Valery Gergiev is principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, artistic director of St. Petersburg’s White Nights Festival and former principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. But the Russian’s heart lies in the Mariinsky Theatre, where he has been the artistic director of the opera company since 1988 and general and artistic director since 1996. Maestro Gergiev spoke to Listen in the conductor’s room at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. His answers more James Joyce than Leo Tolstoy (with all roads leading back to St. Petersburg), the maestro illustrated them with the rather Russian mannerisms of leaning forward, brow furrowed, hand tragically on forehead, rubbing the temples or, alternately, the mouth. Fortunately, advanced digital technology enabled the capture of even the most muffled mumble.
What do you hope to record on the new Mariinsky label?
Well, let’s put it straight: Russian music in the first place and we are definitely in a position to record operas. To be honest, we already recorded two, The Nose of Shostakovich and Enchanted Wanderer of Rodion Shchedrin, a great Russian living composer. For me it does not matter if a piece I conduct was written fifty years ago or five years ago or five days ago, it is important for me that the Mariinsky throughout its history always had a very serious focus on operas, on ballet scores of great Russian composers, one by one. It was all-important for the Mariinsky not only to perform music of Verdi, but to work with composers like Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and with very young, brilliant musicians like Stravinsky, Prokofiev and then later Shostakovich. It is still important now. I will work not only with Rodion Shchedrin but with younger composers, a lot of living composers. That’s my hope. Of course, that’s not to neglect Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Wagner operas.
What does it mean for you to champion Russian composers?
I believe we know how to perform music of Russian composers. The orchestra, chorus and voices trained in the Mariinsky practically breathe the air of this tradition all the time. Being part of the Mariinsky family, it means you immediately start to learn, and then more, and then even more about this tradition, working with those who are now in their fifties, maybe their eighties. And no one wants them to leave because they are part of this glorious tradition. We do not regularly import voices from Europe and America.
What repertoire are you drawn to outside the Russian repertoire?
Wagner’s Parsifal, and later we will do the Ring cycle.
So this week you’re conducting a Prokofiev symphony cycle at Lincoln Center. Tell me what place Prokofiev holds for you in the Russian pantheon.
A very important composer in my life. Prokofiev became one of the Mariinsky’s — you maybe don’t speak like this in the musical world — flagships in our repertory, which includes sixty or seventy operas. But Prokofiev became all-important for me when I conducted my first opera at the Mariinsky, thirty-one years ago as a student. I conducted War and Peace. So it was my destiny maybe to always either do nothing or do something very big — in this case, it was War and Peace. After that, I spent much time learning about Prokofiev. His symphonies are only a small — though important — part of his great legacy that interested me. When I am interested, this is normally translated into action; at the Mariinsky, there are fortunately unlimited resources for mounting any opera or ballet by Prokofiev. Never has there been an opera company, ballet company, theater so dedicated in promoting the music of any other major composer of the twentieth century. Prokofiev is well served by the Mariinsky and now it is a great pleasure for me to come with the London Symphony Orchestra and perform the Prokofiev symphonies.
What is the driving impetus behind the White Nights Festival?
As artistic director of the White Nights Festival, I can say that we equally engage our forces in performing opera and ballet — music which is theatrical — but also a huge concert program, which includes chamber music, symphonic music and oratorios, because we built a new hall, a very important achievement because this hall is actually a venue where we make our recordings. It’s a Stradivarius; it’s a fantastic hall acoustically. [St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre was destroyed by fire in 2003 and was rebuilt in 2005, with Gergiev engaging architect Xavier Fabre along with Yasuhisa Toyota, an acoustician responsible for Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. -Ed.]
How has the life of a Russian musician changed in the past twenty, thirty years?