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Learning from the Russians

March 23, 2010

val.jpegEveryone knows the Russians can teach the U.S. a thing or two about playing the music of Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Shostakovitch and co. That's why audiences in this country flock in droves to hear groups like the Mariinsky Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev (pictured). At Davies Symphony Hall last night, the orchestra, conductor and soloist Denis Matsuev blew the lid off Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 in A Major. The music raged with tears and laughter and sweat and sweetness. Matsuev's fingers flickered like flames on the keyboard. The music grabbed me by the lapels and threw me to the floor. It constantly amazes me how someone who looks as disheveled as Gergiev, who conducts without a podium and with twitching fingers like he has a nervous disorder in his hands, can eke such precision and authority from a symphony.

What's perhaps less obvious is how the Mariinsky orchestra can also teach us a thing or two about presentation. One thing that impressed me at last night's concert was how terrific all the players looked. I'm talking specifically about the female instrumentalists, as the men in most orchestras in the U.S. tend to wear penguin suits. In this country, though, women frequently schlep around on stage in ill-fitting black slacks and button down shirts with their hair all unkempt. They very rarely look as dapper as the men in the orchestra. But the Mariinsky's women dressed like soloists in beautiful black gowns. For once it was nice to see an orchestra where both sexes looked equally well groomed. I also appreciated the way in which the players all filed in together at the start of the concert. Here in San Francisco, orchestra members usually amble on stage whenever they like before a concert begins. The effect is rather ramshackle and unprofessional-looking.

I'm all for making things less starchy and informal. But there's something about a sense of occasion which many American cities -- and San Francisco in particular -- unfortunately often lacks.

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