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Valery Gergiev


Valery Gergiev at The White Nights Festival


By Andrew Jack

ST. PETERSBURG, 25 June 2002—The advantage of interviewing a conductor during the interval of one of his performances is that at least you know you will not miss the next act.

That, incidentally, is often an occupational hazard even for ordinary spectators queueing for a drink during a Russian concert, so long are the queues and so slow the service at most cultural refreshment stands.

The striking – but characteristic – aspect of Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky and the White Nights Festival alike, is that he agrees to talk at all at such a moment, when you might have thought he was engaged in deep concentration on the musical challenges ahead of him.

Especially when it concerns an opera as complex and rarely performed as Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of the Invisible City of Kitezh, enriched in this five-hour version by performances from a live dog and numerous children; and enlivened on this particular evening by a coughing fit and a heart attack in the audience, and a rolling prop on the inclined stage that risked concussing a trombonist in the orchestra.

Instead, the man whom staff reverently call simply “Maestro” nonchalantly strolls to his backstage office during intermissions to hold court almost Central Asian-style, as a coterie of people hang around in the vestibule and on couches in his inner sanction to catch him. He is dressed in his characteristic Nehru-style black round-collared shirt-jacket, designer stubble on his chin.

On this occasion, in early June, vying for Gergiev’s attention during the latest 20 minute pause in production, there is a German conductor discussing collaborative projects, a Russian composer offering him a work for his consideration, and a host of administrative staff seeking urgent approval on varied matters.

Yet in conversation, the man himself proves relaxed, charming, and far less intimidating or arrogant than one might assume for someone who has achieved such international renown. He ushers others out of his room to offer his undivided attention. He refers to “our team” – not “me” or “mine”. And he unprompted drops frequent efforts to encourage the next generation of singers and dancers, and to use young designers and choreographers for his productions.

Apparently Gergiev has recently even made efforts to address his reputation for being late to the start of performances. Both of the ones seen by this reviewer began a modest 15 minutes behind schedule – and, thanks to our conversation, I may have had a hand in the rather lengthy pause after the third bell had rung and the lights dimmed before the third act began.

There is still plenty of spontaneity about the man, including an unexpected additional interval just 30 minutes into the opera for “technical reasons”, which took both the printed programme and the Mariinsky staff by surprising, triggering a clarifying announcement ahead of the second act.

There is also enormous energy in his conducting style, with lots of flailing arm movements, and occasional grunts audible from the front rows of the Mariinsky hall as he throws himself into the music.

The same concentration goes into his monumental administrative work. In the shadow of the Mariinsky, he has had a hand in opening a restaurant – the cosy “Backstage” - so he can dine with sponsors without having to head to an eatery in a miserable nearby hotel, in a historic but otherwise all but deserted and unanimated part of the centre of St. Petersburg.

Nearby the theatre, he has his eye on a group of old buildings to be converted into additional performance and rehearsal space, in an ambitious and controversially designed project which is still several years away from realisation.

Defending the choice of an all-Russian White Nights this year (with the composers themselves mainly adoptive children or natives of St. Petersburrg), he argues that it was time for the city to show its contribution to Europe. After a decade of decline and depression in Russia, the programme hints at a new-found confidence and renaissance.

In response to suggestions that some of the works – such as his previous Semyon Kotko – were propaganda exercises for the Soviet period, he argues that for him, “the music comes above everything”, and that the best composers of the Communist era were able to rise above the demands of politicians and indulge in “satire”.

This faith in original uncut works also means a tendency to restore edits made in the past, arguing that it is rare anyone can better the ideas of the original artist. Gergiev’s new variant of the The Nutcracker, first performed last year and notably in May when George W. Bush came to town, does not suffer from a little extra length and musical content.

The interpretation it provides is certainly more sinister than the classic children’s ballet, although it does become a piece in two halves, with the dominance of Mikhail Chemyakin’s artistic direction so great that the dancing is almost swamped until the second act.

While Chemyakin’s role, as a post-Soviet “rehabilitated” artist, is symbolic of the new Russia, so is Kitezh, with its messages of redemption and purity. There again, the heavy religious references, particularly towards the end, make you think that a 30 minute cut would have perhaps been no bad thing.

But in general Gergiev is to be commended for his desire to opt for a constantly changing programme of less well-known works, interpreted by fresh talent. He avoids the temptation of multiple performances of set-piece classics and old-style versions, which he argues could easily generate queues around the Mariinsky so thick that it would be impossible to get within walking distance to the theatre.

As it is, the audience is still heavily foreign-dominated – despite the questionable practice (also used by the neighbouring Hermitage Museum) of levying substantially greater, Western-level, fees to non-Russians.

In fact, the principal regret of the White Nights Festival is, instead, the absent “off”: the lack of anything around the festival. While the architecture is magnificant, the cultural talent rich, and the northern location offers sunlight until 2 a.m. in June, St. Petersburg still under-exploits its talents.

Away from the Mariinsky, there are few other signs of late-night cultural life which could do so much to draw in Russians and foreign visitors alike. There again, that is hardly Gergiev’s fault. “If I do any more, I’ll kill myself,” he says.

He can at least take credit for the Mariinsky’s refreshment stands, which are among the best and most efficient I have frequented in musical Russia, with sufficient quantity of counters and speedy staff to ensure you can eat and drink between intervals without getting indigestion or missing the rest of the performance.

Andrew Jack is a British journalist based in Moscow and the author of The French Exception (Profile Books, London). He is also a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com.


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