Here is the review I've filed for tomorrow's Star:
Thrill, entertain and provoke was the answer for an enthusiastic audience at Roy Thomson Hall on Friday evening.
The program represented a deep, sharp sliver of modern history made up of three Russian pieces premiered between 1910 and 1926. The orchestra, led by jet-setting longtime music director, Valery Gergiev, was brilliant. The piano soloist, veteran Russian powerhouse Alexander Toradze, was unorthodox.
Even in a city as richly blessed with symphonic music as Toronto, there are few concerts in a season that open the ears and eyes as widely as this one did.
An all-purpose band that accompanies opera and ballet as well as giving its own concerts, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre musicians have visited 43 countries on dozens of tours since Gergiev took over in 1988.
This program, representing the core of the 20th century Russian canon, is something these musicians can likely play from memory, but nearly every note left the stage with the clear immediacy of a freshly energized ensemble.
In Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 version of his 1910 ballet suite, The Firebird, Gergiev and his orchestra played up the tension between sensuality and rhythmic drive to great effect.
Equally compelling was Dmitri Shostakovich’s sardonic Symphony No. 1 – an expertly structured piece a then-19-year-old wrote for his conservatory graduation.
The conductor stood on the floor at the orchestra’s focal point, without a podium or a baton. He didn’t keep time. Instead, Gergiev relayed his instructions with gently fluttering hands, more veteran choir director than orchestra leader.
The resulting sound was fluid, transparent and utterly compelling.
Less of a sure thing was the evening’s concerto, the fearsomely difficult Piano Concerto No. 3, a touring showpiece Sergei Prokofiev wrote for himself in 1921.
Toradze marked his performance with exaggerated contrasts. He played the loud, brash passages with extroverted panache, but quieter sections sounded as if he were challenging himself to play the piano as discreetly as possible, to not wake the neighbours during a late-night practice session at home.
(Ironically, Prokofiev himself was kicked out of his Paris apartment for making too much noise at the keyboard.)
Through much of the concerto, Toradze’s piano became just one more shade amidst the orchestral colours, which is not the point of programming a solo showpiece.
It did, however, cast this warhorse of a composition in a new light, and that was worth the price of admission, as well.