The number it is assigned varies from ranking to ranking. But whether it’s considered No. 15 or No. 18, to note two recent examples, The Mariinsky Orchestra is considered one of world’s greatest.
That is why the acclaimed Russian symphony orchestra will be making its Lincoln debut Sunday at the Lied Center for Performing Arts.
“We’ve been having a really purposeful run of presenting great orchestras dating back to when we presented Cleveland,” said Ann Chang, the Lied’s artistic director.
The Cleveland Orchestra made its Nebraska debut at the Lied in February 2014. Since then, the Lied has presented the Chicago Symphony (2015), the Russian National Orchestra (2016) and the Boston Pops (2017).
The Mariinsky is the 2018 entry in Chang’s great orchestra series. The San Francisco Symphony will follow with a performance in March.
So what makes the Mariinsky Orchestra great?
Tyler White, professor of composition and conducting and director of orchestras at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Glenn Korff School of Music, says it's a combination of factors, starting with the players.
“With the Mariinsky Orchestra, that group has its pick of all of the best conservatory players in Russia,” White said. “So there’s never a weak link anywhere in the ensemble. But it goes beyond that. There’s a unity of approach.”
The next element for Mariinsky is its 234-year history and tradition of excellence.
Called “Russia’s musical crown jewel,” by the New York Times, the Mariinsky Orchestra was founded in the 18th century, during the reign of Peter the Great, and since 1860 has been housed in St. Petersburg’s famed Mariinsky Theatre.
The orchestra entered its “golden age” three years later, when Eduard Napravnik began his 53-year tenure as musical director and Mariinsky secured its reputation at one of Europe’s finest orchestras.
Known as “The Kirov” during the Soviet era, which began just a few years after Napravnik’s 1916 death, the orchestra has maintained those artist standards for the last century while expanding its reach beyond Russia through acclaimed recordings and international touring, often with the Mariinsky Opera, becoming what has been tagged as “the world’s first global orchestra.”
“The tradition has a great deal to do with it," White said. “Any young player who joins a great European orchestra with a long tradition knows they have to step up and fulfill that tradition and carry it on for the next generation. And the talent pool is so deep. There are 15 flutists on the roster. Never are all the players on stage at the same time.”
Playing operas, which Mariinsky has done since the beginning, also contributes to the orchestra’s greatness.
“Playing with opera is also a great means of fostering unity in an ensemble,” White said. “You have to be responsive to the conductor and the singers while at the same time advancing the highest level of symphonic performance over the songs that can be two to three times that of a symphony concert.”
Orchestras like the Mariinsky could play many symphonies without much direction, White said, But for an orchestra to truly be great, it requires a great conductor who brings cohesiveness and an artistic vision.
In the case of the Mariinsky, that conductor is Grammy winner Valery Gergiev.
A graduate of the Leningrad State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire in symphonic conducting, Gergiev won a pair of international conducting competitions while still a student and was invited to join the Kirov.
In 1988, at age 35, he was appointed musical director of the Mariinsky Theatre and since 1996 has been artistic and general director of the theater's ballet, opera and orchestra ensembles.
He also serves as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic and the World Orchestra of Peace, and as artistic director of Stars of the White Nights Festival and the Moscow Easter Festival.
"He’s one of the current titans of international conducting,” White said of Gergiev. “In some ways, he’s controversial. He’s a friend of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and and a big supporter of Putin’s nationalist agenda. He has this very distinctively Russian way of interpreting. What’s also very interesting is he’s a very charismatic man on the podium — very dignified, almost arrogant, and he’s got a highly idiosyncratic style.
“He frequently will conduct with a baton the size of a toothpick when he uses a baton at all. He’ll moves in a way that, at first glance, looks like random shaking. But then you see how it brings it together with drama and power.”
The final element for any orchestra in concert is the program it performs.
In Lincoln, the Mariinsky will present Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the afternoon of the faun” and pieces written by two men who each conducted the orchestra, Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Paganini Variations” with piano soloist Behzod Abduraimov, and Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5.”
“One of the things that’s great about it is the variety,” White said. “In the Debussy, you have one of the most beautiful, lush sound baths in the whole repertoire. It’s also very difficult to conduct. In the Rachmaninoff, you have a piece that’s very lush and romantic but precise and tight at the same time. In the Mahler, you have a totally epic work. It goes from a dark funeral march, through angst, joy, pastoral simplicity to a love song to a joyous folk finish that ends with a musical depiction of Mahler kicking his critics down a flight of stairs.”
All those elements, White said, combine into a great orchestra in performance, something that can be sensed, whether you are a classical music aficionado or a neophyte.
“You will be aware of it, even if you can’t describe it, the tradition and the quality of the sound,” White said. “Even specialists struggle to find the words to describe what their perceptions are. People shouldn’t be afraid of that. They should simply enjoy their perceptions.”
And, Chang said, the perception of greatness in any art form is natural.
“All of us have an intuitive way of knowing that,” she said. “We may not be able to say why. Take the movies. We all know bad acting when we see it and we all know good acting.”
That, White said, makes it truly special to have the Mariinsky in Lincoln.
“It’s rare to have the depth of tradition and Old World style in the American heartland,” he said.”This kind of an ensemble from a great European cultural capital coming in its full majesty is something that is not be be missed.”