The Kirov Orchestra has traditionally performed as a pit orchestra for the Kirov Opera and the Kirov Ballet at Saint Petersburg’s imposing Mariinsky Theatre, a cultural center in that most cosmopolitan of Russian cities since it opened in 1860. But over the past decade the orchestra has been establishing an identity of its own, delving into the symphonic literature under the guidance of 48-year-old maestro Valery Gergiev. The media-savvy conductor has been cultivating strong ties with the West, conducting concerts and organizing festivals from Rotterdam to San Francisco, and as head of the Mariinsky–a position he’s held since 1996–he’s used those connections to rescue an institution threatened by bureaucratic chaos and broken budgets. The ballet company is still struggling today, despite all his efforts, but the other groups are thriving; the Kirov Orchestra has embarked on marathon European and American tours, started fan clubs, and released a string of highly regarded recordings on the Philips label–which, thanks to relatively low production costs in Russia, can turn a profit quickly. As a conductor Gergiev is energetic and mercurial; with his hair flying and his face unshaven, he practically embodies the notion of the wild, arrogant romantic. He’s especially brilliant at interpreting programmatic music, emphasizing (in traditional Russian style) brawny orchestral sounds, emotional extremes, and mystical musings. He has his detractors–he tends to rush tempi, and operates with a dynamic ceiling somewhere above ultrafortissimo–but what sound like faults to others have, to my ears, produced bracing, fiery, and memorable performances. Gergiev has made it his mission to revive Prokofiev’s broad symphonic and operatic repertoire (as opposed to rehashing the same dozen pieces that both Russian and Western audiences already know), and to that end the Kirov Orchestra is presenting an all-Prokofiev program that consists of Piano Concerto no. 2, Symphony no. 5, and the Scythian Suite. The pianist is Alexander Toradze, a professor at Indiana University South Bend who’s also a longtime Gergiev collaborator; he’s already recorded all five of Prokofiev’s piano concerti with the Kirov, playing with uncommon force, lyricism, and attention to tonal color. Monday, December 3, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Lee.