Tea and Bagels with Conductor Valery Gergiev

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Anyone who has seen Valery Gergiev at work can recite some of the iconography attached to the charismatic maestro: the carefully cultivated two-day stubble of beard suggesting that he is just too busy to shave; the glazed but penetrating Russian eyes which, more than ever, suggest a person of immense vision and profound insight; the image of him brilliantly juggling his roles as artistic and general director of St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, principal conductor of the World Orchestra for Peace and the London Symphony Orchestra, and seemingly endless affiliations with top musical organizations around the world. The word indefatigable must have been coined for him.

Hurricane Gergiev blew through New York a few days before the destructive Sandy. He was in the city to conduct the World Orchestra for Peace at Carnegie Hall on October 19 and then repeated it in Chicago two days later, on the centennial of the birth of Sir Georg Solti, founder of the orchestra. Gergiev returned to New York to lead to Brahms programs with the LSO and then await the Mariinsky Orchestra for more concerts scheduled on successive nights in Toronto, Ann Arbor, Newark and Chapel Hill, before flying to Asia for engagements in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and China. 

One morning in New York, he held a press conference and I then had the opportunity to interview him afterwards. The maestro, between sips of tea that seems to sustain every Russian and bites of a bagel, spoke thoughtfully on a range of topics. The subject of the press conference was to announce the imminent opening of the new Mariinsky Theater, referred to as Mariinsky II. Gergiev said the inauguration will be sometime in late April or early May. He will turn 60 on May 2 and it would be fitting to celebrate the day with an international telecast.

Mariinsky II (designed by Canadian architect Jack Diamond) will have approximately 2,000 seats. It is across a canal bridge from the historic 1,609-seat Mariinsky, where superb ballet, opera and symphonic performances have taken place since 1860. Nearby is the company’s 1,200-seat concert hall, opened in 2006. The addition of these buildings is part of Gergiev’s vision of creating a critical mass of performing arts to equal the immense visual arts offering at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum.

The Mariinsky orchestra, chorus, ballet company and opera company will work interchangeably in all three theaters. According to Gergiev, “What we are reaching is the equivalent of Lincoln Center, but it is led by one management rather than having many constituents. This is unusual for a performing arts complex. At the Mariinsky, opera supports ballet, ballet supports opera, and the orchestra supports all of it. The chorus also performs independently.”

The goal with the new theater is to increase the number of performances. "There will be more opportunities not only for the public, but for artists," he said. "Now, ballerinas who prepare for a role will have a chance to dance it more than once. We will increase the size of the orchestra, chorus and ballet company by 30 to 40 percent, but I insist that they all be good.”

Gergiev took over the Mariinsky almost 25 years ago, when the city was called Leningrad, the nation the Soviet Union, and the theater was the Kirov (named for Sergei Kirov, a Bolshevik who had been assassinated). "The Russian Revolution in 1917 did not make it difficult for the theater to continue, even though it changed names. St. Petersburg even managed to retain its architectural heritage of the 18th and 19th centuries. Thank God, and the Communists, that we did not have new buildings in the Soviet era. That went to Moscow.” Even under the Soviets, the conductor was able to build the theater from a famously disciplined interpreter of Russian classics to one that could just as easily do operas by French, German and Italian masters and a vast range of symphonic music.

As a superstar conductor, Gergiev is a brand unto himself. But he has also made the Mariinsky a symbol of quality and a brand too, even though it is almost always Gergiev who is leading the performance. I doubt any arts organization tours more widely, though things are structured so that some musicians, dancers and singers are always performing at home while others on the road. Gergiev believes that this almost constant touring, not only to major capitals but many places that are off the beaten path, is the best way to keep the arts alive. "There is a huge world of classical music but we sometimes forget that it is not easily distributed," he explained. "It is one thing to have the Internet, but quite another to hear music live in a hall with good acoustics. Live performances, where the public sees and looks at the artist, is still the strongest means of developing audiences.”  

Fine-Tuning an Orchestra - and a Concert Hall

In an interview I did with Gergiev in 2000, I learned something that forever changed the way I hear music. I asked him about a splendid performance he led of Stravinsky’s Firebird with his orchestra in Chicago, Toronto and New York. “In each theater I had to place the brass musicians in different places on the stage because the acoustical qualities of each hall is different," he said at the time. "This was not so much to make the music sound as I wanted it, but because I had to arrange it so the various horn players could hear one another.”

I returned to the topic of acoustics the other day in the context of the new theater as well as the fact that a touring orchestra must have to constantly adjust to each place it plays in. Gergiev said, “I like halls where nothing moves. Each time I am in a hall with moving parts, there is the risk that something will change. New Yorkers can compare Carnegie Hall with Avery Fisher Hall to understand the difference.” With this in mind, St. Petersburg’s concert hall (designed by an acoustician) and Mariinsky II have auditoriums where all elements are fixed and “tuned” in such a way that suits Gergiev’s idea of what they should sound like.

Why, I wondered, do Russian audiences, including those abroad, seem particularly passionate about culture? "Russians grew up in a country of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. It is impossible not to feel it. At the age of seven we know that Pushkin and Tchaikovsky are the most important Russians, more than political figures of every kind. If we kill that, we are done for. I worry that the new generation of Russians will not feel this so I am making sure my children know this.” They should all watch this video of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, based on a Pushkin story and conducted by Gergiev. Although the subtitles are in French, this is worthy even if you cannot read them.

I asked about Dmitri Shostakovich, whose compositions I have come to love but are often thought of as Soviet music rather than simply the work of a great composer. Gergiev responded, “I don’t see him as a composer engaged in propaganda work. He did not compose bad symphonies, as some people suggest. You can see that when you put them back to back. I have performed cycles of his 15 symphonies in New York, Munich, London and Vienna in a short period of time and people are just as interested in, say, the Eighth or the Eleventh as they are in the more famous ones.”

Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra have been recording the symphony cycle in the concert hall. They are about to release a recording of the magnificent Seventh Symphony, called The Leningrad because of its depiction of the courage of its populace during the 900-day siege in World War II. It is a thrill to hear these musicians, many of whose families lived through this drama, engage with this amazing score.

Gergiev, who hurtles through 24 time zones the way most people get through a 24-hour day, also devotes time to teaching young conductors. This video, with Dutch subtitles and some speaking only in Spanish, nonetheless shows his visceral and laser-like relationship to music. It must be both exhilarating and daunting to be taught by him. One of his star pupils was Gianandrea Noseda, whom Gergiev met at the Chigi Academy in Siena and then brought to St. Petersburg. Noseda now speaks Russian and, apart from the Italian repertory one would expect from him, performs a great deal of Russian repertory and works of many nations. His 2011 performances of Britten’s War Requiem with the LSO in London and New York are already the stuff of legend. As the head of Turin’s Teatro Regio, Noseda has expanded the repertory in unusual ways for Italy, such as a remarkable 2010 Boris Godunov.

If you have ninety minutes, watching this 2011 conversation with Gergiev at Columbia University will be time well-spent: