In pursuit of modernism's impresario

In his role as brilliant cultural catalyst, Diaghilev showed why Russia belonged in Europe. In taking up this unfinished task, Valery Gergiev pays tribute to his predecessor's genius.
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The very Russian-ness that made Sergei Diaghilev such a genius at making artistic waves also meant, as Valery Gergiev ruefully admits, that "he didn't pay on time, he made impossible promises, he had all sorts of troubles, he wouldn't settle hotel bills - instead escaping out of windows. All this made him more Russian than other artists - say, Tchaikovsky or Turgenev. He was very, very Russian, sometimes too Russian."

And no one in the next generation of Russian artists could remain unaffected by his influence across all the arts. "Everything that made an impression on me 20 or 30 years ago was linked to Diaghilev. You can't overestimate his ideas, his achievements and his influence. His contribution to an understanding between cultures, between European nations, was huge. It's not an exaggeration to describe him as a revolutionary. He was responsible for change in all aspects of the arts - opera, ballet, symphonic music, pantomime, circus, film. He brought everything together. Not only did he have vision, enabling composers, designers and choreographers to speak not only to each other but also to the world, he also understood logistics, politics, history and the complexities of handling delicate problems and grasping opportunities. He was a master of manoeuvre and manipulation, bringing the most unlikely people together, finding and developing an idea, with a capital "I". He became both the motor and the heart of the creative process that changed Europe and the world at the start of the 19th century."

Living pretty much as an exile after the Russian Revolution, Diaghilev in his 57 years spanned a historic period in Russia's artistic life. Old enough to have once kissed the hand of the 85-year-old sister of Glinka, "the father of Russian music," and to have attended the last St Petersburg recital by Anton Rubinstein, who had played before Chopin and Liszt, Diaghilev also visited Uncle Petya (Tchaikovsky), called on Tolstoy, and, to the end of his life, kept abreast of developments in Russian culture, though geographically far removed from it. Most important, he was responsible, in his encouragement of over 40 composers from Ravel to Stravinsky, for some of the most brilliant scores of last century.

Forty-seven this week, Gergiev's own achievements to date may not be the stuff of legend but they, too, are pretty impressive. Occupying a pre-eminent position in Russia as music director of the Kirov Opera and the Kirov Ballet and the overall intendent of their home, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, he has attracted worldwide attention for his dynamic style and concentration as a conductor. He is also the moving force behind several innovative festivals of Russian music and fruitful partnerships with, among others, the Royal Opera.

Like Diaghilev, Gergiev is a persuasive advocate, a musical courier between Russia and the West. Gergiev, who has led his country's opera and ballet through a difficult economic climate, fighting to secure its position as an international artistic force, has pinned a lot on the Kirov's season this summer at Covent Garden. When I am shown into Gergiev's suite in Vienna's Imperial Hotel, he is attempting to hold everything together, talking simultaneously in English and Russian on a landline and a mobile, balancing between the Met and the Mariinsky.

Little wonder Gergiev's designer stubble looks a little grisly, his hair unruly. He spins from one urgent demand to another. A colleague mans the constantly ringing phones while we speak. "Later," I hear Gergiev say, "we'll discuss over dinner." To another, "ring me tonight." A short while later he is in the Musikverein concert hall preparing with the Vienna Philharmonic.

I'm surprised by the amount of energy and detail he puts into a rehearsal, explaining how he wants every line interpreted, gesticulating his meaning. , impersonating an animal he wants the strings to emulate, pretending to be a singer so a wind player will add colour. His vitality seems inexhaustible, his charisma boundless.

In a polka for piano duet, Igor Stravinsky sketched a portrait of Diaghilev as a circus ringmaster and he really does appear to have cracked the whip over all aspects of the creation of his operas and ballets. He had infallible instinct, a nose for what would work, turning famously from the procrastinating composer Liadov to the young Stravinsky. Stravinsky was later to dismiss The Firebird, his first commission for the Ballets Russes as "Rimsky Korsakov with pepper" but it marked the beginning of an important association between impresario and composer that produced a further nine major scores and twice changed the course of musical history.

Three of these works feature in Gergiev's Philharmonia/Kirov Diaghilev Festival, including the most notorious, The Rite of Spring, and Stravinsky's last ballet for Diaghilev, Apollo, described by Diaghilev as "part Glinka and part 16th-century Italian though without any intentional Russianising".

With Sergei Prokofiev, another of his Russian protégés featured in this festival, he was quite bossy. "Diaghilev," argues Gergiev, "interfered only so that the music could be even more brilliant." Though the composer was already well established when he accepted a commission for a major ballet score, The Prodigal Son, that didn't stop Diaghilev from making him change the ending not once, but several times until he was satisfied. Gergiev carries a flaming torch for Prokofiev and is thrilled to be conducting music from three of his ballets, including the witty tale of the buffoon,Chout and Le pas d'acier, on the Bolshevik subject of industrialisation.

What about Ala and Lolli, Prokofiev's first, doomed attempt at a ballet, which Diaghilev rejected and from which Prokofiev later salvaged the Scythian Suite. "I believe totally and absolutely in the Scythian Suite and I will demonstrate why in London. Wait and see. Listen to The Rite of Spring and then this suite, one after the other - then judge. Was it so totally in the shadow of Stravinsky's Rite? My own opinion is that Prokofiev should not be compared to Stravinsky, for along with Shostakovich, who was also influenced by Diaghilev, each is a genius in his own way, important a long way beyond just Russian music.

"I am interested in everything linked to the world of Russia, whether it's fairytale or folk culture. Remember Glinka's words, 'We do not compose, we just arrange.' In Chout I always hear the colours of laughter and life - it brings us close to the atmosphere of the unfettered Russian spirit."

Is he convinced that suites and excerpts work away from the stage, cut off from the visual and dramatic components of the ballets?

"It is the theme of my life: theatre and symphony. Ballet music, music for the theatre, opera and music for symphony orchestra are so closely related. There is only good and bad music, and this is all fantastic." Today in Russia anything associated with Diaghilev sells out. But Gergiev is aware of the need to move on, foster new ideas and take the Kirov in new directions. "It's too big a country, with too much talent for just one person. We can be grateful to Diaghilev for what he did for Russian and world culture but we must also look to the present and the future. I hope that, too, will be a revelation."

Philharmonia/Kirov Diaghilev Festival, tomorrow, 6, 9, 10 May, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, 020-7960 4242. Concerts on 4 & 10 May will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3