‘In The Caucasus Emotions Are Wilder’

By Andrew Clark

September 6 2008 03:00

He is already an hour late. Audiences from London to Tokyo have grown
accustomed to delays at the start of Valery Gergiev’s performances,
so it should be no surprise if the world’s most charismatic conductor
is late for me. This is the one day of the month when he is not
travelling, rehearsing, fundraising or managing the companies he
leads. But I am beginning to twitch.

We’re in Edinburgh. Gergiev, the biggest draw of the 2008 festival,
is free on the day of his last performance and has agreed to spend
it with the FT.

The plan is to escape the heaving crowds, see a bit of Scotland and
sample the national cuisine.

As a Scot I am happy to be his guide. As a music critic I’m slightly
apprehensive. In recent months I have slagged off his Mahler
performances in London, and our rendezvous is scheduled for the day
when my review of Król Roger, his festival opera production, will
be published.

Gergiev, 55, made his name by galvanising St Petersburg’s Mariinsky
Theatre, Russia’s oldest opera and ballet ensemble, in the period after
the Soviet Union’s collapse, when state-funded arts companies faced
an uncertain future. He revived its repertory, organised gruelling
but commercially advantageous tours, nurtured friends with political
and financial clout and mesmerised audiences with the intensity of his
interpretations . In an increasingly homogenised musical landscape, the
Mariinsky (formerly known as the Kirov) cut an imposing profile as the
embodiment of a lustrous, immaculately preserved national tradition.

As if controlling the destiny and daily workload of 1,000 artistic
temperaments was not enough, Gergiev became one of the most
sought-after conductors in the west. He is principal conductor
of the London Symphony Orchestra and principal guest of the
Metropolitan Opera, New York. He also tours regularly with the Vienna
Philharmonic. Instead of exploiting these positions to advance his
career, he has used them to consolidate the international reputation
of the Mariinsky through joint promotions and artist exchanges.

When Gergiev emerges from the hotel elevator, looking relaxed in
designer-stubble and an all-black outfit of biker jacket, corduroy
jeans and trainers, he switches off his mobile phone and starts
talking about the FT.

What has caught his eye is not my glowing opera review but an article
by Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president, explaining Moscow’s decision
to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two
Russian-controlled break-away regions of Georgia. Gergiev asks
my opinion: will the article help the west understand Russia’s
position? Unlikely, I reply.

Gergiev is an Ossetian from Vladikavkaz on the Russian side of
the border.

Two days before arriving in Edinburgh he and the Mariinsky orchestra
made a whistle-stop visit to the bombed South Ossetian capital,
Tskhinvali, for an open-air concert in memory of victims of the
conflict. The programme included Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony,
written during the Nazi siege of Leningrad and widely interpreted as
a Russian victory hymn.

His intervention shocked friends in Georgia and the west. The
Washington Post accused him of "wading brazenly into politics". As
our driver negotiates a way out of Edinburgh’s traffic-clogged city
centre, Gergiev mutters that he usually sleeps "without worry. But now,
as soon as I wake, I switch on the television, hoping for some sense
of movement [on South Ossetia]. Right now it’s escalation, escalation."

He has left our itinerary to me, and soon we are speeding north to
a late lunch in the Fife fishing town of St Monans. But I barely
have time to point out the landmarks approaching the Forth Road
Bridge before Gergiev launches into an account of the devastation
he witnessed in Tskhinvali. "If there was any hope of co-existence
[between Georgians and Ossetians], it’s killed. Too many died that
first night under the [Georgian] tanks."

Gergiev, who has three young children by his Ossetian wife, makes no
mention of the torching of Georgian communities in South Ossetia or
the devastation caused by Russian forces in Georgia.

He refuses to accept that Shostakovich’s symphony was a provocative

"This music is not only about Hitler; it’s about evil that is=2 0
brought into your life, anybody’s life. My performance was designed
to commemorate the dead, not to be commented on by the Washington
Post. For Tskhinvali, 1,000 dead is a devastating loss. It’s the
Ossetian equivalent of the Twin Towers. If the Russian army had not
intervened, thousands more Ossetians would have been killed."

The sight of the 120-year old Forth Railway Bridge, with its three
giant double-cantilevers, brings him momentarily back to Scotland. He
asks if there is still talk of Scottish independence. Yes, I reply. "In
Europe you can achieve independence by peaceful means. No leader
would send an army to kill the Scots. If he did, the army would not
obey. In the Caucasus, emotions are wilder."

Does he mean tribal? "Almost," says Gergiev calmly, "it’s complicated,
worse than Trovatore," an allusion to the tangled blood-relationships
in Verdi’s opera, in which almost everyone ends up killing each
other. "Historically, Georgians are friends of Ossetians. There were
many marriages, safety was never discussed. But after the break-up of
the Soviet Union, nearly all Ossetians lost relatives when [former
president Zviad] Gamsakhurdia [of Georgia] sent the army to carry
out the policy of ‘Georgia for the Georgians’. If you are the son of
someone killed in 1991, you cannot forget that bloodshed."

The hour-long drive to St Monans, one of Scotland’s prettiest seaside
towns, passes quickly and Gergiev admits to feeling hungry, having
had only yoghurt for breakfast. No one in the comfortable little
fish restaurant overlooking the harbour recognises him, an advantage
over Edinburgh, where autograph-hungry festival-goers are rife. The
menu interrupts Gergiev’s stream of consciousness, but it takes us
barely a moment to choose warm haddock-and-leek tart for starters,
then grilled monkfish for him and cod for me. As the waiter pours
mineral water, I suggest a toast, a ritual of Russian and Georgian
social occasions. My assumption, based on our previous encounters,
is that Gergiev will drink the health of the Mariinsky Theatre, which
is his musical family, and of Georgian pianist Alexander Toradze,
one of his closest friends.

Gergiev needs no time to collect his thoughts. "Since it is on my
mind, I hope we will see a display of leadership on both sides, to
show the power of the mind and the power of the truth, rather than
the power of informational wars or military force. How can you kill
hundreds of civilians and it goes unnoticed? It’s a big emotional
thing for me. I don’t want Condoleezza Rice deciding the future of my
children. The greatest European leader will be the one who demands
the truth and asks what happened on the first night [of the crisis,
when Georgian forces moved into South Ossetia]."

Talk of leadership gives me a cue, as we tuck into our haddock tart,
to ask about Gergiev’s links with the Russian government, w hich
has actively supported his ambitions with the Mariinsky. He got to
know Dmitry Medvedev when they served together on the board of St
Petersburg University. Have they met since the St Petersburg-trained
lawyer became head of state? "I saw him in Moscow on June 12 [Russia’s
National Day]. I spoke to him about the Mariinsky and our work with
young people."

As for Vladimir Putin, Gergiev denies widely published reports that
the Russian prime minister is godfather to his children, but does not
deny having access to the Kremlin. "In St Petersburg my goal is to
have a new opera house for the 2010-2011 season," he says. "To visit
the ministry of culture from time to time will not necessarily bring
this project to maturity. The bureaucracy is so great, you need half
a year just to sort the paperwork. One visit a year to the head of
government is more effective.

Putin makes quick decisions. Thank God he realises the Mariinsky is
important. We already have our own concert hall [recently built with
a large subsidy]: one of the achievements of my life. I don’t think
western opera houses are so lucky."

Gergiev pauses for breath at the arrival of his monkfish, musing
enigmatically on the danger of fish contamination, "even at the North
Pole", before returning to his theme with variations. Putin, he says,
has given Russia back its self-respect. "When the Soviet Union broke
up, Russians suffered a loss of pride. C ulture became a stronger
ambassador than the economy or the political leadership. People
could argue about Gorbachev or Yeltsin, but no one argued about
Pushkin. We had a generation of performing artists – Mravinsky,
Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Plisetskaya – who symbolised a nation, only
a little less than [Yuri] Gagarin [the first man in space]."

Putin’s first achievement, says Gergiev, was to save the Russian
Federation from breaking up. The second was to restore "the national
wealth: symbols of culture, churches, palaces. If [the Ossetian
crisis] had happened during his presidency, the country would have
been unanimous in asking him to stay. It feels safe to have someone
in the top office who is confident in the job."

Our desserts have come and gone; so have the other diners. We have
been sitting at the same window-table for two and a half hours. Now,
over coffee, the only person within earshot is a waitress preparing
tables for the evening. "It’s amazing such a quiet place has such
good food," Gergiev remarks, emerging into the fresh air.

I ask him what he has done to bring the Mariinsky’s tradition

"Last month we played Mozart 20 nights in a row to young audiences. I
want to cover all the schools and universities [in St Petersburg]
from the age of seven to 27. You can’t expect them to sit through
Mussorgsky but The Marriage of Figaro in Tchaikovsky’s translation
is a good start. Maybe in20five or 10 years they will come back of
their own accord. Next year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of
[Russian writer Nikolai] Gogol, so I have commissioned five short
operas on Gogol themes. In the 1990s, when survival was at stake,
it was important for us to tour. Now we must stimulate creativity
at home."

Back at the car, the chauffeur is looking anxious: he has tickets for
the evening performance, apparently unaware it can’t start without
the conductor. We join the rush-hour traffic, finally reaching
Gergiev’s Edinburgh hotel at 6.30pm, a full six hours after we had
set out. But the tsar of the Mariinsky doesn’t budge. Still seated in
the stationary car, he starts expounding his interpretative approach
to Rachmaninov, whose symphonies he will conduct later this month in
London. When we finally get out he continues for another 10 minutes
on the tarmac, ignoring another distinguished Russian conductor,
Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, who has just walked past.

A new chauffeur approaches. "Mr Gergiev, are you ready to go?" Our
excursion is over. Gergiev bids me farewell, switches his phone on
and heads for the hotel entrance. He has 20 minutes to change, drive
to the theatre and focus on the music. Ladies and gentlemen, please
take your seats. The performance will begin – just a few minutes late.

Valery Gergiev opens the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2008-2009 season
at the Barbican, London, on September 20-21; www.lso.c o.uk

Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic

Gergiev at a glance

May 1953 Born Valery Abisalovich Gergiev in Moscow, to Ossetian
parents who raised him and his siblings in Vladikavkaz, capital of
the Russian province of North Ossetia.

1967 Loses his father to a stroke, aged just 49. "His death", Gergiev
has said, "was the single strongest influence on my entire life".

1972-77 Begins studies at the Leningrad Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire,
at the unusually early age of 19. Flourishes under the tutelage of
legendary conducting teacher Professor Ilya Musin.

1976-77 Wins the All-Soviet Conducting Prize in 1976 and the
prestigious Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition in Berlin the
following year.

1978 Appointed assistant to Yuri Temirkanov, the chief conductor
of the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Opera in St. Petersburg, while still a
student. Makes his debut conducting Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace .

1981 Appointed chief conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic.

1988 Made chief conductor and artistic director of the Mariinsky,
after winning a landslide vote by the theatre’s administration.

1988 First appearance as a guest conductor with the London Symphony
Orchestra (LSO).

1994 Gergiev sets up the St Petersburg annual Stars of the White Nights
Festival, one of five international music festivals which he oversees.

(Others include the Kirov-Philharmonia in London, and the Moscow
Easter Festival.)

199520Begins tenure as principal conductor of Rotterdam Philharmonic
Orchestra, a position he stepped down from last month.

1996 Appointed overall director of the Mariinsky Theatre, in charge
of the theatre, opera and ballet, by President Mikhail Gorbachev.

1997 Appointed principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera,
New York.

1999 Marries Natalya Debisova, a musician who is 27 years his junior
and also a native Ossetian.

2003 Awarded Order of St Prince Daniil of Moscow of the Russian
Orthodox Church, third class, for participating in charitable and
cultural programmes of the Russian Orthodox Church.

2003 Gergiev leads St Petersburg’s 300th anniversary festivities,
as well as celebrating 25 years at the Mariinsky Theatre and his own
50th birthday.

2004 After the Beslan school hostage crisis in North Ossetia, in which
334 hostages were killed and many more injured,conducts fundraising
concerts for the victims of the massacre.

2005 Appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra,
succeeding Sir Colin Davis in 2007.

2006 Together with Led Zeppelin, awarded the Polar Music Prize.