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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Gergiev is selling us short

By Norman Lebrecht / October 16, 2008

Valery Gergiev is conducting a concert for peace in Jerusalem this weekend. The month before last, he gave a victory concert for the Kremlin armies in south Ossetia.

In his own mind, there will be no contradiction. Gergiev, whom I have known longer than any writer outside Russia, has an extraordinary ability to compartmentalise. An emotional man, not prone to profound reflection, he functions on a principle of needs must, and on the ends justifying those primary needs

His first loyalty, he has told me several times, is to the Caucasian region of his birth. When the Georgians violated Ossetia’s borders and oppressed its people, he rushed to support Vladimir Putin’s Russian army, which was lying in wait to reassert its power.

His second loyalty is to the Mariinsky, formerly Kirov theatre, which he has led as general and artistic director since 1988 and upheld as Russia’s only performing ensemble of international status. That commitment requires him to maintain an uncritical friendship with Putin, who helped out when he was deputy mayor of St Petersburg in the early 1990s.

Gergiev denies excessive closeness to the former Russian president, now prime minister, but there is no masking his admiration for what, in a recent interview, he described as the leader’s restoration of Russian self-respect. A strong country means a strong Mariinsky. Gergiev is building a second opera house in St Petersburg. No further questions.

The Mariinsky has opened a ballet and opera season at Sadler’s Wells this week, with Gergiev conducting Wednesday night before flying off to Jerusalem. His peace concert there is sponsored by an ex-Soviet oligarch, Arcady Gaydamak, who is presently on trial in Paris on charges of smuggling arms to Angola.

Among alleged oligarch crimes, sending a ship full of Kalashnikovs and helicopters to a war zone amounts to a minor misdemeanour beside their wholesale despoilation of the Russian economy, and while Gaydamak is decidedly nouveau rouble riche he has given lavishly to local charities. He has just launched an election campaign to become mayor of Jerusalem and the concert will be seen as its centrepiece. Gergiev, for his part, is not bothered. He is neither picky about old friends, nor ever disloyal.

Take Alberto Vilar, the fallen dotcom investor who donated $200 million to opera houses. Vilar has been walking free on half a million dollars of bail put up by Gergiev when he was arrested in New Jersey on charges of defrauding private clients. In a trial that began a fortnight ago, the prosecution is looking for a 20-year sentence. Next time Gergiev turnbs up at the Metropolitan Opera, where he has been principal guest conductor for ten years, he may get called as a character witness.

Amid his whirlygig schedule and dubious friends, it is easy to forget that Gergiev. 55, is one of the most incandescent conductors alive, capable when the spirit is upon him of producing performances that can only be described as epic. He has a natural authority with orchestras, a sensitive concern for soloists and an intensity that defies belief. Anyone who heard the Tchaikovsky Pathetique that he gave in Vienna on the night of the Beslan massacre, or some of the Prokofiev operas and symphonies that he retrieved from oblivion, will have felt passages of music seared forever on their soul.

However, it is also easy to forget that Gergiev is supposed to be principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO used to be London’s top draw. No longer. At the South Bank, the London Philharmonic has rejuvenated its concerts under two thirty-something conductors, Vladmir Jurowski and Yannick Nezet-Seguin, while the Philharmonia has received a much-needed glamour infusion from the ex-LA maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen. Against stiffened competition, the LSO has allowed itself to become an unprotected subsidiary and bag-carrier of Gergiev Global.

Last season the LSO performed a cycle of Mahler symphonies which was not just uncalled for but positively perverse in that the conductor had nothing new to say. Beautifully played and, on the whole, warmly received by a subscription audience, it substituted gesture for substance and left a sour aftertaste on record. I understand that Gergiev was asked to diversify the programme, but insisted on Mahler as of right.

This season – this week, in fact - he is repeating a Prokofiev set with the LSO that he did this summer in Edinburgh with the Kirov, along with selection of Rachmaninov, Bartok, Korngold and Stravinsky that have been grouped together under the guise of an ‘Émigré’ season of ‘emigration and displacement’.

There is no apparent reasoning behind this title and no content that relates it to the real lives of tens of thousands of war-torn and political refugees who live in the city from which the LSO takes its name. There is no Handel, no Gounod, no Goldschmidt, no Panufnik, no Firsova, not one of dozens of composers dead or still living for whom London is a haven from intolerable regimes. The LSO Émigré season looks like an empty shell, devoid of social and intellectual context and designed for the convenience of a high-flying conductor whose mind is often elsewhere.

In case I hadn’t made it clear, I am a longterm admirer of Gergiev’s and personally very fond of the man. His emotional transparency is genuine and his human instincts are generally sound. There are performers in his entourage who would not get a second date from tougher maestros, but Gergiev does not drop musical casualties by the wayside; where possible, he nurses them back to health.

As far as the LSO is concerned, however, he is dispensing no favours. The orchestra’s brand is being damaged by attachment to Gergiev Global. Will anyone remember who played last month’s Rachmaninov Festival? Was it the Kirov, the Met, the Vienna Phil or the World Orchestra for Peace? When Andre Previn conducted Rachmaninov in the 1960s, the whole world knew it was with the LSO. Now all they recognise is Gergiev.

The LSO has survived for a century on swagger and self-interest. It needs now to put its fly-by-night conductor on the spot. Why are we playing this music? Who is it for? Where and how does it benefit the LSO in London’s competitive cauldron? These are not questions that Valery Gergiev has ever faced. I hope he has a convincing answer.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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