You cannot start without me: A portrait of the eminent Russian conductor, Valery Gergiev
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Allan Miller has put together a fascinating DVD documenting the life of Valery Gergiev, who is unquestionably the world’s busiest conductor. Gergiev is artistic director of the Mariinsky (formally Kirov) Theatre in St. Petersburg, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, guest conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and director of several festivals, including the St Petersburg White Nights and Moscow Easter Festivals.
He was born in North Ossetia in the Caucasus Mountains. The Ossetians are heirs to the Scythian culture and, not unexpectedly, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite features prominently in the film. The most important early influence in Gergiev’s life was his father, who died when he was only 14 years old. Gergiev began his music studies in Ossetia at the age of 11 and later studied with Professor Musin, one of Russia’s most influential teachers. He became an assistant at the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet Company in 1977 when he was 24 years old and was appointed artistic director and general director in 1988. As he himself remarks, being appointed at a young age was a great advantage. “I could work twice as hard as anyone else in the company.” Despite all his other major commitments, Gergiev’s main love remains the Mariinsky.
The DVD also contains excerpts of Gergiev in rehearsals and performances with several orchestras and some of the prominent soloists of the day. These include pianist Yefim Bronfman (concertos by Rachmaninoff and Liszt), Anna Netrebko (Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”), Renee Fleming, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”). There is also a touching and arresting ballet sequence with Ulyana Lopatkina in Saint Saens’s “Dying Swan.” Gergiev is also shown conducting the first German-language production of Wagner’s “Ring in Russia,” as well as exciting performances of works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. After viewing these snippets of various performances, I anxiously anticipate the pleasure of viewing the full recording.
Gergiev’s rehearsal technique is interesting. Instead of devoting the final practice to a run-through prior to the performance, he usually goes through the full score at the first rehearsal and spends the remaining rehearsal refining the details. Gergiev says, “I don’t rehearse just to rehearse; sometimes we need to work on a piece even after a performance.” During rehearsals, Gergiev often displays some impatience with the musicians, but most, especially those from the London Symphony Orchestra, clearly adore him and speak glowingly of him. One of the musicians said that for Gergiev, just two notes constitute a melody. Gergiev’s arduous schedule is often reflected in his music-making. With orchestras used to his working methods, performances are invariably superb. However with guest orchestras results are not always as gratifying due to the limited rehearsal time.
Gergiev is in constant motion, whether it be on the podium, a bus, train, airplane or phone. He is so busy with his professional commitments that one can hardly imagine when he sleeps or eats. In an interview, his manager, Doug Sheldon, says that he gives a performance nearly every day of the year. On occasion Gergiev has given two performances in two different cities on the same day! One downside of his hectic professional schedule is that he can only devote limited time to his family. This comes though in the film, and Gergiev acknowledges it.
The consummate music maker also displays additional talents. One sees him in the role of administrator in the Mariinsky, ironing out performance schedules, questions about choreography and a myriad of other details. He is thus in complete control of the full artistic process. He also demonstrates superb political acumen and mixes easily and naturally with major Russian political leaders. This he does to obtain financial help for his pet projects. If he feels that there is not enough local support from St Petersburg authorities, he bypasses them and goes directly to the central government. One sees him in interviews with the Russian Ministers of Finance and Economy. Gergiev admits that if necessary he even speaks to Vladimir Putin. After a disastrous fire in one of the main buildings of the Mariinsky, Gergiev himself spearheaded the construction of a state-of-the-art concert hall in St Petersburg, a project that took less than three years to complete.
In addition to the documentary there are bonus features on the DVD, including performances and discussions on interesting and diverse topics. On the art of conducting, Gergiev remarks that the performances of modern orchestras are invariably good and safe, but this is not meant as a compliment as these performances are not always interesting. Safe playing is not important. A conductor must take risks, and this is what both musicians and audiences enjoy. Only incredible playing constitutes a memorable performance. He remarks that the conductor should always try to do things better. Most important of all, a conductor must be able to relate to people. In another discussion, Gergiev bemoans the fact that currently in many countries, for example, Italy, the birthplace of opera, there is little emphasis on musical education. Gergiev is very involved in bringing music to Russian youth. In the difficult economic days of the late ’80s and early ’90s, many prominent musicians left Russia to make their careers in the West. Gergiev saw it as one of his main missions to keep promising young Russian artists in Russia.
The conclusion is that Gergiev’s schedule is for a superman, not an ordinary mortal. Music is his passion. He states, “Music liberates, purifies, elevates, and, if you will, this is my religious conviction.” This DVD is recommended both to those familiar and those less familiar with the man and his music. This fascinating documentary was produced by Thirteen / WNET, New York in association with the White Nights Foundation of America and NPS, issued on the BelAir Classiques label (catalog number BAC053) and distributed by Naxos. #