The Mariinsky Orchestra is big — big sound, big talent, big names, big homeland.

The Mariinsky Orchestra

Sunday at 4 p.m.
Hill Auditorium
Tickets from $10

Since the time of Peter the Great, the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater has been an artistic treasure and a source of national pride for Russia. Having survived 200 years in a nation of political upheaval and instability, the Mariinsky Orchestra has reached worldwide recognition thanks to its most recent and ambitious director, Maestro Valery Gergiev. This Sunday, Ann Arbor audiences will witness this powerhouse of an orchestra in a concert at Hill Auditorium.

Gergiev and his orchestra have toured the globe extensively, resulting in a recent resurgence of interest in Russian music. Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have made 10 UMS appearances, most notably their five-concert cycle of 11 Shostakovich symphonies in 2006.

For the first half of Sunday’s program, the Mariinsky will perform the luscious and passionate Piano Concerto No. 3 of Sergei Rachmaninoff.

With its full chords and dazzling solo cadenzas, the concerto is regarded as one of the most difficult and technically demanding works for piano. However, in the hands of a skilled pianist, Rachmaninoff’s Third can be a moving experience.

The Mariinsky may have found just such a pianist in soloist Denis Matsuev, who will join the orchestra for Rachmaninoff’s Third at the Hill concert. The winner of the 1998 International Tchaikovsky Competition, Matsuev has been compared to legendary Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz by The London Times.

The second half of the Mariinsky’s program is devoted to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. As the 2011 centennial anniversary of Mahler’s death approaches, orchestras have been honoring the composer in their season repertoire. For Ann Arbor audiences, the Mariinsky’s performance will be a unique live symphonic experience.

“There’s something really exciting about listening to Mahler’s music live,” said Residential College associate professor Naomi André, who teaches a seminar on the history of the symphony. “It’s really hard to get that same sense when you’re listening to your CDs or your iPod. And all music, I believe, is wonderful when you get to experience it live. But there’s something … wonderful with Mahler.”

Composed between 1901 and 1902 (the same decade as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3), Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a massive orchestral work in five movements. The piece is primarily known for its romantic fourth movement, the Adagietto, which was dedicated to his wife, Alma Mahler-Werfel.

“It was literally a love letter he wrote to Alma,” André said. “It’s just a wonderful moment to take a deep breath and be pensive … It’s just so lush and so sensuous and beautiful.”

Along with his eight other symphonies, the Fifth marks an important point in a symphonic history that began with Franz Joseph Haydn in the 18th century.

“In terms of the well known symphonies — what’s become canonic — Mahler represents the end of the Germanic tradition that had dominated the symphony,” André said. “It’s interesting to be a hundred years from that and looking back.”

For listeners new to Mahler, it can be difficult to adapt to his often slow and expansive compositional style. In fact, Mahler is famous for his comment to fellow composer Jean Sibelius, “A symphony should be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

André pointed out that when listening to Mahler, “you really have to slow your pulse down” to enjoy the composer’s rich and complex orchestration. She went on to assert that Mahler’s music has a universal appeal because of its “all-embracing” nature.

“This is where it all comes together — life, and thought, and who we are, and falling in love, and (our place) in the world and in nature — all of this comes together in Mahler’s symphonies.”

The works of Mahler and Rachmaninoff will come alive through the Mariinsky under Gergiev this Sunday at Hill Auditorium at 4 p.m.

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