Conductor Valery Gergiev
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
The Russian conductor Valery Gergiev is an international
sensation. His appearances in both concert and opera in Russia,
Europe and America are always sold-out, and the numerous recordings and
videos he has made bring an ever growing repertoire to an expanding
From an unofficial website, here are a few details of his life and
career . . . . .
|Since he burst onto the
international scene just a few years ago, Valery Gergiev has become one
of the most sought after conductors in the world. He is currently the
Director of the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, home to the Kirov
Opera and Ballet. Under his leadership, the Kirov Opera has become
recognized as one of the great opera companies of the present day. He
is also Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Principal
Guest Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.
Born in Moscow in 1953, Valery Gergiev grew up in the Caucasus, the
mountainous area at the
Southern end of Russia, stretching from the Black Sea to the Caspian
Sea. He began his musical studies in Ordzhonikidze, the Caucasian
capital of Ossetia , and showed early prodigious talent as a pianist
before taking up conducting in his teens. He was accepted into the
conducting class of Ilya Musin at the Leningrad (now St Petersburg)
Conservatory, and whilst still a student won the All Union Conductors
Competition in Moscow and the Herbert von Karajan Conductors
Competition in Berlin at the age of 23. He made his Kirov Opera
debut in 1978 with War and Peace and later became assistant conductor
to Yuri Temirkanov. In 1988 Gergiev was designated artistic director
and principal conductor. In 1996, the Russian government appointed him
director of the Mariinsky Theatre. He has appeared with all the leading
orchestras of the former Soviet Union and for four years was chief
conductor of the Armenian State Orchestra.
Gergiev has guest conducted most of the world's major orchestras,
including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony,
Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw, London's Royal Philharmonic, Rome's
Santa Cecilia, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra,
Cleveland Orchestra, London Philharmonic, London Symphony, Tokyo's NHK
Symphony, and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Now, as one of music’s busiest and most sought-after conductors, he is
regularly applauded at the podiums of the major opera houses and
orchestras of the world. Maestro Gergiev is the organizer of St.
Petersburg ’s annual "White Nights Festival," the "Rotterdam
Philharmonic/Gergiev Festival," and is director and founder of the
Mikkeli International Festival in Finland , the Peace to the Caucasus
Festival, and the Red Sea International Music Festival in Eilat ,
In December of 1992, Gergiev came to Chicago to lead the Chicago
Symphony in a program of Beethoven and Scriabin. He graciously
permitted me to do the interview backstage immediately after the first
concert of the series. Here is what was said during that
half-hour . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You conduct
a lot in Russia and you also conduct a
lot in the
West. What is the biggest thing that you need to teach Western
orchestras about Russian music?
Valery Gergiev: Western
orchestras, I think, are very,
very fine ensembles. Most of orchestras I conducted the last
three or four years are quite good, both in America and
Europe. The thing about Russian music is maybe to find the
soul. We often use this word "soul," the soul of the music, and
perform so that it
will speak. That instrumental quality and brilliance in
the soul is something that is sort of a weapon for expressing the
soul of the piece. This is how I put it. Maybe it's a good
thing that not every time - not every conductor, not every orchestra -
playing Russian music the same way. I think it's very good,
because in America you have not just one way to perform
Tchaikovsky. Even between different American orchestras there are
different traditions. For example, we know that
Koussevitzky was long time with Boston, or Stokowski who was long
time with Philadelphia, there are
some very different traditions. The same is in
Russia. There are many
interpretations which are typically Russian, interpretations
from the Leningrad School, like Mravinsky, or from Moscow. There
are very, very fine interpreters and they're quite
different. Sometimes I find the difference very narrow between
Leningrad School and the British or Austrian, which are very
aristocratic. They are closer to each other
than Moscow and Leningrad.
VG: Yeah! This is
what I find. If we look at
interpretations, for example, again I mention Mravinsky against earlier
conductors from Moscow like Kondrashin or
Svetlanov, they're quite different.
BD: Is Rozhdestvensky
also in this?
VG: Rozhdestvensky's in
Moscow, and I would say yes, he's
typically a Moscow artist, but he was also very famous to
discover new things. So it is difficult to compare him with
when Mravinsky was doing more Classical repertoire - including
German or Austrian School, at the same
time, Rozhdestvensky did a lot of world premieres, or at least
discovered unknown pieces of Prokofiev or Shostakovich. So it's
different to compare.
BD: Are all of
these interpretations of Russian music "right" interpretations?
VG: I don't have enough
authority to insist that I know what is
the right interpretation.
BD: Are there many
VG: Mmmm, yes, maybe they
interpretations--famous. Again, Mravinsky is quite famous thanks
to his recordings. I think every serious music lover knows his
Tchaikovsky, but I would rather pay attention for what Mravinsky was
with other repertoire, say Wagner, Bruckner, Beethoven, Brahms.
This is something interesting.
BD: He makes the bridge
for the West to the East then?
VG: Yes. He was
very much a product
of Russian and German culture. Both cultures
influenced strongly Mravinsky. He never conducted Verdi
operas or Donizetti or Rossini,
but he was a very, very special interpreter of Bruckner and
Wagner. That's what I remember myself.
BD: I want to concentrate
on you and your conducting. When
you're preparing an orchestra, is all the work done at rehearsal,
or do you leave something for the night of performance?
VG: In the West, the time
is limited. For example,
tonight's program requires a lot of serious
work, especially if you take into consideration that Scriabin is
not performed every day here, and it's quite long. Also, musical
materials sometimes need some special attention
because there are some differences - and even mistakes in the parts -
spends a lot of time during rehearsal just correcting them. In
this case, most
of what you try to emotionally put into the performance comes during
the concert. What can help you with the live contact is
maybe just your hands or your eyes. Those provide immediate and
spontaneous contact with the
musicians. What makes performances of
this late Romantic repertoire quite
intriguing is when many things are left for the concert.
But at the same time it needs to be well prepared, of course, and the
the orchestra plays this repertoire, the better result you can
expect. For example, I hope that tomorrow will be something
new because there has been another repeat. I am already thinking
of something I will achieve tomorrow.
BD: So you're always
looking to improve the performance.
VG: Yes, hopefully.
But I was
pleased with several things yesterday. It was the first
performance, so there were a lot of spontaneous moments. Today
was the second night, and it was maybe more solid...
BD: More together?
VG: I wouldn't say about
togetherness. I would say
about the notes are played, if you compare them to the
broad river, for example, which is very wide and very calm; but if you
go higher in the mountains, you see it as very fast and
noisy. So maybe yesterday, the first performance contained more
of this spontaneous and even
speedy character, and was maybe more agitato.
BD: When you tour with
your own orchestra, how can you keep the
tenth performance fresh, more agitato?
VG: With my orchestra,
most of the things
which will be performed are more part
of the repertoire, and more into their musical mentality. When we
study, when have our educational system and we
go to the conservatory, we of course have some traditions
and some different interpretations that we can compare. I speak
about Scriabin or Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev. My orchestra is able
to play Prokofiev's The Angel
of Fire, which, as you know, is a sort of a "mother score" of
symphony. I can expect something more
interesting compared to just symphonic readings of this symphony,
because maybe we will bring something theatrical to it.
Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony,
also during our American tour, or Tchaikovsky
6th Symphony were
performed for the first ever time by our orchestra, the Mariinsky
Imperial Orchestra. That makes things quite interesting to play
very same orchestra which performed for the first time these pieces.
BD: Of course it's none
of the same players, but it's the
Yeah, of course.
BD: Is the tradition
handed down from player to player, from
teacher to student?
VG: Yes. You can't
explain what "tradition" means, but from
generation to generation it's like
a wordless thing.
BD: Sure, it's a feeling
in your hearts.
VG: Yeah. An older
violinist, maybe when he was very young was sitting at the same desk
with somebody who was already by that time very old
and had participated maybe in the first performance, so yes, it's like
say that you take it from one and give to another, and so it goes and
goes and goes.
BD: Is this part of your
responsibility, as a
conductor, to hand down these traditions not only the players, but
also to the audience behind you?
VG: I don't think of
myself as being that important. I
of tradition from Tchaikovsky or from Rachmaninoff.
I feel myself more involved in simply a professional
situation where I have to provide a certain level and a
certain policy and a certain artistic character of the work. This
is what I do with the Kirov Company, which
is historically a very important institution. A lot of
opera and ballet, important things as you know, are
connected with this history of this theater. But now we have
younger generations of solo singers and chorus, and of course many new
players, so I would say there is a lot of
energy which you can use to focus on
something. The energy is a good thing, but one has to know what
to do with this energy. We just try to do some interesting things
with productions of Mussorsgky, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and so on.
conductors have said that they're more important but less visible in
the opera house, as opposed to the orchestral platform. Is this
VG: When I'm doing opera,
I don't think how important
I will look, myself. It doesn't matter that
people don't see me so well, or don't watch me. They have to see
and to hear the music. The visual impression has to be
very strong and important from the opera.
BD: Is it more work for
you to hold an
opera together, rather than a symphony?
VG: Oh that's true; opera
is more difficult. It takes your time and your energy and your
health maybe more than symphonic orchestra. When you do something
big with opera, this is already something that
makes the whole event very important because it's difficult to achieve
a very good result. It's equally difficult to make the opera
orchestra sound as good as symphonic orchestra, but it's only very
small part of the problem. You have got singers, chorus,
many, many, many other problems. Sometimes libretto is weak
or sometimes the cast is not even. There can be two or three
very good singers, but one can spoil everything.
So the complexity of problems in opera
is huge, and that's why maybe you are happier when you finally achieve
something that you find acceptable. You
feel maybe happy, and you feel that, "Aha!" when
opera delivers such a feeling that finally it's good, finally
it's first-class and you feel very, very
happy after that. With orchestras, it is very rare that I
am completely satisfied because
with orchestra it has to be absolutely good, and it's very
rare when I can achieve very, very, very good result. When you
repertoire, you have straight comparisons with the very
good musicians who did the same repertoire before. The level
is recognized as a very good level is quite high, so it's
difficult to compete.
BD: You have to get up to that
level just to start, before you can achieve something beyond that?
VG: To try, at
least yes. Unfortunately for our
generations, the old masters are quite far ahead with deepness of
interpretation. It is hard to explain. I don't want to say
things about younger artists or my generation. I can
say something about myself to be self-critical, but to be realistic,
any young conductor can just
go and listen to the Furtwängler recording of some German
repertoire and see immediately that it's a very, very, very fine
performance. Even if you achieve a
polished performance sonically or rhythmically, even if the brilliance
is there, you still don't
have the impressive depth altogether as the old
masters. This doesn't come every day.
BD: Now that you're
making recordings, do you perform
differently in the recording studio than you do in the concert hall or
the opera house?
VG: I like long takes -
one movement nonstop, or at least a big, big part of
the whole movement of a symphony. However, there so many things
which are important for recording company - if there is even smallest
noise, or if they're unhappy
with the sound. Sometimes they think that there was
something wrong with the technical parameters, so they can ask you to
repeat again and again and again. It's quite difficult to record
that way, to keep always
your feeling that it's live and happens now. But at the same
time, I can't
say I don't like recordings. Sometimes recordings make you feel a
special danger, which means you
have a special wish to overcome the problem. You listen to the
take, and you feel that several times you are
not delivering the best musical characteristic of the
episode or of the whole movement. You feel it's still not what
you yourself think can be called interesting music-making. That
analyze again and again and again, to see if there is any chance to
to change something, to take a risk, to improvise. I
would say I try to do it during recordings. I don't think of
safety during recordings.
BD: You don't play it
VG: It's difficult to be
a judge of what you are doing yourself.
I would like to let others talk about that,
but making recordings is important issue. To record
classical music in a very interesting way is
quite uneasy. It is hard to feel in the recording studio that you
still an artist. What happens is that we suffer
because of this clinical character. I find it extremely important
that the artists keep this feeling that the performance is
fresh, happening now and not connected
with the hundred
the purpose of music?
VG: Hmm... [Pauses
for a moment] It is difficult to
say now because for different societies, for different groups of
people - I don't mean politics, I am just thinking of different
countries - there are certain
differences in how people receive music. People try to get
extra-musical impressions, and may or may not work hard for that.
For them, the music is not something where
you just buy a ticket and go and say, "Okay I spend
two or three hours being in touch with great culture." It's not
guaranteed every time that you
just go. One has to be more attentive, and maybe listen to a
recording before the
concert. They do work and preparation. Personally I like
this part of the audience anywhere in the world - people who are well
prepared, who know
the subject quite well, who are so serious that music is part
of their life. Certainly you can say that they can't live without
it. For this part of audience, for these people,
I not only have big respect, but I can be witness. I saw many
times in my life these people around opera houses. For example,
in Kirov we have a group
of sixty or seventy that come every night.
They love opera, so they come. At performances of Pique Dame, for example, if you do
times a season, they come all eight times! They want to compare
different singers, or they just love it and they
come. For them, it's a part of their life. It's as
necessary as it is to drink water or eat bread. This is
something special. There are many people like that, real fans,
and you meet them everywhere. When the Kirov Opera was at the
Met, I saw a big group of people who were coming
every day. They visited nearly all the performances, and they
interested in which cast is performing tomorrow, and what is the
difference, and they had immediately favorites. They
just like music, and they don't pretend to be great
composers or great conductors, but they just come and listen.
They find more time for music, sometimes, than professionals, and they
pay more attention.
BD: These are the kinds of people you particularly like in
VG: Of course. I'm
also a bit scared if
they don't like the performance, because that makes me less
happy about results. You really don't want to
upset these people. This is the last thing you want to
do because they expect something special.
BD: Are they too critical?
VG: No, it's not a
problem if they criticize you; it's
just the feeling that you want to see very happy
BD: But shouldn't music -
Russian music and Western music - be
more than just this core of people?
VG: Of course, of
course. It's much wider. Music
is also delivered thanks to radio, television and
recordings or videos, so it's delivered to millions and millions
now. I'm not worried about serious music, I have to say. I
never, never was convinced that we all have
to ask millions and millions to
turn to the serious music. I think it's not necessary that 90
percent of the living
population of each country has to be incredibly connected
with serious music. It's a hopeless dream that you will have
maybe 15 percent, but they will exist! Another 20 or 30 percent -
or even more - will belong to rock
music. It's a different value. When you go to listen to a
Bruckner symphony or you go
to Michael Jackson's concert, for example, I think it's quite
different, and you don't expect the same person to be in
BD: We shouldn't try to
get the Michael Jackson crowd into the
VG: We shouldn't. I
don't think it's absolutely necessary because the concert hall has to
be special; like a sort of religious feeling that if people will go
there, they will
feel that there is something much bigger than yourself. It's not
fun, there is something more, and it is spiritually rich.
BD: So where is the
balance between the artistic richness and the fun?
VG: Mmmm... Fun is
fine, a nice thing, but with the arts there is already something
serious. For example, many of the great
composers lived in very dramatic
circumstances, often when they were dying. Mozart was a tragic,
tragic situation, or Beethoven's life, or Schubert. Take
Shostakovich, for example, in our century. He had an
life. We don't have to live like them, but we have to
understand that if we are more or less comfortable with our lives -
which is a nice thing - but it's not just "fun" to listen to a
Shostakovich symphony. I don't believe in this word.
BD: Is this to say that
really have to suffer?
VG: No, no, it's not
necessary. I just mean that many of the great
composers, or at least most of them or a solid part of them were
somehow suffering. That's why the strength of their language, the
strength of their voice, their personality makes
you understand. Mahler, for example, certainly suffered, and it
makes you more serious than if you just go
to a light music concert. That the music is serious is clear for
us, but it also makes you more serious. So you think of something
that man can achieve and that man can feel because
it's about a wide amplitude of our feelings. The whole spectrum
of our emotional
feelings is put there. It's not just rhythmic
excitement or high dynamics, but it's also
something else. You are more involved in the
whole range of feelings. But there is something else with what I
"serious music." For example, it's a big
problem to perform a Beethoven symphony because if we try to play it in
a brilliant way with all the brilliant possibilities of a great
orchestra like Chicago, it's one way. Then if you still try to
connect it with Beethoven's
life or his situation, it will be a completely different
way. It's risky and you will not necessarily succeed if you go
because it is something that was maybe easier to connect with the
previous generations. Look at Furtwängler, for
example. He had very, very
dramatic circumstances. Furtwängler was conducting when the
Nazis were in power, and later Germany was losing the war. He was
the Music Director of the Berlin
Philharmonic, and it was the dramatic
part of his life and dramatic sign of his genius, I would say, that
extra strength. There was such a complex and
dramatic conflict inside this person. He loved German
culture, he loved German music, he loved his Berlin Philharmonic
Orchestra; I don't think he loved Hitler and his theory, and I don't
think he was supporting what was going on; I also don't think he was
very glad that Germany was
losing the war. There were so many dramatic circumstances that
artist finally became even greater. He
was still keeping the value of his life; he was still fighting
circumstances and was keeping the
orchestra and the repertoire in the very best hands - his
BD: Is there any kind of
parallel we can draw in your own life,
as you were growing and developing under the Soviet system?
right: Gergiev being presented with an award by Russian President
Medvedev in December, 2008]
VG: I wouldn't compare
this to the Second World War. I
would say there is a revolution which happens now in Russia, and it's
dramatic, also. I have to say that there
is something about performances in Russia now which I value very, very
highly. There is something that people feel, that the atmosphere
not only of society now, but so many
changes - mentally, socially, economically...
VG: Spiritually, of
course. It's like extra vitamins - you have something that you
ten years ago when it was just a communist regime. It was just
Now is not only a transition period, but it's
also changing, and sometimes the changes are too fast. Sometimes
too difficult and unclear, but altogether it makes the
situation in Russia now very explosive. Something can happen
around the arts, so that's why artists, and the
arts react very quickly. Something is appearing - new styles, new
languages - that's why new painters, poets, writers, actors are moving,
trying something else, trying to be united with
the new groups. This moving is energy; it's not just based in
this theater; it's not...
BD: Not rigid?
VG: Yeah, it's mixing
everything now. Everybody's trying to find the way.
BD: Will it all get sorted out eventually?
VG: That is difficult to
say. Nobody knows. I find that there are enough problems
everywhere with the arts - in Russia, in Europe, in America there are
many problems. That's why the great artists - like the American
Leonard Bernstein or the German Furtwängler or the Russian
Mravinsky - if we talk about
conductors they are very different. This is a good thing because
we can't pretend; we will not succeed. We can't try to please
everybody. You can't do it. You
have to belong to something. You have to represent culture,
tradition, language, musical
style, sound atmosphere. That's why the greatest
people were very successful because it was the best way.
Bernstein was typically American, so that's why he was an international
superstar. I shouldn't use this word, "superstar." He
certainly was superstar, but I don't think he wanted just to be
a star; he just wanted to be a musician, an artist, and he had his
God. Today it was Mahler, tomorrow it was Beethoven, but he
was serving music and he was incredibly successful at
it. To the international world, he
brought with him the best American way. To make music, to feel
music, that's why we value him as number one from
American culture. And we still think that Furtwängler was
this very best German for music-making. If
some Russians are successful, that means that they are also
very much connected with what it means to be Russian with our tradition.
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© 1992, Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in a dressing room backstage at
Orchestra Hall, Chicago, immediately following a concert on October 16,
1992. Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB twice in 1993, and again in 1996, 1998 and
made and posted on this
website late in 2011.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.