by Olga Neuwirth, an Austrian. I will write about her work, and this concert in general, in an upcoming “New York Chronicle” for the magazine.

Which leaves us with Sunday afternoon’s concert—whose composers were Wagner and Tchaikovsky. The Wagner was Parsifal: that opera’s Prelude and Good Friday Music. Gergiev is one of the great conductors of Parsifal. And I have a memory from an interview I did of him, long ago.

He was making a point about conducting. I forget exactly what. But he said he had attended a performance of Parsifal at the Paris Opera. The conductor (unnamed, but guessable-at) was dull, impassive, and time-beating. Gergiev could not leave right away, because people would have noticed—but he left as soon as he could.

On Sunday afternoon, his Prelude was exemplary. It was glowing, sublime. And the Good Friday Music had a certain tautness and uplift.

Let me record that, at some point along the way, there was an early entrance in the brass, or at least a wrong one. Unless my ears deceived me, there was a wrong entrance indeed. Which was shocking from the Vienna Philharmonic, especially in music so familiar.

But concerts are human affairs, right? I always say that “life is not a studio recording”—and thank heaven for that.

The Tchaikovsky on the program was the Manfred Symphony. Here, I will make a personal confession: I’ve never much liked this piece. And I am a Tchaikovsky nut.

But Gergiev and the VPO of course made a case. Tchaikovsky could not have complained. Near the climax of the first movement, I found myself thinking, “Hey, that’s Swan Lake!” Then I thought, “Oh, right: it’s the same composer. No worries.”

I will end this post with a story. During the intermission of the Sunday concert, I was in Carnegie Hall’s lobby, fiddling with my phone. A woman came in from the sidewalk. She had obviously been given a ticket by someone leaving. I was a perfect stranger to her, but she couldn’t help speaking to me.

“I got a ticket!” she said. “I’m so happy. I think I might cry.” She said essentially the same thing to an usher standing nearby. She was almost overcome. She was elated to be attending the second half of a Vienna Philharmonic concert, conducted by Gergiev, in Carnegie Hall.

This is a reminder to those of us who just waltz in and out at will: a concert is a great privilege, especially when the concert is good.

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