By Andrew Jack
ST. PETERSBURG, 25
June 2002The 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.
striking but characteristic aspect of Valery Gergiev,
artistic director of the St. Petersburgs
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.
when it concerns an opera as complex and rarely performed as
Rimsky-Korsakovs 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
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
On this occasion, in early June, vying for Gergievs
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
to suggestions that some of the works such as his previous
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. Gergievs 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 childrens ballet,
although it does become a piece in two halves, with the dominance of
Mikhail Chemyakins artistic direction so great that the dancing
is almost swamped until the second act.
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.
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 Gergievs fault. If I do
any more, Ill kill myself, he says.
He can at
least take credit for the Mariinskys 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