Valery Gergiev: Last of the great autocrats

The Kirov could easily have dispersed or gone bankrupt but Gergiev, through titanic effort, held it together
Click to follow
The Independent Online

What makes Valery Gergiev run? When the announcement came last week that he was to take over from Sir Colin Davis as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, it was obvious what the LSO got from the deal. It confirmed them as one of the world's leading orchestras, able to attract (Sir Simon Rattle possibly excepted) the most talented and charismatic conductor of his generation. For Gergiev, however, it was just another high-profile post to add to his already prodigious workload.

He is the artistic and general director of the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, and principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He regularly conducts the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He appears often at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, San Francisco Opera, La Scala in Milan, the New Israeli Opera and the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. He is also the founder and artistic director of several music festivals in Russia, Finland, the Netherlands and Israel.

The life of any top-ranking conductor is one of long-distance flights, hotel rooms, jet lag, late meals and unsociable hours, but Gergiev has taken this to extremes. No other conductor even approaches such a relentless treadmill of engagements.

Nicholas Kenyon, director of the BBC Proms, says: "We all joke about his ability to be in two places at once and conduct concerts while he sleeps, and even he does, too: when the platform was not quite ready for a Prom rehearsal, he looked at his watch and said to me wryly: 'I could have caught a later plane.'"

This stressful way of life has produced some bad habits - running late, improvising solutions at the last minute, arranging performances thousands of miles apart in quick succession and then missing flights - which can put a great deal of psychological strain on colleagues. ("It's not Waiting for Godot," one administrator says. "It's 'Waiting for Gergiev'.")

But the LSO say they're unworried that their new signing might not be able to keep his eye on the ball, and they're probably right. As Kenyon observes: "When he gives you his attention it is total and concentrated, and when he makes music it is electrifying. It is not unreasonable to call him a genius."

Gergiev is now 52 and has been expending phenomenal energy at his current level since 1988. That year, he became chief conductor and artistic director of the Kirov Theatre. (This is the Soviet name, which has since reverted to its pre-revolutionary one of Maryinsky, though Kirov is still familiarly used in the West.) He had already been there for 11 years as assistant conductor, and an overwhelming majority of the orchestra and staff had voted him into the post. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: President Gorbachev's glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform) seemed to offer hope for a better future, but they also unleashed the forces which brought about the fall of communism the following year and the end of the USSR in 1991.

The Soviet Union had many horrible aspects, but one thing it did care about was artistic standards in opera and ballet - key battlegrounds in the cultural Cold War - and its collapse meant the end of subsidy. The company could easily have dispersed or gone bankrupt, but Gergiev, through titanic effort, held it together. He said: "In 1990, there was a sense of danger, and some singers and musicians started to look for an exit to some other place - no matter if it was a village in Germany or an orchestra in America. I was working very hard on morale. A man or a woman with a family who is not protected with a salary and a solid position has to have confirmation."

With an English dictionary in his pocket, he flew to London and cut a deal with Covent Garden, using mostly sign language, to exchange productions and singers. It formed the model for similar arrangements with other opera houses, and Gergiev proved equally adroit at negotiating with sponsors and record companies. He managed to convince his leading singers that they were better off staying in a prestigious touring company than going it alone in the West.

The strategy paid off, and within a decade the Kirov Ballet and Opera were regularly touring the world to critical acclaim and with good financial prospects. This remarkable and rare talent for administration combined with energy and musical genius had prevailed.

The Kirov's old rival, the Bolshoi in Moscow, lacked such leadership: standards slipped and it fell into performing endless warhorse productions of The Nutcracker for tourists. The Kirov stayed bold and forward looking, and artistically ambitious: a production of Wagner's Parsifal for the first time in 80 years, a Ring cycle for the first time ever by a Russian company. Key works by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, which had previously been banned on ideological grounds, are now in their repertory.

In 1995, after a nasty corruption scandal in the Kirov Ballet administration, Boris Yeltsin appointed him general director in charge of both opera and ballet. Now that Riccardo Muti has gone from La Scala, this leaves Gergiev as the last of the great musical autocrats. His dedication to the theatre means that wherever he is in the world he is followed by urgent phone calls and faxes demanding his attention - especially now that the antiquated theatre is soon to close for a 15-month radical programme of rebuilding and modernisation.

"It isn't always 24 hours a day," says Gergiev. "Sometimes it's just 18 or 19." His fellow conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, noting Gergiev's inward stillness on the podium, observed: "Performances for him are oases of peace and quiet. It's the only time his phone isn't ringing."

"A lot of people," says Gergiev, "struggle to find what they identify with. I am very lucky. I crossed the piazza just once in St Petersburg, from the conservatory of music to the door of the Kirov. That was the only important journey of my life."

The saving of the Kirov made him a national hero to the Russians, which is somewhat ironical, as he is not ethnically Russian, but from Ossetia on the mountainous Georgian border, whose inhabitants, like the Chechens, the Russians often slander as gangsters.

Though born in Moscow, Gergiev grew up and studied music in the city of Vladikavkaz. His memory is of an ordinary provincial childhood on which music steadily encroached: "I never wanted to be a musician. It wasn't a decision I made myself. I was playing soccer from the age of six or seven. All I was interested in was in joining the other kids."

He was pushed in the direction of music by his mother, a woman of strong character with whom Gergiev remains extremely close. His father was a retired Red Army colonel who died of a stroke, aged 49, when Gergiev was 14. (Friends worry constantly about his health. The 52-year-old encourages these worries by habitually ending discussions of future projects with the rider "if I am alive".)

In 1972 he entered the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in Leningrad (as it then was), opposite the Kirov, as both a pianist and a conductor. Rapidly, he was told to concentrate on conducting, and he formed a strong link to Russia's past when he began studying under Ilya Musin.

This legendary figure taught several generations of Russian conductors (including the last three directors of the Kirov) and was still teaching five days a week when he died at the age of 95. Musin had been taught by the conductor Nikolai Malko, and Malko had been taught by Rimsky himself. When Gergiev conducts all 15 symphonies of Shostakovich at the Barbican in the 2005/6 season, he can bear in mind that his teacher first met Shostakovich in the conservatory student cafeteria.

Gergiev is not without his critics: both the conductor and the company were held up to scorn in 1991 when they brought a season of Verdi operas to Covent Garden. It was a bold move for Russians to take on the Italian style, but the critical consensus was that they were insufficiently prepared.

Some orchestras can be exasperated by the conductor's cryptic commands in rehearsal. Not the LSO, with which he has an excellent relationship (he first conducted them in 1988), though its co-leader observed: "Whatever Gergiev demands in rehearsal, we know he'll demand something totally on the night."

Esa-Pekka Salonen describes the process as follows: "Most other conductors hear the orchestra produce a certain type of sound, then react to it. Valery has a preconceived idea, and he works toward that goal until he reaches it. In the rehearsal, he micro-manages, works very hard on one particular phrase or passage. He leaves the macro-managing to the concert. Sometimes the whole form of the interpretation is revealed only in the concert. This keeps the orchestra on its toes."

What he does have is an ability to galvanise musicians and bring fresh impetus to familiar scores. The music critic Alex Ross observes: "Most conductors can hold a score in their head. Many can reproduce an orchestral score on the piano. Some, like Gergiev, have a kind of photographic memory, which enables them to recall scores they looked at years ago. Gergiev's talent is rarer: he can form an idea of the music's emotional texture and bring it viscerally to life."

Both London and the LSO are lucky to have him.

A Life in Brief

BORN Moscow, 2 May 1953, to Ossetian parents.

FAMILY Married in 1999 to Natalia Dzebisova, an Ossetian musician; two sons: Abissal, born 2000, and Valery, born 2001.

EDUCATION Studied conducting under Ilya Musin, Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, Leningrad.

CAREER Chief conductor Kirov Opera 1988-95; principal conductor Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, 1995-97; principal guest conductor Metropolitan Opera 1997-2002; conducted numerous major international orchestras; named principal conductor of the LSO 2005. Winner, Herbert von Karajan Conductors Competition; Dimitri Shostakovich Award; Golden Mask Award; People's Artist of Russia.

HE SAYS "I crossed the piazza just once in St Petersburg, from the conservatory of music to the door of the Kirov. That was the only important journey of my life."

THEY SAY "Maestro Gergiev is a force of nature." Andrea Bocelli, tenor