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Famed Russian conductor is bringing Kirov Orchestra to Chapel Hill

When charismatic Russian conductor Valery Gergiev mounts the podium tonight at Lincoln Center to lead the Kirov Orchestra, he'll be a familiar sight to New Yorkers used to his frequent visits.

But Triangle residents have never had an opportunity to see this magnetic musician on their home turf until now. Gergiev and the Kirov arrive in Chapel Hill on Tuesday for two nights of concerts in UNC's Memorial Hall on the Carolina Performing Arts series.

Gergiev has had a phenomenal rise to worldwide prominence. After being made artistic director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre in 1996, he quickly brought the theater's Kirov Opera, Ballet and Orchestra to renewed excellence.

He soon became known for his exciting and emotional conducting, especially of the great Russian composers, turning out critically acclaimed concerts, CDs and DVDs with the Mariinsky's three major companies.

The Kirov Orchestra is steeped in history, premiering many famous Russian composers' works since its founding more than 300 years ago under Peter the Great. Now with Gergiev, it keeps up a relentless pace of performances around the world.

Gergiev is one of the great interpreters of Sergei Prokofiev's music, and the Kirov's visit gives audiences two ways to experience this composer's genius.

Tuesday's concert offers selections from three Prokofiev ballets, one familiar (the charming “Cinderella”) and two rarely encountered (the perky “Buffoon” and the Stravinsky-like “Steel Step”), preceded by Tchaikovsky's popular “Romeo and Juliet Overture.”

Wednesday's begins with the “Cinderella” excerpts and ends with selections from Prokofiev's dramatically riveting ballet, “Romeo and Juliet.” In between comes Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with rising young Russian pianist Alexei Volodin.

Gergiev's personality, much like Leonard Bernstein's before him, propels his performances into vividly engaging events.

“It puts you absolutely on the edge of your seat,” says Grant Llewellyn, music director of the N.C. Symphony. “If anybody needs any more encouragement than that, I don't know what to say.”