Valery Gergiev; photo: The Mariinsky Foundation of America

I had the pleasure this past Friday of hearing an exceptional concert at Carnegie Hall. It was the Munich Philharmonic—Maybe not an orchestra on everyone's top-10 list, but a very good orchestra nonetheless. They happened to have with them a conductor who is, in fact, on a lot of top-10 lists in Valery Gergiev.

Lorin Maazel was supposed to conduct the weekend’s concerts but had to withdraw due to illness. The Saturday crowd ended up with Fabio Luisi, and we got Gergiev, fresh off a plane from Europe and due to fly to London at 5:00 AM.

Before Friday, I had mostly heard Gergiev lead Russian rep—Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Borodin: The greats who earned and affirmed Russia's place at the table of Western concert music. On those occasions, he was brilliant, and on Friday he was brilliant as well, this time giving us Strauss.

Also sprach Zarathustra has by this point almost lost its own unique force, so strongly has it become associated with Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is, of course, much more than that oft-heard excerpt, covering a range of atmospheres and characterizations. Like much of Strauss's music, it is viscous stuff, powerful in the right hands, but opaque and even soporific if mishandled.

Gergiev's reading thrilled. Despite a brass hiccup during the opening bars, the “Sunrise” segment was stunning in its raw power before the strings began to take over with velvet sound and acute sensitivity. Like many baton-less conductors, Gergiev has a firm grasp of the music’s flesh, and a clear understanding of its grand sweep, even if details occasionally get lost.

Emmanuel Ax, taking on Strauss’s raucous Burleske, reminded us all of just why his is a household name. He still has the chops to tackle treacherous passagework with an ease that allows his runs to flow rather than pop. There was some blurring here and there, but brightness and puckishness stood out in his playing. The only thing that really detracted from his performance was the piano itself—The instrument he had chosen was beyond muted, lacking the bursting, energetic quality that this piece needs, and occasionally getting swallowed up by the orchestra entirely.

As an encore, Ax gave us an absolutely breathtaking account of Brahms’s Intermezzo in B-flat minor. He melted one phrase into the next, tugging every heartstring, and displaying some of the most gorgeous and free-floating lyricism you’ll ever hear out of a piano.

Closing with Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (“Merry Pranks”), Gergiev showed the same attention to texture and composition that he had in Also sprach Zarathustra, but the difference was an audible and remarkable sense of humor, immediately apparent in the lilting clip of the horn solo. It is a dense and active score, and Gergiev managed to wring ebullient joy out of it, achieving both grace and capriciousness at once. He is due to take over as the Music Director in Munich in 2015; his other major project, the Mariinsky Orchestra, has risen to the very highest tier of international prominence under his leadership. A decade from now, Munich may be a top-10 orchestra, after all.

Much has been made recently of Gergiev’s political entanglements, particularly his close association with Vladimir Putin. Earlier in the season, he was heckled for not taking a firm enough stance against Russia’s repugnant new laws prohibiting “gay propaganda.” A few weeks ago, just when it seemed the furor over that controversy had passed, Gergiev’s signature appeared on a letter circulated by the Ministry of Culture in support of the Great Crimean Adventure. (For what it’s worth, The New York Times reported that three of the names on the letter appeared without the artists’ permission, and one other belonged to a deceased person.) Predictably, and understandably, a small group of protesters gathered in front of Carnegie Hall on Friday night, draped in blue and yellow.

Karl Böhm comparisons have been thrown around freely, probably too freely. After Gergiev’s repeated shows of support for Putin, many have demanded that the conductor denounce specific policies and actions that have caused consternation internationally, and many more have opined on the role of the artist in politics, specifically in a country whose appreciation of free speech is not so keen as our own. These are conversations worth having, but they have largely missed another very important historical point.

Even when Soviet-American tensions were at their height, Soviet artists appeared in American concert halls: David Oistrakh, Sviatoslav Richter, Leonid Kogan, and others, among the greatest artists of the day, toured extensively in the United States, and our country’s artistic fabric was the richer for it. There were protests then, too, but they have largely been forgotten, as the cultural exchange those artists fostered did far more good than harm. It is worth considering whether Valery Gergiev’s appearances in America do more good than harm to our cultural landscape. Based on the artistic intensity of his work and the roaring enthusiasm it generates among audiences, I suspect they do.