HOW WE MET: DONATELLA FLICK AND VALERY GERGIEV

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The Independent Culture
Donatella Flick, 45, is the daughter of a Ossetian-Russian prince and an Italian mother. A former Olympic gymnast, she is now a great supporter of the arts, and founder of the biennial Donatella Flick Conducting Competition. Two years ago, she went through a much-publicised divorce from the Daimler- Benz heir Gert-Rudolf Flick; they have a son, Sebastian, aged nine. Valery Gergiev, 45, possibly the world's most sought-after conductor, was born in Ossetia, southern Russia. He is director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg (home of the Kirov Opera and Ballet), and principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, New York. He is frequently called St Petersburg's most eligible bachelor

DONATELLA FLICK: I have always considered myself to be an Ossetian woman. Ossetia, whose capital city is Vladikavkas, is on the slopes of the Caucasian Mountains - my father left there after the Revolution, but members of my family were killed, and, although my father died before I was 20, his influence was very strong. Our ancient race, which is called Alani in English, had a special culture, energy and aura - a completely original way of being. Valery is one of the new generation of Ossetians.

Before we met, I sent letters and faxes to Valery, who couldn't believe that a woman from his country was organising a conducting competition. It did seem surreal, because there are so few of us around. He's been very supportive to me and although he's much too busy to be involved this year, I know that one day he'll find time for me.

Our first meeting was in London, a couple of years ago. Valery had a concert. Afterwards, I went to a dinner given by the Friends of the Kirov. He had asked me to wait for him there, but, typically of Valery, who simply has no idea of the concept of time, hours passed and there was no sign of him. As usual, people were queuing in his dressing room to see him. Because he's such a kind man, Valery would never dream of saying "I have an appointment", so he talks to everyone. He's never rude, even when people who have nothing to do with music ask him rather stupid questions. As usual, the after-concert socialising went on for hours. Long after midnight, I'd given up on him. I wasn't pleased, because other friends had asked me to come over for coffee, and I'd told them I couldn't because Valery wanted to meet me, so I'd missed out on seeing them.

Just as I was literally screaming at my brother to go and collect the car, Valery made his entrance. Immediately, I was captivated, and, of course, I stayed to talk to him. Part of me knows that he probably isn't listening to me, but Valery has this incredible way of reacting which makes you feel as though you are the centre of his world.

Because of our background, there is a kind of current between us which means we know each other without having to explain. Our roots are so important, so special to both of us. I didn't have to say anything, because Valery knew about my heart, my education and the way an Ossetian father would have brought up his daughter. There is an empathy between us which probably no one else could understand. On a personal level, I trust him completely and could tell him anything. I met him once after a Philharmonia concert in London, when I was very upset about something which was really bothering me. Valery just looked at me and said: "I don't want to know what it is, but don't be afraid. You know that Ossetian woman will win."

It's our shared history which makes me understand his unbelievable musicality and discipline. I know that, for him growing up in a communist country, the only way for such a gifted artist was to study hard, in the hope that one day there would be the opportunity to see something else. That seems to me a very reasonable point of view. Valery understands the West completely, which is another reason why he's so successful. As an outsider, he has the ability to judge perfectly both the weak and the strong points of any situation.

Because both of us travel so much, our meetings are almost always at one of his performances, so they tend to be late, exciting and never long enough. Recently, after a concert in Rome, we went out for dinner and were followed by some of the paparazzi. I smiled and told them to leave him in peace, but I think Valery was bit disappointed in me and expected that I should have had a little more authority with them.

In 365 days, he will do 370 performances. I'm a very busy woman, but keeping up with Valery takes a rare and extreme energy which most of us don't have. Not only does he frequently forget to eat, I seriously believe that he doesn't need to sleep. Very few people have seen Gergiev sleeping. When he was in London conducting Tchaikovsky's Enchantress, which seemed to me one of the longest operas in the world, most of us - Valery's friends - were completely dead. Just after midnight he arrived at my house, looking as fresh as a flower, with three sopranos, four tenors and several assistants from the Kirov. Eventually I was ready to collapse and went to bed, but he stayed up talking until 6am.

Most of us have so many superficial, stupid things in our lives which worry us, but Valery is so totally focused on his music that only the absolute essentials matter to him. Shopping, clothes, holidays - those things aren't important. His focus is so total that I doubt he'd notice if he was wearing shoes which didn't match. I sometimes have this urge to look after him. When he was rehearsing at the Festival Hall two weeks ago, I arrived with a packed lunch for him, but, of course, he never ate it.

One of the reasons why I think we're both so sympatico is that Valery champions young musicians and I passionately want to give young conductors a chance. Soloists can practice in front of a mirror, composers don't have to perform, but how can someone who wants to become a conductor find the opportunity to work with an orchestra?

People kill for an interview with Gergiev - the man who took the Kirov Orchestra from zero to what they are today. That's one of Valery's greatest achievements: so to many people he's become like Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford. But compared to film stars, the financial reward of being a conductor is really not so great. Valery is immensely generous and puts a great deal of his money back into the orchestra.

To me, Valery's a really fine man in the truest sense of the word. He is one of the most extraordinary conductors I've ever seen. He can express exactly what he wants to a huge orchestra by the slightest movement of his finger. In our special shorthand, I call it Ossetian magic.

VALERY GERGIEV: I only met Donatella about two years ago, I can't remember exactly when it was, but I feel as though I've always known her. We were at a party organised by the Friends of the Kirov, in London. I'd heard about her of course, and at first I was really surprised that Donatella Flick, who is quite a famous lady in her own right, was the inspiration behind a major international conducting competition. In a way, I'm still surprised, but I know for sure that she is completely devoted to it and has put her heart and soul into it. She says that I've been a help to her but I don't feel that I've done anything at all. She doesn't need my advice.

Competitions are important. Whilst I was a student at the Leningrad Conservatoire, I won the All Union Conductor's Competition Prize in Moscow, and later, the Herbert Von Karajan Competition in Berlin. Obviously they've played a role in helping my career, and the competitions themselves were a goal.

Donatella's commitment to today's young conductors is important and genuine. Like me, her inspiration comes from the purity of the Caucasian Mountains. We're both very proud of our nation. We feel a strong obligation - almost a mission - to help the people of this small country keep the culture, language and economy alive. Our special relationship is based totally on the fact that we are both Ossetians. Our blood is the same. That's why neither of us have the heart for arguments with each other. There is nothing to divide us. I can explain it best by saying that we Ossetians have much more in common with British people than we do with Chechnyans, who are only kilometres away. I'm not saying one is good and the other is bad, just that we are very different - so to have a friendship with Donatella, knowing her roots are the same as mine, is, for me, completely special. Also, like me, she is someone who does things, rather than just talk about them.

I know that some people think Donatella isn't really a serious person. Certainly, she can be very funny and extrovert, so that people who don't know her could believe that her passion for music and arts is only shallow. I can tell you that definitely isn't true. People who are not interested in serious culture certainly don't choose conductors for their friends, and I do consider Donatella as a real friend. Because of my life - and to a certain extent hers - we don't spend a lot of time with each other unless we both happen to be in the same country. London, New York and Italy are the places where we are usually together. Donatella isn't the only friend who has a tendency to want to look after me. She's always shouting at me, saying: "Valery, you must eat. How can you work without stopping?" I'm grateful for her concern, but I know what I'm doing, and I don't really need anyone to take care of me.

Two weeks ago in London she told me, just after my rehearsal, that she was bringing her son Sebastian to my concert at the Festival Hall. She told me that it would be the first concert he'd ever been to and she wanted to start him off with the Kirov Orchestra. In the interval she brought him around to see me, because she felt that half a concert was quite enough for a little boy who had school the next morning. I think she was right. After she told me about Sebastian, she started complaining that I hadn't eaten any of the packed lunch she'd bought for me! I don't really know anything about Donatella as a mother because we don't usually see each other in that context, but I was very touched that she brought her son to the concert.

She has several houses and I keep saying to her that she should fly the Ossetian flag at her home in Switzerland, so that I can come there and conduct the Ossetian national anthem. She says she has a dream to work with me on a big concert in our country. Maybe one day, there will be a winner of her Conducting Competition from Ossetia. Now that would be something for both of us.

Obviously, Donatella is extremely wealthy, but wealth and fame are no guarantees of a feeling of warmth between two people. In this business, I meet people from all over the world, but it's extremely rare to find someone like her, with whom I am totally in sympathy. She and I are soul mates. We're not lovers, but we're definitely comrades.

! The final of this year's Donatella Flick Conducting Competition is on Tuesday at the Barbican Hall, EC2 (0171 638 8891).

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