From time-to-time, almost every measuring system needs to be recalibrated to ensure accuracy. Last evening's concert at the Lied Center in Lincoln (NE) will prompt a recalibration of my quality rating scales for symphonic performances. The concert began about half an hour late as a result of the late arrival of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra into Lincoln.  The orchestra tuned backstage and the players entered together, in the European manner. It also spared the audience from having to hear the cacophonous tuning and practicing that occurs on stage before American concerts.

With little delay, Valery Gergiev assumed his position in front of his youngish (judging by the lack of gray/white hair on stage) orchestra, and out of the hall's silence arose a subtle dark flute solo, introducing Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un fauneFlowing from that quiet introduction was a stunningly sinuous performance that was elegant, atmospheric and sensual. Gergiev shaped the performance where every phrase led deliberately to the next, as an integrated whole rather than as a collection of individual tableaux. Gergiev's grasp of the musical arc of the entire work was compelling. Much has been written of Gergiev's style of conducting – the fluttering fingers, the tiny baton – but there was no doubt that his orchestra knew exactly what he wanted and they played magnificently. 

Rachmaninov's 1934 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is infrequently heard in US concert halls, in spite of its dazzling orchestration, lush melodies and solo piano fireworks. The originally scheduled soloist Denis Matsuev was indisposed and in his place was Uzbecki-born Behzod Abduraimov, a well-known pianist to American audiences. He is a bold player, who can dazzle audiences with his technical brilliance. His performance did not disappoint, technically nor, more importantly, musically. He produces a big piano tone, often briefly flying off the piano bench when special emphasis is needed. He and Maestro Gergiev were perfectly in sync. Throughout, the orchestral balances were superb, and inner voices that are sometimes lost were nicely spotlighted in this very transparent performance. For example, in the seventh variation Dies irae, figurations in the clarinet that are often not heard were nicely in focus. The 18th variation, probably one of Rachmaninov's most famous melodies, was a soaring triumph for the violins, which had a rich, smooth sound combined with extraordinary ensemble.  The final variation, a devilish Dies irae contortion, was appropriately furious, ending with the piano's last few notes, almost as if were winking wryly at the proceeding commotion. The audience called Abduraimov back for multiple curtain calls and he repaid their enthusiasm with an encore of Liszt's La campanella, another work that draws from Paganini. This was a very large dynamic performance, that overflowed with Abduraimov's technical brilliance.

Mahler's Fifth Symphony is one of the composer's grandest and most popular works. Gergiev's strength in interpreting Mahler is exactly the same as he demonstrated with Debussy's Faune: he never loses sight of music's grand arc, and the listener is carried along as if on a compelling guided tour. The Mariinsky principal trumpet, who introduced the work, was amazing, playing precisely and with exceeding confidence, as if he was heralding something great. The second portion of the symphony's first part was a well-controlled whirlwind of sound. The Scherzo showcased the warmth of the magnificent Mariinsky strings.  At the conclusion of this section, a ripple of applause began in the audience, which the Maestro instantly quelled by raising his right hand. Silence ensued so that the beautiful Adagietto could emerge. This achingly beautiful music is likely Mahler's most familiar, and it was given a gorgeous treatment here. The final movement was rousing, eliciting cheers. In response, the orchestra played an encore of the Prelude to Act 3 of Wagner's Lohengrin, highlighting the Mariinsky brass. 

This concert was flawless and powerful. The transparency of the orchestral playing, combined with the musician's obvious skill were continually in evidence. Gergiev has been General Director of the Mariinsky since 1988 and the bond with his orchestra is obvious. Finally, the fine Lied center acoustics bathed the orchestra in a focused warm sound that was neither too reverberant nor too dry. This concert was a reminder of how a full symphony of talented musicians, led by a brilliant conductor, can create concert magic.