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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Valery Gergiev - Conducting History

By Norman Lebrecht / May 28, 2003

Reaching 50, few people in public life can look back on a career path that has run straight, deviating neither in principle nor in purpose. Tony Blair, who entered Parliament in 1983 as a picket-line unilateralist, has evolved into a boss-friendly warlord.

The antimaterialist Martin Amis of Money (1984) became the huge-advance fat cat of Experience (2000). Maturity and the seductions of compromise deflect men from the purity of first ideals.

Valery Gergiev is the singular exception. Early this month, the director of the Kirov-Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg, the only Russian cultural institution to flourish since the fall of the Soviet Union, took himself home to Vladikavkaz, in Ossetia, for a half-century birthday fest in the company of extended family and musical friends.

For three days Gergiev was in his element. "The weather was great," he says, "we went to the mountains and I gave myself the best possible present: swimming in a fast, ice-cold river, like I did as a boy."

Vladimir Putin cabled birthday greetings. The two have known each other - "I don't say we are friends" - since the president was deputy mayor of Leningrad in 1991 and the conductor was running the Kirov on a promise of roubles that arrived late and heavily devalued. Putin has now guaranteed the theatre $24 million (£15 million) in core maintenance for the next three years, having also approved a $160 million (£102 million) project to restore the crumbling Dostoevskian edifice, parts of which have not been touched since the 1860s.

But the biggest boost, says Gergiev, "comes from the sense of stability which Putin immediately brought to the country. We worked together in the most difficult years. Today the country is in better shape, the theatre is going to be renovated and we will build a second stage because one is not enough. We can fill both halls every night."

This is classic Gergiev: extending private conviction into public mission. "At one point," he recounts, "I went into direct conflict with the ministers of culture and construction, an open and unreserved anger.

"We cannot allow a project as important as ours to drag on for 20 years, so I raised my voice. I told them if you can't understand one way, I'll change my tone. I am the leader of the Mariinsky and I force others to be responsive."

It is 15 years ago this month that Gergiev was elected by company members to lead them into the post-Soviet murk. Trained across the square at the Rimsky-Korsakov conservatory, he was a staff conductor with roots in the wilder parts of Caucasia and no experience of the non-communist world.

With an English dictionary in his pocket, he flew to London and forged a Covent Garden connection using mostly sign language. It started with an exchange of productions and a flow of new artists. His own debut was remarkable for the suggestiveness of his gestures, a baton style so ethereal that old hands likened it to Furtw‰ngler's.

As the Bolshoi subsided into whingeing sloppiness, Gergiev forged Team Kirov, persuading his divas that they would shine better as part of a prestigious touring company than alone in the dollar-driven West.

Within a decade he made the Kirov a fixture on the world's great stages, from Tokyo to Los Angeles. His ballet company will, once again, occupy the Royal Opera House this summer, while the Royal Ballet dances at St Petersburg's tercentenary.

The key to all of his relationships is reciprocity. Gergiev from the outset embraced cultural exchange as distinct from the money-grabbing cultural parasitism of other Russian companies, who export creaky old Nutcrackers with demotivated casts.

He avidly courted Western benefactorsbut when the Cuban-American Alberto Vilar defaulted spectacularly on his global pledges Gergiev, the neediest of his recipients, fastidiously refrained from joining the recriminatory chorus.

He rang the embarrassed Vilar recently to enquire after his health. "I am not one of those people who value a friendship by the size of the cheque," he maintains. "I feel grateful to Alberto, not bitter."

Having known him for a decade, I can testify to his consistency. Before he became principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, he told me that his aim in committing himself to three productions a year in New York was to let his Kirov team loose in that technological powerhouse and bring home all they had learned. New York promptly cast him as a successor to the incumbent, James Levine. When Gergiev declined to play politics, The New York Times reported that musicians at the Met disliked him.

"If they don't want me," shrugs Gergiev, "I am happy to stay at home. How long have you known me, Norman? Do you think I ever considered taking a position in London or New York?"

The cultural balance has shifted to his advantage. A leaderless West, driven by individual self-interest, looks to Gergiev for moral example. "Do you know why I work abroad?" he demands rhetorically. "Not for money. I have conducted more performances for no money than anyone alive. In Russia, at one point, I conducted for three dollars an opera. I was happy - I could grow, learn leadership, nurture new singers.

"I conduct abroad to help my company and for my own pleasure. I spend six weeks a year with the Vienna Philharmonic - the best orchestra in the world. If I have no pleasure, I don't go."

The relentless travel has taken a toll, both artistically and physically. Orchestras grumble that Gergiev arrives late and is slow to warm up. His beat, typically opaque, can be vague to the point of obfuscation. His 2001 Verdi season at Covent Garden lacked the white heat of the previous summer's Russian rep. He has thickened at the jowls and waist, the mark of gourmet meals at unsocial hours.

The demonic scowl has crinkled into something less ferocious. He is at risk of becoming domesticated. Four years ago, Gergiev married a hometown girl, Natasha, less than half his age. They have two sons - Abisal, named after his father, and Valery, after hers. "It's a fantastic change in my life," he smiles. 'The more time I spend at Mariinsky, the more I can give to them."

He is late for rehearsal, as usual. An aide holds out a selection of three batons; he rejects all three, opting to conduct Onegin with bare hands. The question of purpose still preoccupies him as he walks towards the stage.

"A lot of people," reflects Gergiev, "struggle to find what they identify with. I am very lucky. I crossed the piazza just once in St Petersburg, from the conservatory of music to the door of the Kirov. That was the only important journey of my life."

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001