August 5, 2005

Maestro Gergiev wants Russian music great again

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - Conductor Valery Gergiev is on a mission
to make Russian classical music great again, and he is not
afraid to ask friends in very high places to help.

The famously fiery 52-year-old, considered one of the
world's great conductors, has already done more than most to
restore pride in his country's orchestras, ballets and operas,
which suffered a talent drain when the Soviet Union collapsed.

He has built the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, known
also as the Kirov, into an internationally renowned house that
has left behind its great rival, the Bolshoi in Moscow.

He tours the world as a self-described ambassador for his
theater and country, and has the ear of Russian President
Vladimir Putin, himself from St Petersburg.

"When I meet him (Putin) I tell him, 'Do we have a chance
to improve dramatically the situation of the provincial
orchestras in Russia?"' Gergiev said in an interview late on

"He asks 'What is the situation?', and I tell him we lost,
in the 1980s and 1990s especially, many great teachers, many
great musicians, not only famous ones but also ... thousands of
teachers and tens of thousands of professional musicians."

Media have made much of his political connections, but
Gergiev is careful to distance himself from the Kremlin.

"I have never referred to Mr. Putin as a friend of mine,
never in my life, but I several times was easily able to say he
is a friend of the Mariinsky Theatre," he told Reuters during a
break in rehearsals at London's Royal Opera House.

With a major construction project ahead, that friendship
could be important.


Gergiev is overseeing the construction of a new, modern
Mariinsky Theatre, and costs estimated at hundreds of millions
of dollars and the building's space-age appearance have
discomforted St. Petersburg traditionalists.

"It's hugely important that this project doesn't become a
hysterical story about how ugly modern architecture can be in
the beautiful surroundings of traditional architecture.

"At the same time ... Petersburg needs a little kick,
because to go and tell everyone that we are great because we do
nothing is not what I believe in."

Gergiev's thoughts are also abroad, having just been named
principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2007,
to add to existing conducting roles in Rotterdam and New York.

But he said he aimed to lighten his hectic schedule.

"I think I will not go to as many places as possible and
concentrate on as few institutions as possible," he said.

He added that reputations can be more easily lost than won,
describing the pressure on him to perform at the highest level
wherever he went: "You never forget it, because if you do a bad
performance of Boris Godunov, or a bad performance of Queen of
Spades, people say will say 'What is this man doing here?'."

Reviews of the Kirov Opera's performances at the Royal
Opera House this week were less than stellar.

The Independent newspaper said of a production of Boris
Godunov, the opera by Modest Mussorgsky: "Work of this quality
has no place on a major international stage."

Gergiev's entourage, who refer to him reverently as
"maestro," were keen to avoid mention of the poor reviews.

But the conductor is sensitive to criticism about his
leadership style, which has been likened by writers and former
colleagues to that of a Czar, even a dictator.

"I quite hate this word (dictator)," he said. "I think I
was chosen by people, elected in this role as artistic and
general director of the Mariinsky in the most difficult times."