Kaplan: Now "Mad About Music", where celebrities reveal their favorite pieces of music. Here's your host, Gilbert Kaplan. Conductor Valery Gergiev on today's edition of "Mad About Music".
Kaplan: Few conductors have exploded on the global scene as Valery Gergiev has in the past 10 years. He has rebuilt his Kirov Opera and was appointed as principal guest conductor at the Met, where he introduced neglected Russian operas. And his performances of the mainstream symphonic repertory have been acclaimed by the critics for his idiomatic and highly personal interpretations. And later this year he will have another distinction: he may well be the first person ever to open both the seasons of Carnegie Hall and The Metropolitan Opera. Valery Gergiev, welcome to "Mad About Music".
Gergiev: Thank you, it's great to be here.
Kaplan: After introducing you as the darling of the critics, I should ask you just how important critics really are to you. For ten years it seems to me, at least, you could do almost no wrong in their eyes; but recently, some of their pens have become a bit sharper, haven't they? Does what they write really matter to you?
Gergiev: Could be. I certainly have to be criticized and happily I accept that I have to be criticized all the time because as Georg Solti, famous colleague and supporter, and friend of mine, Sir Georg Solti told me, "Don't read reviews". I said why, I was shocked, surprised and upset. It was a time when out of ten, nine reviews would be so-so good about me, I was a young conductor '94, 95, 96, 92, I don't know. You remember, I brought Kirov for the first time to the Met. In general, people liked it. I started to conduct the New York Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony; in general people liked it, and I was reading someplace about me that he is this young conductor who was blah, blah, blah, and I thought it was important. And he told me, well, if you believe good ones, then you have to believe bad ones. Don't read them.
Kaplan: Well, Solti told me once that he greatly admired you. He discovered you quite early on. And when he was asked toward the end of his career, well, what do you do next? His answer was, I just try to get better every single time. And so since you have said that you sometimes feel that you should be criticized, what is your own self-criticism in the sense of, what do you think you can do better?
Gergiev: I discovered that I don't have to conduct many orchestras, too many orchestras. I don't have to give away too many commitments, because you are sometimes a slave of your own promise if you gave it too freely years ago, then you absolutely have to do it now. Then I have to focus, and focus means sometimes more time for yourself. And there are performances which, after you do it, you start to think that, well maybe this performance was not a must, it was not maybe needed, it was just - believe me, many performers, many artists, if they will be honest enough, they will say that only a portion of what we do is really important, and maybe really successful or really good. I agree that good conductors are critics of themselves. Conductors normally are very egocentric, so they think of themselves of course very highly, but at the same time, subconscious always tell them, well, there were big people in the past, and they were so big, can we compete? So at least I always feel that we have shortcomings rather than advantages.
Kaplan: Well, it strikes me that if there is any area where historical comparisons are going to be made, it's in the most familiar repertoire, such as in your first selection today Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. So let me start by asking you whether you regard this as a particularly difficult symphony to conduct?
Gergiev: When conductor thinks that he can "read" the Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky, and anyone needs it, he is either total idiot, or someone who discovered something about - I mean, something really important. Can you imagine how many performances of Fifth Symphony are taking place every minute, maybe worldwide?
Kaplan: I understand there may be so many performances going on over time, but what exactly is it about this symphony that is so challenging for a conductor?
Gergiev It's one of the best classical symphonies. It's so perfectly shaped. When we speak about Fifth Symphony and Beethoven, we can do the same thing. Well, Tchaikovsky, he's very close to being trivial and even cheap. But how close? That's the question for conductor to answer. Then he's very close to being genius who competes with any symphonist of any time. But again, how close? To Beethoven? or to Brahms - although he was certainly his opposite. This is the question. To never sound cheap, but to sound very generous is one risk; to never sound repetitive; square is another risk you face in the reading of Tchaikovsky. So you have to change something. You have to change the mood of every bar. It's a risk. So you have to interfere in the playing of orchestra, and orchestra has to feel that this is a right thing, rather than a wrong thing. Disturbing the safety of rhythm is not a good thing at all, but it depends which orchestra is in front of you, how much trust they have in you or how much trust you have in them.
Kaplan: All right, well then, let's hear a bit of your approach to this Fifth Symphony.
Kaplan: The Third Movement from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. The Vienna Philharmonic led by Valery Gergiev, my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music". Now you said that today's conductors are always looking over their shoulders at the giants of the past. Who are the conductors of the past you most admire?
Gergiev: There are a few names, which I cannot ignore, even if I wished. Furtwängler - great German conductor. Not only conducting but also his artistic statement. In a very, very complicated times, of Second World War. Hitler being there, in power. He remained general music director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra which was in a way tragic but still, thanks God, it gave so much to the world of culture, because there had to be someone who would continue one of the greatest traditions ever existed in classical music. So it was him, in a very difficult circumstances. I very much respect also his readings of romantic repertoire like Beethoven symphonies, Wagner or Richard Strauss. Brahms, Schubert, fantastic, fantastic readings. They really give me, at least, as much information, as much inspiration, when you think about who was Schubert, who was Mozart, who was Strauss or Wagner, what kind of musicians they are.
Kaplan: You know you're not the first to cite Furtwängler for his amazing abilities, but I wonder if you can be a little more specific for our audience. What for example are his musical ideas, or his interpretive ideas that you think makes him such a star?
Gergiev The most difficult thing in conducting is not to slip into mechanical beating. So this restless search for a real tempo, a real pulse, of practically each bar of music, rather than just one tempo for one movement, is something what very few conductors could ever master. Not many conductors will confess, maybe, that it will be something difficult for them to do, but then they will go and compete with Furtwängler, and most probably lose. Because it's kind of God-given gift, a genius quality, which one conductor contributes to the playing of the orchestra - I describe it in the following. You can't possibly imagine this same orchestra play the way they play with Furtwängler if you just remove him from the podium. It is just not possible to imagine they will do the same thing. They will be even maybe more organized, they'll be very focused in a certain ensemble, but they will never deliver this kind of incredible expression which he is able to bring to life once being in front of an orchestra. No matter if it was Berlin Philharmonic or Hamburg Radio Orchestra or Vienna Philharmonic, so that was his incredible quality.
Kaplan: Now some people would say you've just described Valery Gergiev by that.
Gergiev Not, certainly not. Well, you see, I don't think I'm the smartest man, but smart enough to understand that I cannot be compared to conductors like Furtwängler. My own way, although, I will defend, and I will think it was the last thing I had to do, ever, if I just was to follow an orchestra. I think it makes it totally unneeded today if conductors, and there are like maybe thousand conductors, if they are there just to serve, to accompany - I mean - we are not in a restaurant, where we just bring a menu and someone will tell us what to do. Conducting, music directorship, means that you in fact lead, and you sometimes decide, and sometimes you, if needed, attack; if needed, you will maybe defend composers. Sometimes you have to do something outrageously unusual, that the people will notice that there is this musical idea.
Kaplan: Well, after all that buildup, I think it's time we heard some Furtwängler. What did you bring today?
Gergiev: The "Great" symphony of Franz Schubert. We call it No. 9, sometimes we call it No. 7, but number doesn't matter; the quality of symphony and the quality of interpretation. Amazing. I believe in every movement there are so many changes of tempo. First, fantastic theme with horns are playing, and then, in the Second Movement, also it's very, very, it seems to be very settled but then it becomes so desperately dramatic. And again, the Third Movement, it's not just going like a clock, you know, da-da-da-da-DA-da-da-da-DA, it has the, you know, it has a bite, it has a freedom, it has a fire, and it has a style, so it's very Austrian. Schubert was really a shy man, but hear how this shy man sounds in the hands of Furtwängler.
Kaplan: The Third Movement of Schubert's Ninth Symphony. The Berlin Philharmonic led by Wilhelm Furtwängler, a selection of my guest on "Mad About Music" conductor Valery Gergiev. You can learn more about Valery Gergiev, listen or read a transcript of any of our prior shows by logging on our website, WNYC.org.
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on "Mad About Music" today, conductor Valery Gergiev. Now, we were talking about conductors who you admire and you mentioned Furtwängler. Who else would be in that category?
Gergiev: I certainly admire Toscanini, a total antipode of Furtwängler, because in his hands, rhythm, maybe because he was such a great Italian symbol of everything Italian, character, speed, the fire; but he was a conductor who would be able to convert rhythm into something what I would call, it became a character in itself, where rhythmic improvisation becomes so madly charged with energy that you start to feel that you are yourself jumping in the chair, together with the pulse of music, because he just gave these electric shocks to the orchestra every second, every second, he never allowed it to go just too smoothly, you know. He was one of the highest charged performers of all times. And totally different. He was not a philosopher like Furtwängler - he didn't maybe like to change tempo the way that Furtwängler would do. But he's very Italian. The great thing about them was that they represented the great cultures and they did it brilliantly.
Kaplan: You say they did it brilliantly, and I've often wondered exactly what it is that makes a performance become brilliant. And it's clear that it's not just a technical matter. Now earlier you said how important trust is if a conductor is going to push an orchestra to take risks. But I also wonder what are the things that can go wrong when you do this?
Gergiev Cooperation with orchestra is very important. Orchestra should never feel that conductor hates the music. Because if they start to feel it, they become totally - let's say - abandoned.
Kaplan: Did you say that a conductor would be hating the music he's conducting?
Gergiev Well, sometimes you feel that conductor maybe doesn't like the music.
Kaplan: Why is he conducting it?
Gergiev: Well, that's a good question. But we are all professionals. It's a very good word, but it's also a very dangerous word. Some people think they have to simply professionally do it. They go and do it. Maybe some of them just beat the time, some of them are fantastic professionals, they will beat time very well. But do they really love the music, and why they love it? The answer is go and listen to a Furtwängler recording or Toscanini; I addressed to the same spot, that any young conductor who will hear, he will be disturbed, maybe by a couple of pizzicato played not together. But if he's really gifted young man, he will have to be shocked by the depth of reading of Brahms Fourth Symphony, for example.
Kaplan: Well, I don't think that either Furtwängler or Toscanini would come to mind for our next segment as we now come to that part of our show called the "wild card" where, as our listeners know, each guest can pick a work that's not a classical work or an opera. It can be in any genre, popular music, jazz. What "wild card" did you bring us today?
Gergiev: Well, I was born in Moscow myself, and I somehow love this famous "Moscow Nights" song. Composer's name is Solovyev-Sedoy. He was not Shostakovich but he was extremely loved and popular in my country, mostly because of this melody. I mean, his gift for melody is amazing. We should remember that melody is at the heart of music, so to say. Verdi proved it, Mozart proved it, Puccini proved it, Rossini proved it, Tchaikovsky proved it and so on. I think we have to remember that if 500 million people can sing the melody, it most probably belongs to a genius.
Kaplan: The popular song, "Moscow Nights", a favorite of my guest on "Mad About Music" today, conductor Valery Gergiev. Now speaking of Russian music, I understand you're in the midst of recording all the Shostakovich symphonies.
Gergiev: I'm recording only so-called "war" symphonies. In fact, the title "War Symphonies" was my own proposal. I am intrigued with the power of this repertoire, starting from Symphony No. 4, and the others including Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, the Ninth Symphony was the last one, Shostakovich recorded during the Second World War. They are all very different symphonies, but it's extremely powerful repertoire, which I could possibly compare with the symphonies written by Gustav Mahler before the First World War. So most of Shostakovich symphonies were actually written before the actual war between Germans and Russians started, but it was clearly already a very inflamed space, especially European space, culturally, politically, it was very, very tense and horrifying years, in 1937, 1938, 1939, both Hitler in Europe and Germany and Stalin in Soviet Union were building empires, hugely powerful empires, very dangerous, and these symphonies, in fact, is a document statement against the madness of war.
Kaplan: I understand that No. 7 is your first release, is that right?
Gergiev: Yes, No. 7, "Leningrad" Symphony, famously called "Leningrad" because it was very much to do with the siege of Leningrad which lasted 900 days in one of the cultural capitals of Europe, the world in fact; Leningrad was practically destroyed by German army, but it goes beyond just one city's history.
Kaplan: An excerpt from the Fourth Movement of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, known as "Leningrad". The combined forces of the Kirov Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, led by my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music", conductor Valery Gergiev. When we return we will explore exactly why Valery Gergiev prefers to make his recordings live.
Kaplan: This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today's edition of "Mad About Music" conductor Valery Gergiev. Now the Shostakovich we just heard was a live recording. Some conductors prefer live recordings because they believe they are more spontaneous. I suppose that must be your feeling also. On the other hand, others can't live with the inevitable mistakes that happen during a live performance. Ho do you exactly come out on this topic?
Gergiev: I mean there are millions of recordings on the market, which finally become just, just a piece of metal, you know? Because instead of being a form of art, it's overloaded, so you really have to see it as a danger, and again, the recording, every recording. I am full of fear for the Shostakovich releases. I hope they will be very good recordings, but I insist that we will do it live because there is a chance that live concert, you can inject something. What is coming with the help of public. You don't perform for the wall. You don't perform for acoustic. You perform for people who enjoy this acoustic and are put inside these walls.
Kaplan: Well, I see your next selection is one of the best-known pieces in the symphonic repertoire, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. And it's the work that you and the Kirov will perform at the opening night of Carnegie Hall this fall. Now you've been talking about trying to create unique performances, performances that bring something special, and since you've already recorded this piece, tell me what section would best illuminate Valery Gergiev's approach?
Gergiev: Well, Scheherazade is deservedly famous. I don't think it's performed so, so often today like maybe it was 40, 50 years ago worldwide. He was a great master of orchestra, and then of course fantastic rhythmic energy in the Fourth Movement, which, ironically, is called "Festivities in Baghdad." That has nothing to do with Baghdad today, but it's an attempt to have a program music describing this famous Arabian "1,001 Nights." So it's Arabic, but it's very, very Russian. I think it's the power of music, which doesn't have a border, I mean, just travels freely.
Kaplan: An excerpt from the Finale of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. The Kirov Orchestra, and on the podium, my guest today on "Mad About Music", Valery Gergiev. This was his final selection on today's program. Now, as you look to the future, you not only have plans for new works, new places, new connections. But through all this, you've gone through an enormous history of your own in a very short period, a history that I suspect that some people don't accomplish in a lifetime. What have you learned about yourself that you didn't know, say, five years ago? Because I think it's really in the last five, ten years, Valery Gergiev has become Valery Gergiev. What have you learned about yourself during this period?
Gergiev: I think I concentrate, although I concentrated maybe too late, but I concentrate more and more on what I want to learn about myself because it is impossible to act outside musical activities. I will be uninteresting to my own self. I learned that I very much depend on my family and my relatives. I learned it recently because it's a family I have only for three years, three and a half years. I love also that I have to make things I planned for myself because I am not 25 years old, I am soon 50 years old, which means I have maybe much time, maybe not, but I really have to do it. That means I became even more serious about the plans I announced. I never pretend to take anybody's place. I will never be President of Russia, I will never be Governor of Petersburg, I will never be a music director of other institution than the institution I really belong to, because I have no plans on leaving Mariinsky.
Kaplan: You know as you were talking, I was trying to imagine another conductor who would need to confirm he had no plans to be the President of his country. In any case, you have been able to persuade your President, President Putin, to support arts in a very generous way. Tell us a little bit about the President of Russia when it comes to his interest in music, his knowledge of music, and your own relationship with him.
Gergiev: I think Mr. Putin never claims he is a huge music-lover. But to our surprise, in a positive way, he finds three, four, or five times a year, he finds an opportunity to come and see some of the most important performances. He, of course, came to the first performance of War and Peace. He brought also Tony Blair together with him.
Kaplan: Quite a change of pace from President Yeltsin, isn't it?
Gergiev: Well, Yeltsin will not stay in history as a famous attender of concerts or opera performances. But I spoke once or twice to Mr. Yeltsin about the importance of Mariinsky, and reconstruction of Mariinsky and building cultural center around it, in a way you did it here in Lincoln Center, for example. He didn't disagree; but the difference is that being a younger man, Putin is pragmatic and he acts.
Kaplan: You know, when I introduced Scheherazade, I said it was your final selection, and that was true. But with your permission, I have chosen one last piece as an encore to your selections. In fact, it was an encore I heard you play recently at Carnegie Hall. It's "Trépak" from The Nutcracker, played then, and also on your recording, at a tempo so riveting that it's almost unplayable. To my ears at least, this music - precisely one minute, I think - is signature Valery Gergiev.
Kaplan:"Trépak" from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, played at what might be a world record speed, by the Kirov Orchestra, led on by my guest today on "Mad About Music" conductor Valery Gergiev. Well, I want to thank you for appearing today on the show, and for this wide ranging conversation we've had. You may be totally loyal to your Mariinsky in St. Petersburg, but you're also the Principal Guest Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in our city, New York and in that sense, if being a New Yorker is a state of mind, which I believe it really is, I have to conclude you're also a New Yorker.
Gergiev: Even honorary New Yorker, I am officially honorary citizen of New York. Mayor Giuliani gave me like five, six years ago, which was very important to us because we loved New York from the very first visit. "We" means Mariinsky family. In 1992 we came, and then we kept coming every year or two to New York, to Carnegie Hall, to the Met, to Avery Fisher Hall, so it was wonderful ten years.
Kaplan: Valery Gergiev, come back and see us again. This is Gilbert Kaplan for "Mad About Music".