Nov. 12 2008 12:00 AM

Kirov Orchestra, piano star thunder into town

Locals aren’t the only ones who will snap to attention when one of the world’s most dynamic and controversial symphony conductors bestrides the Wharton Center stage for the first time Thursday.

Valery Gergiev is the volatile, grizzle-chinned maestro who turned St. Petersburg’s Kirov Orchestra into the nation’s cultural jewel after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Young piano star Alexei Volodin is set to play Beethoven’s epic fourth piano concerto with the Kirov Orchestra during the first half of the concert.

When it’s done, Volodin won’t retreat to his dressing room for cognac and caviar. Not even the evening’s star soloist, who has worked with the maestro many times, misses a chance to witness Gergiev at Gergiev full bore. “For him, I always stay to see the second half of the concert,” Volodin said by phone from his home in Moscow. “It’s always great to see this kind of artist at work.”

After intermission, Gergiev will lash the Kirov Orchestra through “Romeo and Juliet,” a throbbing canvas of love and death by Sergei Prokofiev.

Volodin said the maestro is everything he’s cracked up to be. “He’s very, very inspiring,” Volodin said. “He’s very strict and spontaneous at the same time. He combines great temperament and subtlety. I’m trying to not only play with him, but approach him as a listener.”

There’s an exotic air about Gergiev, even among Russians. By ancestry, he is not Russian, but Ossetian, descended from nomad warriors who swept over Russia centuries ago.

Besides running the Kirov (called by its pre-Soviet name, the Maryinsky, in Russia), Gergiev is also principal conductor of the London Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.

Gergiev cultivates a vicious snarl and a famously feral 5 o’clock shadow. Critics around the world have praised him for reaching deep into symphonic music and pulling out the viscera. “I am in the process of destroying the autopilot,” Gergiev told New Yorker critic Alex Ross in 2003. “I am making a mess of it, and then I will try to build something in its space.”

Thursday’s concert will even have a tiny Cold War tingle. In August, while John McCain was saying things like “We are all Georgians,” Gergiev took the Kirov to still-smoldering Tskhinvali, capital of wartorn South Ossetia. There he conducted Shostakovich’s ostensibly anti-Fascist Seventh Symphony and spoke out against Georgian “aggression.”

Saturday, when Gergiev hit New York on the current tour, the world’s most famous Ossetian crowed to The New York Times over recent reports that Georgia provoked the war, a la Pearl Harbor. “That’s what I’ve been saying for three months,” Gergiev told The Times.

While political observers dust Gergiev’s tuxedo for Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints, the maestro maintains his independence in matters musical.

Meanwhile, piano man Volodin, 29, stays above the politics, lightening Gergiev’s baggage with a pure love of music. Volodin got his first music jolt when he heard Beethoven piano sonatas at 7. “I fell absolutely in love with music, especially piano music,” he said.

In the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fell and hopes of democracy sank into the chaos and corruption of the Yeltsin years, Volodin stuck to his piano studies. “It was a difficult time. My love for music made my choice in life,” he said.

Volodin worked his way quickly into the world’s top rotation of soloists. He made a big splash with his 2005 debut recital at the Champs-Elysses Theatre in Paris. Later this year, he’s due to debut in Brussels, Amsterdam, New York and Tokyo.

At the keyboard, Volodin puts ego and idiosyncrasy aside and fights for the music. “No matter what the music is, I always try to be true to the composer’s text,” he said.

Besides re-uniting Volodin with Gergiev, the current Kirov tour brings him back to Beethoven, his first musical love.

“Whenever I play a Beethoven concerto, it just captures me, I become part of it,” Volodin said. “It’s like participating in some kind of universal process. You don’t belong to yourself anymore. It’s a magic string.

Kirov Orchestra

Valery Gergiev, conductor Alexei Volodin, soloist 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13 Wharton Center $15-$78 1 (800) WHARTON www.whartoncenter.com

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