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The Wonders of the Dark Side

Music review: Valery Gergiev and Kirov Orchestra illuminate Prokofiev's works of sadness and pessimism.


Both conductor Valery Gergiev and his Kirov Orchestra from the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg have visited here before, but their joint Hollywood Bowl debuts Tuesday night nonetheless had the impact of a major first appearance.

The Russian ensemble, joined this week by the Kirov Opera Chorus and soloists, will have given four different programs in six performances on consecutive nights when this part of its United States tour concludes on Sunday. The first agenda concentrated on a Gergiev specialty, music of Sergei Prokofiev, in two of the composer's darker canvases, the Third Symphony and the "Alexander Nevsky" cantata.

These works represent Prokofiev's threatening Dark Side, the polar opposite of that found in pieces like the "Classical" Symphony, some of the instrumental sonatas and the ballet scores, which, if not actually lightweight, at least maintain emotional buoyancy.

As heard Tuesday, in the climatically welcoming atmosphere at the Bowl, the noisiness and hostility that give character to both these works sounded perfectly appropriate: In spite of moments of joy or triumph, the basic mood is one of deep sadness and pessimism.

This explains the rarity of performances of the Symphony No. 3, a huge and kaleidoscopic work--those familiar with the composer's opera, "The Fiery Angel," will get the creeps early on, hearing so many passages taken from that haunting score. "Nevsky," only slightly less complex and somber, offers so many of those musical beauties we have come to call Russian, some listeners ignore its sobriety.

Performed by more than 100 members of the touring orchestra and a similar number of singers in the chorus, and featuring star mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, the cantata made all its musical points, potent and delicate, as indicated. Gergiev is an exciting conductor; his defining strength is his intensity and authority, both of which he communicates steadily.

Borodina's rich voice--apparently undistorted by the Bowl's well-behaving amplification system on this occasion--and seraphic demeanor gave the "Field of the Dead" movement all the spirituality one might have expected.

At the beginning of this fairly short evening, and after a stately run-through of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (and no other national anthem), the Third Symphony revealed the orchestra's many colors and virtuosic resources exactingly.

The ensemble's total sound is blunt--polish and beauty are not the main ingredients of its aural makeup--but effective. And at no point could one doubt that it was making the kind of music Prokofiev would recognize and approve.

* The Kirov Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev, plays four more times at the Hollywood Bowl: tonight, a Haydn/Mahler program; Friday through Sunday, the annual Tchaikovsky Spectacular. $1-$95. (213) 480-3232.

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