Russian magic at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes

Thinking of the name St. Petersburg evokes images of grand palaces, snowy streets and fuzzy wintercoats, but also of worldly museums and elegant dancers. A cultural hotspot for centuries, the city has produced a significant number of ballet ensembles, orchestras and composers.The artists of St. Petersburg undeniably match the city’s architectural grandeur. It has bred preeminent composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, while also being the home of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, who headed the Imperial Russian Ballet, now known by the name Mariinsky Ballet after the theatre that houses it.

The Mariinsky orchestra, performing on the 1st of March, 2016, in the Palacio de Bellas Artes

While Russia may seem a little faraway, fortunately a little bit of Russian magic hit Mexico City in its early March days, as the orchestra accompanying the Mariinsky Ballet, aptly named Mariinsky Orchestra, performed for three consecutive days at the Palacio de Bellas Artes. They could not have chosen a better place to perform, as the Bellas Artes is probably the closest thing Mexico City has matching the splendour of St. Petersburg’s palaces. One of the historic center’s landmarks, it is the embodiment of the capital’s early 20th century’s Art Deco and Art Nouveau waves. The palace’s opulent exterior can mostly be characterized as Art Nouveau, while the inside is more influenced by the Art Deco style.

The marble facade of the Palacio de Bellas Artes

This difference in styles can be attributed to the construction history of the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The original design as well as the initial construction period (1910-1913) was entirely lead by Italian architect Adamo Boari, but then put to halt due to engineering complexities relating to the soft subsoil as well as problems brought about by the Mexican Revolution. The subsequent construction and interior design was continued in 1934 by Mexican architect Federico Mariscal, one of the leading architects of his time.  He favoured the Art Deco style, and made use of white Italian Carrara marble, as had done Boari for the facade of the building, which primarily contains Art Nouveau and Neoclassical influences. The extravagant facade includes sculptures of Italian sculptor Leonardo Bistolfi, an enthusiast of Symbolism, as well as sculptures relating to music and inspiration.

The view from above: front-row seats and balcony

Going to the Bellas Artes is worth it for its architectural beauty alone. It stands imposingly on a large plaza bordered by the Alameda central park, and bright colourful lights illuminate it at night. In addition to its magnificent architecture, it also boasts some of Mexico’s most fascinating murals by Mexican legends such as Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera. Even the elevators are splendid, as is the main entrance, with its imposing marble stairs. Most importantly however, it also functions as Mexico City’s most prominent podium for the fine and performing arts, hosting art and photo exhibitions as well as being the stage for some of today’s most prestigious international orchestra, and theatre and ballet ensembles.This prestige was indeed also exemplified by the breathtaking show delivered by the internationally acclaimed Mariinsky orchestra, who performed bits of the oeuvre of Shostakóvich and Rajmaninóv. It was a musical delight, to the point that one would have gotten goosebumps had it not been so ridiculously hot inside of the theatre. The fact that they got a seemingly endless standing ovation should say it all.

My beauty of a friend

We had been expecting to see the infamous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, who is a living legend, and were slightly disappointed when it turned out he would only lead the orchestra on the third performance night. We were all the more (positively!) surprised when we saw the impeccable, only 28-year old Elim Chan lead the orchestra with tireless passion. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she is the first female conductor to have won the Donatella Flick LSO conducting competition. Her young age makes me wonder whether she was also the youngest winner to date, a fact I have not been able to verify. Another positive surprise was Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov, whose approach to playing piano was one of absolute symbiotic power. The interior of the theatre is also absolutely stunning, mostly due to the impacting stage curtain (for lack of a better descriptive word), which consists of a million colourful and iridescent Tiffany’s glass pieces, as well as the beautiful stained glass dome, which boasts depictions of Greek god Apollo and the nine arts muses.

The dome of the principal theatre room, depicting Apollo and his nine muses

I would like to end with a small, rather amusing sidenote: Before entering the palace, my friends and I were stopped by two young blokes who were looking to earn an extra few pesos. We politely declined, not having the spare coins we thought they were requesting but the kids were surprisingly tenacious in wanting to display their musical talents. One of the boys, they assured us, was the king of beatboxing. Hesitant at first, we ultimately agreed to the boy (named Fabian) giving us a little beatboxing show. And heck, he was amazing! We witnessed his entire musical repertoire, from rap to electronic music. If you happen to run into this kid, I recommend you stop for a minute or two and give him the coins we were unable to provide him with. I swear the kid was at least as good as this dude.

The beatbox gang, with on the far right Fabian the beatboxing genius

All in all, the Mexican architectural beauty with a hint of Russian magic made for an for a somewhat different, but unforgettable and highly recommendable weeknight. Ah, and for those of you who wonder why the Mariinsky orchestra received a standing ovation, please check out the link at the bottom of this page. I profess to being incredibly unsavvy when it comes to all things related to tech, explaining why I did not manage embedding the youtube video into this post, haha.

The link: Prokofiev – Symphony No 5 – Gergiev


© All text and pictures by Alexandra Brandt Corstius unless mentioned otherwise