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Review: Russian conductor makes energetic local debut at college

WASHINGTON, Pa. - Valery Gergiev, one of the most important conductors in the world, made his local debut Saturday night, not in Pittsburgh but at the Olin Fine Arts Center of Washington & Jefferson College.

From the first notes of Carl Maria von Weber's 'Euryanthe' Overture to an encore by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Gergiev led the Kirov Orchestra in exciting and richly rewarding performances.

Gergiev is artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the Kirov Opera and Ballet perform. He is also principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and director of both the 'Stars of the White Nights Festival' in St. Petersburg and the Mikkeli International Festival in Finland.

He is in demand as a guest conductor everywhere classical music prospers, but won't make his Pittsburgh Symphony debut until the 2003-04 season. The Weber overture opened with a burst of virtuoso energy that emphasized that the Kirov Orchestra combines the best of old and new instrumental technique. The strings dig into their music way far more than Western orchestras, where surface gloss rules. On the other hand, the heavy vibrato of older Russian French horn style was gone, and the oboes played with beautiful tone that would be at home in any orchestra.

Olin is a very small concert hall, seating only 485. The Kirov Orchestra was therefore the size of a pit orchestra, with about 30 less string players than it would use in a full size hall.

Nevertheless, the size of Olin actually added to the effectiveness of the concert. The music was heard in a more intimate environment and had more impact.

Not that the Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which followed, depends on impact. But the sensuous beauty of the music had more visceral presence than it would in the immensity of Heinz Hall, no matter how well played.

Gergiev is a high-energy conductor who is also very sensitive in his interpretations. Mozart's Sinfonia concertante was presented with poise and imagination. Melodies and other thematic material were shaped with the subtle nuances that are essential, though not indicated in the score.

Kirov principals were the soloists, and impressive. Violinist Sergey Levitin is a virtuoso with taste. His partnership with violist Yury Afonkin, who has exceptionally beautiful tone, had the closeness of chamber music.

After intermission, Gergiev offered music from 'The Nutcracker' - not the famous Suite, but excerpts, as legendary conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky used to do. The ballet score is one of Tchaikovsky's finest compositions, and the Russian musicians played it with the idiomatic assurance of one's native language. 'The Winter Forest' and the 'Waltz of the Falling Snow' were enchanting, while the 'Battle' had the excitement of a child's imagination. The Russian dance Trepak, without repeats, was the high-spirited encore. Washington & Jefferson's coup in presenting Gergiev and Kirov was made possible by the generosity of its alumnus Alberto Vilar, who is classical music's most important philanthropist. He is the largest single donor to the Metropolitan Opera, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Mariinsky Theater and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London, and has given millions to other groups such as the Berlin Philharmonic.

The remaining concerts of the Vilar Distinguished Artists Series this season at Washington & Jefferson are the Camerata Salzburg with Murray Periaha as pianist and conductor (Jan. 24), the Vienna State Opera Ballet (Feb. 26), the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra (April 11) and bass Samuel Ramey (April 26).

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