Just blocks away from the mad tobacco farmer who held D.C. cops and traffic at bay for two days, and perhaps just a sunset or two away from what may well be a devastating war, the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and the profound music of Gustav Mahler offered welcome refuge Tuesday night.
On stage was the Kirov Orchestra of the famed Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the theater since 1988 and one of the hottest conducting forces around, was on the podium. It's not that everything he does is wonderful. But he has a spark that turns music-making into a visceral experience; neither players nor listeners can stay in neutral when he's at the wheel.
The opening of Mahler's Ninth Symphony took on added poignancy as Gergiev coaxed an exceptionally delicate sound from the strings, as if he were channeling the music from a different dimension. And the first, melancholy theme to emerge from that mist became an intense prayer (its uncanny resemblance to "Abide With Me" was suddenly very striking). The conductor did not stint on the irony and brittleness of the two middle movements, driving them along and underlining each burst of instrumental coloring; these became manic, defiant dances of life - and death.
Gergiev masterfully shaped the finale's long, slow song of resignation and withdrawal. In the closing measures, when the melody breaks apart and silences between notes speak more loudly than the notes themselves, his willingness to suspend time yielded almost unbearable tension. After the music finally resolved, slipping imperceptibly back into a nether realm, no one in the hall moved for what seemed like hours. Perhaps everyone knew how applause would thrust us right back into the real world waiting outside.
The orchestra wasn't always in peak form. The cellos made some sour sounds in the first movement; the violins could have used more tonal richness in places. But the unflappable horns made a splendid sound, and the solo trumpet work could not have been more gleaming or sensitive. What counted was the overall intensity of the ensemble's playing, the feeling of a keen connection to the score and the implications behind it.
Mahler's Ninth, at nearly 90 minutes, is enough for a whole program, but it was paired here with Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Van Cliburn Competition gold medalist Olga Kern brought plenty of muscularity to the solo part, producing some awfully clangy effects; subtlety was applied sparingly. The technical elan certainly impressed, however, as did the firm support from Gergiev and the Kirov.