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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Globe-Trotting Maestro




He wins the award for Russia's best conductor year after year. His schedule, suicidally exhausting f a morning rehearsal in Britain, an afternoon rehearsal in Germany and an evening performance in St. Petersburg, as the joke goes f would knock out anyone except for Valery Gergiev. In addition to his position as artistic director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, he is also principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, principal guest conductor at New York's Metropolitan Opera, and tours all over the planet. Gergiev, one of the planet's most highly acclaimed conductors, spoke to Galina Stolyarova during the Mariinsky's annual "Stars of White Nights" festival.


Q:


While Western audiences often have the opportunity to hear the world's top orchestras in person, Russian audiences have long been deprived this pleasure. You managed to bring the La Scala orchestra to Moscow and St. Petersburg for the first time in nearly a decade. How difficult was it?


A:


I could well have prepared a dozen Mahler symphonies in the time I spent arranging the La Scala tour alone, and that is no exaggeration. I didn't really have to do it and won't get paid extra. But during my years as a student [at the St. Petersburg Conservatory] seven or eight of the world's highest acclaimed orchestras came to town every year. St. Petersburg must not fall off the international musical map. We have wonderful performers here, but Russian audiences can hardly imagine how things are for opera companies in the rest of the world.


Q:


You are sometimes referred to as a "modern Diaghilev." How do you like being compared to him, and what is your opinion of the man who revolutionized the Ballets Russes?


A:


Far be it for me to associate myself with [Sergei] Diaghilev. I would sound insane. But there are a number of things about him that are particularly close to my heart. He inspired, encouraged and fired up an immense number of talented people, magnetically uniting them around him. He thrived in risky situations, made his own mistakes, found himself in tough circumstance but managed to come off victorious.


Diaghilev's contemporaries f Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Vaslav Nijinsky f are also dear to me. What he did looks gorgeous on paper and takes titanic efforts to realize. Anyone who pretends to be the new Diaghilev should consider that. We at the Mariinsky just do what we can.


Q:


Would you name the composers without whom you could not imagine a powerful Mariinsky?


A:


I simply cannot imagine a strong Mariinsky Theater without Verdi, Mozart and Wagner in its repertoire. Wagner was a gaping abyss in the repertoires of Soviet opera theaters. Naturally, Russian music will remain the focus for the Mariinsky. While we are determined to stage Wagner's "Ring Cycle" by 2003, we are not abandoning Russian composers. Our premiere of Sergei Prokofiev's "War and Peace" is a good illustration of that.


But building a theater's repertoire takes decades, not years. To create one without holes like Wagner, and including names such as Tchaikovsky, Rossini and Verdi is a grandiose task. I haven't seen a single theater that has done it all from [Johann Sebastian] Bach to [Jacques] Offenbach within 10 years. Opera now flourishes, mostly thanks to [Puccini's] "La Boheme," [Bizet's] "Carmen," [Verdi's] "Aida" and his "La Traviata." We are trying our best for Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" to make it into this group. I conduct this opera wherever I can.


Q:


Are there any stereotypes both Russian and foreign audiences have that you as a musician are trying to overcome?


A:


It has been quite a while since the foreign audiences' view of Russian classical music has been limited to a handful of works by Tchaikovsky or Musorgsky.


Choosing works by Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin [for foreign tours] is no coincidence, either. I know that [in the West] Scriabin, for example, is frequently regarded as a talentless imitator of Wagner. But I use my name to try to change their attitudes.


During our five-week tour to London's Covent Garden we will stage three performances of Prokofiev's "Semyon Kotko." While the opera is completely obscure for London audiences, the music is simply fantastic. I think we serve the interests of Russian national culture by showing such music abroad.


But it would be dangerous for Russians to think that we are the best f our dancers above all praise, our voices the most superb f so that we might relax and enjoy the glory. To remain on top one should never stop to rest on one's laurels.


Q:


How seriously do you consider the media's reaction to your work at the Mariinsky?


A:


I read the papers when I have a chance and try to remain calm when I see both overly disparaging and saccharine-sweet reviews. Groundless admiration is absolutely fruitless, but I am attentive to well-thought-out, gentle criticism. In my entire life I haven't seen a single talented person who would speak about another's work with sheer contempt and disregard.


Of course, Leonard Bernstein, whom I knew very well, would say that he cannot understand a particular symphony, but he was never arrogant about it. In fact, I am convinced that arrogance and disregard for one's colleagues are the signs of an undistinguished person, not a gifted one. This applies to critics and reporters, too.


Q:


Since you established the Mariinsky Academy for Young Singers, many of the students there have been claiming a greater share of the Mariinsky repertoire. The Mariinsky Youth Symphony Orchestra is also your brainchild. Which projects do you reserve for [Mariinsky] singers, such as [tenor] Vladimir Galuzin and [mezzo-soprano] Olga Borodina?


A:


With Galuzin I hope to stage Verdi's "Othello." Casting a good Othello is a worldwide problem, and that is no overstatement. But I know Galuzin can do it. As soon as he agrees to sing Othello, I will start working on the production.


We do not intend to distance ourselves from singers like Vladimir Galuzin or Olga Borodina but try to find a reasonable balance. We do not force them to perform with the Mariinsky all the time. The major goal is not to part with our brightest stars, but to nurture the new, no less dazzling generation. We are building our future by growing new talent. But what we all should remember is that no one should dare to position himself above the [Mariinsky] theater.


Q:


You met President Vladimir Putin around the premiere of "War and Peace," your joint production with director Andrei Konchalovsky. How did the meeting affect relations between the theater and state?


A:


I am not playing any political games with Putin. I met Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin more than once. I have always tried to convince our leaders f and Vladimir Putin is no exception f that more than nickel and aluminum are important for Russia. Our culture is our country's strongest point. It should be the state's priority.