Final trip to St Petersburg, End of Filming

At the end of March, 2008, we arrived in St. Petersburg for our last days of filming Gergiev. For two years we had traveled with him from his home at the Mariinsky to London and New York, to Moscow and eastern Russia, to his boyhood home in Ossetia, and back to St. Petersburg again—including a wild overnight trip from there to Moscow. It was sad for us: the rare experience of following this great musician around the world was ending.

As Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theater, Gergiev had been entrusted with preserving the great tradition of Russian symphonic music, opera, and ballet. Through decades of economic upheaval and challenge, he had made the Mariinsky financially stable, and with the addition of a new concert hall, had extended its reach. Plans were now being made for building a second opera house, with modernized lighting and stage equipment, to open in 2013. 

During our two years with Gergiev we had covered many of his administrative activities. We had also filmed him conducting rehearsals and concerts. Now, as we planned our final days of shooting we asked ourselves what was still needed to fill out a complete Gergiev portrait. We all agreed: we wanted more of Gergiev's feelings about music, a difficult subject for any musician to articulate. Nevertheless we hoped he would tell us, if he could, what a life in music required of him and what it offered in return.

For a personal interview of this kind, we would have to find a private setting. So we asked about the possibility of filming him at home. He was not happy with the prospect of a camera crew disturbing his wife and three children, but Doug Sheldon, his manager, convinced Gergiev that viewers of the film would want to meet his family, and would wonder why they were left out. As he usually did, Gergiev took Sheldon's advice.

Gergiev lived in a large apartment overlooking the Neva River. The main room was a formal gathering place for guests, containing a massive wooden table, a dozen large, upholstery-backed chairs, and statues and photographs from Ossetia along the walls. The rest of the apartment was reserved for his family. It was more plainly furnished, with bedrooms, a kitchen, and a smaller dining room-study, where the children, ranging in age from six to ten, could do their schoolwork, or draw pictures with their mother, Natalya. Twenty-seven years younger than Gergiev, and, like him, from Ossetia.  She was a former folk musician who accompanied herself on an instrument resembling an accordion. There were two boys—Abisal (Gergiev's father's name) and Valery, and a girl, Tamara. 

A striking feature of the apartment was a music room, one floor below, with a high ceiling open to the main level. We heard a piano playing and went over to look down. Abisal was practicing a piece with busy left-hand figures that seemed to give him no trouble.  Along the walls of the music room were shelves containing Gergiev's many recordings and DVDs. Later, Gergiev sat Abisal on his knee and asked if he too wanted to be a musician. Abisal replied immediately that he was planning to be a captain of a large boat.

We decided to set up the on-camera interview at the big dining room table. Before we could ask him anything, Gergiev began to speak freely about how hard it was to balance his conducting career with family life. Recently he had been invited to conduct in Paris during a few free days between two other European engagements, and it had been a painful decision, as he had planned to be at home on those dates. Gergiev might have argued that he could find new supporters of the Mariinsky in Paris, as he often did on his guest conducting tours, and he may have had other reasons in his debate with himself. But in the end, it was always his life as a musician that came first.  While knowing that he would feel guilty afterwards, he had accepted the Paris offer. 

* * *

An unexpected opportunity for us arrived to film Gergiev in a concert at the Mariinsky—he was to conduct the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto. On an earlier trip to St. Petersburg we had filmed a rehearsal of the Rachmaninov. Now our film would be able to combine the rehearsal with a performance in Gergiev's home theater.

We set up the camera in a box a few feet above floor level, about three-quarters of the way back from the stage. From there we could connect views of Gergiev, Yefim Bronfman, the soloist, and the orchestra on our left, with shots of the audience in front of us. We could also pan up past the boxes and the four balconies, to the ornate dome of lights in the ceiling. 


But there were problems: from our position in the box we were looking over Bronfman's shoulder and could see only his right hand on the keyboard. Nor could we see Gergiev from the front; there was only the back of his head, his shoulders, and his arms. We were not high enough to look down into the winds and brass.  And though we could film the violinists in profile and the violists facing us, neither of these angles provided much visual interest. So we had to pan back and forth from the stage to shots of the audience in order to capture at least some of the excitement of a public performance. 

During the final movement we decided to concentrate on shots of Bronfman and Gergiev together, hoping that if Gergiev turned to him, we would be ready. But Gergiev occupied himself with the musicians, keeping them together with the soloist. If only we had had a camera onstage facing Gergiev. 

But we had made the right decision. Seconds before the final chords of the concerto, Bronfman looked up at Gergiev. At that very moment Gergiev, turning towards Bronfman, lifted his arms and brought them down for the last chords of the concerto, and bounced them up again, producing a deeply resonant fortissimo in the orchestra. Bronfman released his hands upward from the piano in the same after-beat. Their two gestures, with Gergiev looking clearly toward the camera, made for a terrific visual expression of the concerto's ending. 

None of the problems that often beset documentary filmmaking had spoiled our shot: there were no camera bumps, no loss of focus, no recording-sound glitches, no frustrating flickering of the lights. Everything had come together perfectly to capture that last moment with the head-on shot of Gergiev and Bronfman. Though we knew we had prepared for it, we congratulated ourselves on being so lucky. 

Those closing few seconds—and the music building to them—would provide us with a climactic finale to our ninety-minute film. 

* * *

On our last day of filming, Gergiev agreed to sit for one final interview. We still hoped that he would reflect on his life as a musician. Looking for a quiet location where Gergiev would not be distracted, we found the very room in the St. Petersburg conservatory where he had taken his first conducting lessons. A large photograph of his teacher, Ilya Musin, hung on the wall. We were kept waiting for a tense couple of hours—I went running up and down the halls in case he had gone to the wrong room. He finally arrived, saying, without apology, that he had been delayed by one of his meetings. Never mind—we had him now.

We sat him in front of an open piano, facing the camera, and began with a general question: what defines a good conductor. He answered without hesitation: an excellent ear, rigorous training, and an understanding of how to work with orchestra musicians. We tried to get him to say more about his feelings for music but he parried all our questions, discussing only baton technique and rehearsal strategy. Finally I asked him: “Is that all, Maestro, that it takes to be a good conductor?” He paused and looked away from the camera for a moment. Then he continued: “And, one must love the music so much that the musicians come to feel that they love it as much as you do.” 


* * *

After the filming, I walked with Gergiev from the conservatory to the Mariinsky Theater. This was to be our goodbye. I thanked him for the interview and for the privilege of following him around during these two and a half years. He said he hoped we had some good material and quickly shifted the conversation to something else that was on his mind. As the founder of the upcoming annual White Nights Festival, named after the twenty-four hours of daylight the northern city of St. Petersburg experiences during the summer solstice, he was busy arranging the programs and hiring the performers for this huge undertaking. There were to be sixty-seven evenings of concerts, ballet, and opera performances with major stars from many countries. He wanted me to understand how the festival had become a world-wide attraction: “Number one, other festivals don’t have the stars we have,” he said, “and the other festivals hire different conductors for different performances. Here I conduct forty performances.” 

He looked at me for a reaction. I told him that I was impressed but not surprised. He smiled, and we shook hands and parted.

* * *

The editing process took up the next two years. We used not only the footage we had shot, but also excerpts of concerts that had been videotaped by others. We wanted to show Gergiev conducting over the past several decades of his professional life, and to indicate the astounding range of his repertoire. 
In the course of our research we discovered several television programs in which Gergiev coached young conductors. In one such class he advised a student not to overdo his gestures when the musicians needed no more than a simple beat to keep them together. Gergiev stepped onto the podium to demonstrate. At a calm passage in the music, his beat became quiet. “See,” he said, “They don't really need me here; I'm not important.” The music came to a resting point and the musicians looked up at him, waiting. He turned to the violins. “I’m important now,” he said to them. “You cannot start without me.” He gave them a vigorous downbeat and they entered together. We played the scene again, and there was the title of our film: “YOU CANNOT START WITHOUT ME.”  


              Note:  DVDs of "YOU CANNOT START WITHOUT ME" can be acquired via Amazon.


Filmmaking #14 - With GergieV, DIARY OF A DOCUMENTARY - CHAPTER VI

St. Petersburg, Overnight to Moscow, Back to St. Petersburg 

In September, 2003, when fire destroyed the warehouse containing almost all the Mariinsky Theater opera sets, Gergiev decided that he would not rebuild the old storage facility: he would use the occasion to raise money for a hall dedicated to symphony concerts. He had long dreamed of operating the Mariinsky more efficiently as an opera house, without the necessity of taking down the sets to accommodate symphony concerts. He started a fundraising campaign the next day, and began receiving contributions from government agencies as well as from private individuals in Europe and America. Gergiev's friend Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, leaned on some of the city's prominent businessmen to contribute a million rubles each.
The first architect hired to design the new Concert Hall, as it was officially called, was fired for exceeding the budget. Gergiev then settled on the French architect Xavier Fabre. For the acoustics he engaged Yasuhisa Toyota from Japan; he had designed the sound for Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Hall, the home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gergiev told Toyota that there was to be no pressure on him or on Fabre to create a hall with a large seating capacity. He was not interested in ticket revenue; he wanted a structure whose dimensions would produce the best the quality of sound possible. Disney Hall seats 2265. Geffen Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic, 2738. Toyota's “perfect” design called for only 1100 seats. He thought that his plan would never be accepted, but Gergiev agreed to it immediately. 

The Concert Hall opened in 2007 and was universally praised. Le Figaro called the acoustics, “full of light and warmth from any vantage point.” And “The Süddeutsche Zeitung” wrote, “The hall itself has become an instrument - a Stradivarius violin.”

In July, 2007, a few months before the hall was completed, Gergiev organized a concert to test the acoustics and stimulate interest among funders and local dignitaries. Our crew arrived in St. Petersburg in time to film the event. Among the small, invited audience was the Russian Minister of Finance, Alexei Kudrin, who had traveled from Moscow to see how the government funds had been spent. Gergiev proudly showed him around the hall, and he was visibly impressed. The orchestra accompanied Leonidas Kavakos in the Brahms violin concerto, and the audience applauded the sound—and the hall—enthusiastically. 

During the next few days we filmed outdoors in St. Petersburg—busy streets, old residential buildings, and the expansive plaza in front of the Hermitage Museum where kids were showing off their acrobatic bike-riding techniques. Late one afternoon we came upon a statue of Emperor Peter the Great mounted on his rearing horse, sharply silhouetted against the sky. Our Russian guide quoted from “The Bronze Horseman,” Pushkin's poem about the founding of the city, lines that every Russian child learns at school:


“A century has past, and there shone forth
From swamps and gloomy forest prison,
Crown gem and marvel of the North,
The proud young city newly risen.”

Translated by Walter Arndt

Our first day of filming ended on a large oval-shaped plaza in front of the Concert Hall. Serving as a pre-concert gathering place, it was also used during the daytime as a place where parents could stroll with their children and older kids could play games or simply hang out in the back. Gergiev wanted the city of St. Petersburg to help pay for the upkeep of this plaza. While we were there, a few teenagers were kicking a soccer ball back and forth, careful not to disturb a group of women chatting over their baby carriages. 


Our next task was to film rehearsals and performances in the new Concert Hall. The composer Rodion Shchedrin had come to St. Petersburg for a performance of his “Enchanted Wanderer,” a concert opera scored for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. It tells the fantastical story of Ivan, a young man who flogs a monk to death, kills a Gypsy woman, and ultimately takes holy orders to atone for his deeds. It had had its premier in New York in 2002, and was now to be given its first performance in Russia. 

Our filming began in a small studio. While an assistant conductor ran a piano rehearsal for the soloists, Gergiev stood to the side, paging through his score. Once or twice he asked for a passage to be repeated; otherwise he just listened, beating time, becoming more and more familiar with the music. The next day, he conducted a full rehearsal in the Concert Hall, with soloists, chorus and orchestra. 

After the rehearsal, I drove back to the Mariinsky with Gergiev. I overheard him tell Doug Sheldon, his long-time manager, that since there was a free day coming up, he would go to Moscow to seek help in funding the new Concert-Hall plaza. He would travel overnight, meet with German Gref, the Minister of Economics and Trade in the morning, and return to St. Petersburg that same afternoon. I immediately thought, “What a great scene that would be: Gergiev’s private meeting with a Russian cabinet minister.” 

Arriving at the Mariinsky, Gergiev immediately dove into a full dress rehearsal of Mozart's “Don Giovanni.” He then presided over a series of administrative meetings in his office—he was, after all, General Director of the entire Mariinsky operation—followed by a complete performance of the opera that same evening, with Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna. 

The following morning, at a Concert Hall rehearsal of Shchedrin's “Enchanted Wanderer,” the composer was present, along with his wife, the former star ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. In the intermission I approached Gergiev hesitantly and asked him if I could possibly film his Moscow meeting with Gref. His reaction to this surprise request was a noncommittal nod. An hour later, as he emerged from a meeting in his dressing room, I asked him again. This time I wasn’t sure if he had even heard me.

The next day, I still had no answer. We continued filming inside the Mariinsky Theater, including planning meetings in several offices, and a staging rehearsal of Wagner's “Tannhauser.” I didn't see Gergiev until that night, when he conducted a sold-out concert performance of Shchedrin's opera. During the intermission Gergiev locked himself, as usual, in his dressing room. I waited outside for twenty minutes. When he came out to conduct the second half of the concert, he stopped in front of me and said matter-of-factly, “Okay, you can go with me to Moscow,” and marched onstage. I hurried to tell our cameraman, Jean Marc Froment, the incredible news.

After the concert, Gergiev held a dinner party at a restaurant just across the street from the Mariinsky. He invited Jean Marc and me, and told us to bring our film equipment to the party—we'd be going directly to the train. The dinner was served at a long table with Gergiev at the center and artists and dignitaries spread out on both sides of him. Shchedrin and Plisetskaya were there, and Ulyana Lopatkina, a current prima ballerina. There were speeches and more speeches, mostly by Gergiev, praising the long unbroken ballet tradition of the Mariinsky Theater.

It was getting late. Some of Gergiev's friends were passing him notes to remind him that his train was leaving soon, but he continued proposing toasts. Finally the cabdriver came in, afraid he'd be blamed for missing the train. Gergiev would not be rushed. Jean Marc and I were already in the back of the cab with Doug Sheldon, when Gergiev finally appeared and climbed into the front seat. The driver took off before the maestro could close the door. We went tearing down the streets of St. Petersburg in the middle of the night, not stopping for red lights or stop signs. Fortunately there was not much traffic—perhaps everyone in St. Petersburg knew that Gergiev was trying to make his train again. I have been scared in bumpy airplanes, dropping suddenly through empty air pockets, but somehow I trusted those pilots. This cabdriver I could only hate. And Gergiev? He kept urging the driver to go faster. 

The train was arriving as we pulled into the station. We ran down the stairs and along the platform, found our car and jumped in, just as the train started up again.

We stayed up most of the night filming Gergiev in his compartment. He should have been exhausted. He had just completed two days of strenuous rehearsals and performances, including Shchedrin's complicated new work, and a giant of the repertory, “Don Giovanni”—in addition to all his administrative meetings and phone calls. This was his first chance to relax in several days. But he talked and talked: about his friends, about his family, about the musicians he liked to work with—and about his love of music. It was a Gergiev we hadn't seen before—so free and open. I was excited, but later, when we screened the material, we were sadly disappointed. It proved to be too rambling: enormously winning, Gergiev completely unrestrained, but impossible to edit into a coherent scene. Jean Marc and I have remained friends, and almost ten years after that train ride, he still doesn't understand how we could not find a way to use this portrait of Gergiev at his most unguarded.

When we arrived in Moscow early the next morning, Gergiev decided that he and Sheldon would go ahead to the ministry—Jean Marc and I were to follow in another car. We all started off together, but in a matter of minutes Gergiev's car disappeared. Our driver seemed to know the way so we didn't complain, enjoying the ride through downtown Moscow, and across the Moscow River into smaller commercial neighborhoods with stores just opening and shoppers already on the streets—all under a broad summer sky. The driver turned into a narrow alley and pulled up at an official-looking door. An attendant seemed to expect us, and pointed to an elevator which let us out in a spacious reception area with formal furniture and a large, ornately framed mirror. Facing us was a closed door. The minister was in a meeting, we were told. But we're supposed to be at that meeting, we insisted. The attendant repeated that we had to wait. We were furious and did not try to hide it. 

Fifteen minutes later Gergiev came out and beckoned us to come in. I said, “Maestro, you were kind enough to bring us all the way from St. Petersburg to film the meeting and now you've had the meeting without us.” Without hesitating he said, “I'll be glad to repeat the meeting for the camera,” and motioned us to follow him. We entered the minister's private office; Sheldon was sitting at a small table. Gergiev introduced us to Minister Gref. On a side wall was a large banner decorated with the Russian coat of arms. 

Gref sat behind a shiny desk, facing Gergiev and Sheldon at the table, and the discussion began. Jean Marc started filming, while Gergiev and Gref talked earnestly to each other. Though Gergiev and Gref were going over all this a second time, it seemed completely fresh. 

From our later translations we learned that Gergiev was asking Gref to pressure the city of St. Petersburg for financial assistance in maintaining the Concert Hall plaza. Gref was sympathetic and agreed to help; these situations were not new to him. He condemned the tactics of municipal governments—the mayors often came to him for money they had already stored away for other projects.
After five minutes or so Gergiev nodded to me, as if to say the meeting was over, and walked over to the minister to have a personal chat. As Gref rose to meet him, Jean Marc moved the camera in very close. Neither of them blinked or turned away. Our translator was as amazed as we were: Gref was saying that his job was overwhelming him. He complained in particular that he had to travel constantly all over Russia, checking up on provincial offices, and he was exhausted. All this in front of our camera—for a film that might be seen throughout Europe and America. Gergiev was sympathetic, but quickly diverted the conversation to questions about Gref's family. 

Finally, they wished each other well, shook hands, and we cut the camera. “Did you get what you wanted?” Gergiev asked. I said, “You bet,” and assured him that for his performance in repeating the meeting for us in such detail he would certainly be nominated for an Academy Award. “That's the only prize I don't have,” he said wth a smile, and left the room. As Jean Marc was packing up the camera, it occurred to me that arriving at Gref’s office ahead of us and then “repeating” the meeting was Gergiev's way of honoring his promise to let me film, while giving him time to deal with private topics before we arrived. No matter: being able to shoot in the office of a high government official, and hear him complain like a schoolboy gave us an astonishing scene.

Jean Marc and I went back to the station and took the day train to St. Petersburg. After such an improbable experience, it felt strangely like coming home. 

The next day was our last of this Russian visit, but it is mostly a blank in my mind. I was still dazed from the Moscow trip—the wild cab ride to the train station, Gergiev's soliloquy in the train compartment, the repeat of his meeting with Gref, and the extraordinary image of a high Russian official openly complaining about his job—could I have dreamed all this? And wondering if we really did have it on film distracted me the whole day. Only when we boarded the plane for New York the next morning did I begin to realize that thanks to Gergiev, it was true.

* * *

Next: Chapter VIII, St. Petersburg—our last filming trip with Valery Gergiev.

PLEASE NOTE: This visit to St. Petersburg and Moscow took place before we went to Ossetia in 2007. I mistakenly reversed the order on the blog list. This blog should be Chapter VI, followed by the Ossetia blog, Chapter VII.

FILMMAKING #13 - WITH GERGIEV, Diary of a Documentary - CHAPTER V

Gergiev visits his boyhood town: August, 2007

Valery Gergiev was born on May 2, 1953, in Moscow, where his father was stationed as a soldier. When he was six years old the family moved to the town of Vladikavkaz in the province of Ossetia. His father, about whom Gergiev still speaks with great intensity, died when Gergiev was 14 years old. 

Vladikavkaz is the capital city of North Ossetia, at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains. The downtown area is bustling, but there are also quiet neighborhoods marked off in wide, park-like avenues. On one such street the Gergiev family had its apartment, and there is still a cousin in Vladikavkaz whom Gergiev sees when he returns for visits. 

Gergiev still feels a strong allegiance to his home town. He has set up a company there that makes opera costumes for the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, more than thirteen hundred miles away. An arts center, featuring a concert hall and an exhibition pavilion, is being built with Gergiev’s financial help. 

At the age of seven Valery Gergiev already showed great talent as a pianist. But he was much more interested in sports, he says, and escaped whenever possible to play soccer or tennis with his friends. He memorized the name of every professional soccer player in Russia, and to this day he continues to follow soccer avidly. Gradually he began to spend more time with music,. As his piano studies progressed, his teachers saw in him not only a prodigious musical ability, but the qualities of energy and self-confidence that a conductor must have to hold an orchestra’s attention.


*     *     *

Valery Gergiev from our film interview, 2008:

I think the role of a man who stands in front of a big orchestra is to keep the orchestra involved and interested, or even more, to make the musicians feel much more motivated and even excited about what they do together.

My first piano teacher started to talk about conducting when I was maybe eight or nine years old. I don’t know why. She was a wonderful woman. She spent basically all her life in Ossetia. Then comes my first conducting teacher. And again, he believed that when he heard me play piano there seemed to be some promise that I will become a conductor. I can’t tell you why, what it was. I was totally naïve about conducting. If you had told me some forty years ago that I wanted to become a conductor, it would sound like the funniest thing I could hear, because I would rather hear that someone wanted me to become a tennis player or a soccer player. That was the most desired of my future activities. And watching tennis or soccer made me very emotional. I just couldn’t stay calm. It was so exciting.


*     *     *

Gergiev had some free time in June, 2007, and he promised to meet us in Vladikavkaz for three days of filming in his home town. He also agreed to take us into the mountains and show us his favorite boyhood haunts. We travelled to Vladikavkaz a few days before his arrival to scout out the town, and we spent one day filming in the mountains, collecting background shots of the snow-covered peaks. We also visited the shell of the school at Beslan, about forty-five minutes south of Vladikavkaz, where three hundred sixty-five children had been killed in a terrorist attack in September, 2002. At the time of that tragic event, Gergiev had appeared on television to appeal for calm in the face of cries for revenge, and had also conducted a widely broadcast memorial concert for the families of the victims. 

We toured the bombed-out school, where pictures of the murdered children were attached to what remained of the walls. Then we walked through the cemetery, which was laid out in an open field a few blocks from the school. On one long row of graves after another, the birth dates carved into the tombstones were different for each child; the dates of death were the same for all. 
We received word that Gergiev’s arrival in Vladikavkaz would be delayed for a day. Instead of flying directly from his concert in Vienna, he had made a long detour to Switzerland for a meeting with potential Mariinsky Theater donors. While waiting for him, we spent the day filming in the town, and rewarded ourselves with a good dinner accompanied by many shots of the local vodka. When Gergiev finally arrived, later that night, we had another dinner with him, and many more shots. The level of conviviality was such that nobody got drunk—or maybe we just didn’t notice.

*     *     *

From our Gergiev interview:

The only impression of conducting, or of conductors I had when I was ten, eleven or twelve years old was from a local figure, a chief conductor of the local orchestra in Ossetia. He was rather a short man. And he used platform shoes. He was both a very exciting man, and very funny. 

I immediately realized that something new had entered my life: something bigger than what I thought was big—something more powerful, more dramatic, more dangerous, certainly more mysterious, much more difficult than anything I knew before. 

He demanded that I know as much as possible of the piece I had learned, that I keep the tempo and the rhythm very clear, and the dynamics very expressive and very contrasting. So if it’s big, it had to be really impressively big. If it’s quiet, be careful, it had to be really quiet. It was very impressive and scary and also exciting. I was in a small provincial city, but for me he was a huge authority and when you start to recognize somebody’s authority, then you grow.


*     *     *

On our second day in Vladikavkaz Gergiev did not go to the mountains with us as planned; he wanted to participate in the annual Beslan commemoration. He told us to go ahead and scout the filming locations—he would join us in a few hours. Our Producer Margie Smilow decided to stay behind and bring him to our filming location as soon as possible. We had started to worry that we might lose the best afternoon sunlight if he delayed too long. The camera crew and I left for the mountains.  We drove half an hour through the countryside, past villages and open farm country. Bee keepers were selling honey from hives piled in boxes along the side of the road. Soon the level ground turned into rolling foothills, with snow-covered peaks looming behind them. The air was clear and the sun at just the right height for filming—diffused light without too many shadows. Having filmed Gergiev and his orchestra in so many indoor concert halls, we were looking forward to seeing him in this striking outdoor setting. While we were waiting, we scouted  around for some interesting shots of the area. We filmed a farmer guiding his horse-drawn cart along a narrow path, past the window of a weather-worn cabin, where an old woman set up a vase of flowers in the sunlight. Jean Marc Froment, our cameraman, had found a stream rushing downhill over sharp-edged rocks. While waiting for Gergiev, Froment provided the world with an encyclopedia of busy-mountainside-stream-reflecting-the-light shots. 

The sun was going down. We were about to end up with an album of standard postcard views without Gergiev in the scene. At that moment Margie Smilow called us to say that she was having no success hurrying Gergiev along. We told her that we were losing the light to the shadows, and our whole trip to the Caucasus might be for nothing. There was nothing she could do, she said. After some further searching, we found a large meadow that was open enough to be free from the advancing mountain shadows for a while longer. When Margie phoned us again to say that she and Gergiev were at last about to leave, we heard his voice interrupt her: he had decided to stop off at a friend’s house to pay his respects for a recent death in the family. This would mean a further delay of at least thirty minutes and we despaired. By the time he arrived it would be too dark to film.

*     *     *

From our Gergiev interview:

My conducting teacher told me that the only place he wanted me to go was the conservatory in St. Petersburg. So I applied for entrance.

The conductors’ entrance test into the conservatory offered one spot to 17 or 18 contenders. There was no way I was even theoretically hoping I would get it. So I was completely free to just jump at the opportunity. There was an orchestra waiting for the contestants. I was younger than the others; most probably I was the youngest. And they were more experienced.

What I remember very well was I had to conduct the beginning of the opera “Carmen,” the famous overture. I remember there was a certain excitement around me. Needless to say I was excited. I was sweating completely and yet, for one reason or another, feeling very healthy. Maybe I had eaten well. I was gesticulating with my hands very energetically, trying to excite this orchestra. And I can’t tell you what in detail was happening, but somehow I felt I gained friends immediately. 

I got this spot, I was the only one. And what’s shocking was that it was not what I expected. It was difficult, somehow, to swallow this—the feeling of being selected. No one had told me I was unique, so it was unusual to see so many of my colleagues left behind.

I was alone, entering this new age of my life.


*     *     *

When Gergiev finally arrived in the mountains, the light had become border-line satisfactory. Yet he did not even then go directly to our filming location; he paused to have lunch with some friends at an outdoor restaurant a few hundred feet from where we were waiting. When Margie phoned to explain where he was, I rushed down a narrow footpath and found him still at the table, dozing in his chair. After an agonizing twenty minutes he said he was ready. We hurried him along to the open slope where we had set up the camera. 

We placed him at a point just under a ridge and fastened a radio mike to his shirt. He was to walk toward us, describe his boyhood visits to the Caucasus, and reflect on any feelings he might continue to have for these mountains. Since we had set up the camera a good distance away from him, we couldn’t get close enough to him to have a conversation as he walked. We had to stay out of the shot and rely on him to speak in an uninterrupted monologue. This was going to be a one-take scene. 

We rolled the camera and cued him. He walked slowly, turning occasionally to look at the huge mountain ranges behind him. I had seen Gergiev harried or distracted before a performance—holding last-minute meetings, making phone calls, talking to his staff—and as I watched, see his focus change dramatically when he arrived in the wings before a concert. When the orchestra had tuned, he would walk onstage, bow to the audience, and turn to the musicians, completely concentrated. His look focussed the players as well. When Gergiev saw that, he would begin the music.


Now, in the mountains, he looked restless and distracted by all the events of the last two days: the detour to Switzerland the night before, the memorial in Beslan and the visit to his friends in mourning. But as he walked slowly across the meadow, we saw his concentrated performance face take over. He proceeded to give us a vivid portrait of himself as a boy making regular visits to his favorite mountain spots, some of them bordered by dangerous rocky ravines. He talked of the history of the Caucasus, describing the wild Scythian tribes that had once lived there, and he compared the sense of permanence he looked for in music to the solidity of this mountain range, massive, yet subject to devastating avalanches. 


When Froment turned off the camera, we were silent for a moment; it had been a moving performance. I thanked him and we walked back to our car. Now he was cordial and relaxed, perhaps because he had fulfilled his promise to us and the burden of this scene was behind him. I reminded him that to complete our shooting plan we still needed to film him in a few important locations in Vladikavkaz: his family’s house and his first music school, for instance. He agreed to be available, but said he would go ahead in his own car and meet us at our hotel. 

When we arrived in town, he had already checked out of the hotel and gone to the airport. And that was that.

*    *    *

Next - WITH GERGIEV Chapter VI. Final filming - St. Petersburg, Moscow for a day, and back to St. Petersburg; putting the film together.



Gergiev on Tour: Moscow and Eastern Russia 

In April, 2007, Gergiev brought the Mariinsky Orchestra to Moscow. Every year since 2002, he had taken the orchestra from its home base in St. Petersburg to Russia’s capital, and from there to a different set of eastern Russian cities, traveling in some years as far as Siberia. This performance would be the first in an annual tour that Gergiev called his Moscow Easter Festival. 

Because the orchestra performs in so many cities, each location can receive a visit only every four or five years; this makes each concert a special event for the local population. Gergiev is very dedicated to these audiences, and keeps the orchestra playing at its best. He often gives the city two concerts on the same day—one in the afternoon and another, for a different audience, a short time later. His programs include Russian favorites as well as important works from the classic German and French repertoire. In a concert in Nizhny Novgorod, the orchestra performed Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” Stravinsky’s “Symphony in C,” and Rimsky Korsakov’s “Suite from Scheherazade.” The second program consisted of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, a particularly difficult work lasting over seventy minutes. I can’t imagine any western musicians’ union permitting a schedule of two such demanding concerts in a single day, with only a short interval of rest for the orchestra. Yet Gergiev and his musicians played every concert on the tour with full energy and concentration.

A couple of days before the Moscow concert that inaugurated the tour,  the producer, Margie Smilow, and I spent a couple of days scouting sites that would convey the atmosphere of the city for our film. When we turned into Red Square, I was not prepared for the shock of recognition: St. Basil’s striped cathedral, and the Kremlin presiding over the huge open square that still serves as a military parade ground.  Looking across to the reviewing stand on the wall above Lenin’s tomb, I imagined I could still see Stalin and Molotov, or Brezhnev and Gromyko, scowling in the old newsreels.

On Easter Sunday, at Gergiev’s suggestion, we took our crew to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, with its three golden onion domes gleaming alongside the Moscow River. As we arrived, the cathedral’s high-pitched bells and deep-throated gongs were just announcing the noonday service. The original cathedral had been compleed in 1861 to commemorate Napoleon’s defeat. In 1931 Stalin ordered it to be destroyed, to make way for a new Supreme Soviet meeting hall. Soon after the Communist regime fell, the Cathedral was rebuilt on the same site and was dedicated in 2000. 


Ten minutes after our arrival, we asked the church officials for permission to send a crew up into the bell tower. They surprised us by immediately agreeing, though we had no special credentials. Our camera- and soundman strapped on their equipment and began the long climb up the interior stone stairway as the congregation was filing in far below. From a corner in the belfry they got some dramatic shots of the bells and the three young bell ringers, pulling their ropes and banging their hammers.

*     *     *

We set out to meet Gergiev at a downtown hotel on Tverskaya Ulitsa, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, and found him at a meeting with a group of businessmen. Gergiev is very good at maintaining contact with influential people in Russia, even with President Vladimir Putin. This helps him extend his fund raising network for the Mariinsky Theater. Gergiev was so well thought of by the powers that be in Moscow. He had been invited to become the director of the Bolshoi Theater. He declined, saying that he would never leave the Mariinsky for the Bolshoi, and to be in charge of both would probably kill him. After more friendly banter, the meeting adjourned to the hotel's rooftop cafel, with a view of Red Square directly over the railing.

A few days later, as the rehearsal began for the first Moscow concert, Gergiev had much to accomplish in a limited amount of time. He was under pressure, and the musicians felt it.  Suddenly, in the middle of Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka,” he stopped the musicians and spoke angrily to them. “I know we’ve played this piece many times,” he told them. “But there’s no excuse for lackadaisical playing. We must rehearse as though we were performing.” No one moved. Gergiev seemed to look each musician in the eye. Then he started again. For the rest of the rehearsal, the sound was extra crisp and expressive.

The concert that evening was introduced by Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow. An old friend of Gergiev’s, Luzhkov had helped him raise money for a new concert hall in St. Petersburg. He spoke effusively about the maestro’s great talent as a conductor and his dedication to Russian musical life. The mayor was followed by the Minister of Culture, who said the same thing. Then Patriarch Alexy II, the Primate of the Orthodox Russian Church, strode ceremoniously onstage and offered his blessing, ending with a call and response in which the entire audience participated. Apparently they had not forgotten the text during the long Communist hiatus. 

* * * * *

Usually, to film a symphony orchestra, and provide the necessary coverage of the conductor and all the instruments, you need anywhere from five to ten cameras, and many microphone locations. But such a crew would be much too cumbersome when you're trying to keep up with an orchestra on tour. For flexibility—and for obvious budgetary reasons—our crew consisted of one cameraman and one soundman.

On arriving at a new location, the stagehands—regulars from the Mariinsky Theater, who always travel with the group—immediately set up for rehearsal. The film crew has to work quickly to find a position for the camera on stage: once the music starts, there’s no opportunity to find a new location. Our soundman, Gergely Hornos, found an ingenious way to use only one multi-directional microphone, which he set up on the floor in front of the orchestra—a location that made the orchestra sound full and well balanced. The camera usually ended up on one side of the stage for the first half of a rehearsal or concert, and on the other side for the second half. But from neither position could visual interest be sustained for very long.

To solve the problem of providing visual interest with only one camera, I decided to make “a stepping stone out of a stumbling block,” as Albert Schweitzer once said. (He was referring to the way Bach devised endings to his fugues that were all the more brilliant because they unified the individual voices that he had made independent of one another.) I decided to make a montage out of the tour and concert shots. I would begin with a short episode from the first concert, sustain it as long as possible, then cut to a traveling shot of the orchestra on the train, to shots of the next eastern city, and then to the next concert. 

In Moscow I started with about a minute of the “Petrouchka” performance. Then I cut away to a shot of the countryside from the train window to indicate that the tour was under-way. Then a shot of the train pulling into the station at Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles from Moscow. After a series of shots of the cold, snowy city, and a look at Gergiev and the orchestra performing Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” I cut to the musicians in the frozen dark, boarding the train to Ulyanovsk. 

* * * * *

Three of our filmmaking team were with me on the tour—the cameraman, the soundman, and the production manager, Sergei Beck. Sergei and I shared a sleeping compartment in which the two daytime benches, covered with a sheet and a blanket, served as beds. Some of the compartments had four beds, with upper and lower berths opposite each other. In both arrangements, the violinists and wind players were crowded in with their instruments and luggage; the larger instruments were packed in a baggage car along with cases full of orchestral parts. There was a bathroom at the end of each car, and a room for a watchful attendant who made tea in the morning.

Early the next day, as the train began to slow down for our arrival in Ulyanovsk, the crew filmed the musicians dozing in their compartments, or quietly talking, or just staring out the window. They never spoiled our filming by looking up at the camera or smiling at us; they acted as though we weren’t there. When we followed a trumpet player through several cars to the baggage room, he, too, completely ignored us, even when we had trouble squeezing the camera through the doors. We silently thanked him for not offering to help.
In Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Lenin, we filmed exteriors in the city while the musicians rested before the evening concert. Outside Lenin’s house, we came upon a group of protesters with red banners and balloons chanting for better schools. Apparently such political activism was no longer dangerous in central Russia. We found a late-afternoon view of the Volga River, and from there cut to a concert shot of Gergiev conducting Rimsky’s “Easter Overture.” 

As in Moscow, before any of the tour concerts began, there were speeches and presentations onstage in which Gergiev would accept a token of the community’s appreciation for his visit—a commemorative plaque, a silver cup, or a sample of local craftwork. With the town officials smiling proudly, Gergiev would make a warm speech of thanks. 

After the Ulyanovsk concert, a crowd of well wishers, mostly young students, clamored for his autograph. He asked them what instrument they were studying. (It was amusing to see some of them videotaping their conversations with him on their phones.) During the official dinner that followed, Gergiev finally allowed himself to relax and enjoy a few drinks.

When we returned to the train, we found Gergiev in a compartment with several orchestra members, joking and laughing. Later one of the musicians told me he had seldom seen this kind of easy camaraderie between Gergiev and the musicians. But when we joined a group of wind players in the dining car, and Gergiev and the musicians swapped funny stories, the cordial atmosphere seemed comletely natural.

Our filming ended in Samara, where the Volga becomes the widest river in the world; boats on the far shore are practically invisible. Samara was the alternate capital of Russia during World War II, complete with an emergency bunker for Stalin. After the war, it  became a center of the aerospace industry, and in half-empty lots amid fading advertising billboards there are still models of three-story rockets ready for takeoff. 

At the Samara concert that evening, the whole program consisted of a performance of Act I from Wagner’s “Siegfried,” sung in the original German, and lasting well over an hour. The orchestra was back onstage barely an hour later for a second concert, this time with a performance of Mahler’s tumultuous Fifth Symphony. The Samara audiences listened to both of these programs in concentrated silence.

The music was still ringing in my ears the next morning as the film crew and I waited at the airport for the plane back to Moscow. There was still another concert on the tour—in Ufa, 260 miles farther east from  Samara, but we were not scheduled to film there. We arranged to meet up with Gergiev when he arrived back in Moscow the next day. There was to be a final performance in the famed Tchaikovsky Hall, and since this concert was also outside our shooting plan, we looked forward to the rare treat of hearing the orchestra perform without the task of filming it. 


Tchaikovsky Hall


Unfortunately, when we arrived at the hall before the concert, we found Gergiev and the musicians  standing around waiting; the music stands and heavy instruments had not yet been delivered from Ufa. The train that was to carry them had stalled, and a replacement train did not have enough room for everything. A van was hired to carry the remaining instruments, but it had been held up in heavy traffic. During the delay, a Moscow television station had plenty of time to complete an elaborate multi-camera setup in preparation for a special live transmission of the concert. To offset the musicians’ black and white formal clothes, the TV producers decorated the stage and the music stands with garlands of lights tinted in blue and rose. It looked like a Christmas window at Saks Fifth Avenue.

When the instruments finally arrived, the stagehands set up the chairs and music stands in record time. The musicians had only a few minutes to go over some of the difficult passages with Gergiev before the audience was admitted to the hall; the concert was now an hour late. In spite of all these delays and a frantic last-minute mini-rehearsal, the orchestra’s playing was superb. I found myself applauding at the end as enthusiastically as anyone in the hall. 

The next day we began to plan our June visit to Ossetia, Gergiev’s birthplace in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains.

* * * * *  

V. St. Petersburg, Ossetia (The Caucasus), and back to St. Petersburg



8th APRIL, 19.00, Sunday — Moscow, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire


Violin Concerto—Soloist: Leonidas Kavakos, violin




9th APRIL, 18.00, Monday — Nizhniy Novgorod, Kremlin Concert Hall


Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune


Symphony in C




9th APRIL, 20.30, Monday — Nizhniy Novgorod, Kremlin Concert Hall


Symphony No. 5


10th APRIL, 19.00, Tuesday — Ulyanovsk, Culture and Concert Center of Lenin Memorial        


Russian Easter Festival Overture


Nocturnes (I, II)
‘Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien’




11th APRIL, 18.00, Wednesday — Samara, Concert Hall of the Samara State Philharmonic Society


Siegfried, I act (concert)


11th APRIL, 20.30, Wednesday — Samara, Concert Hall of the Samara State Philharmonic Society


Russian Easter Festival Overture


Symphony No. 2


‘The Firebird’


12th APRIL, 18.00, Thursday — Ufa, Bashkir State Opera and Ballet Theatre


‘Die Walkürie’, III act (concert)


12th APRIL, 20.30, Thursday — Ufa, Bashkir State Opera and Ballet Theatre


Russian Easter Festival Overture


‘Jeu de cartes’


Symphony in Three Movements




13th APRIL, 19.00, Friday — Moscow, Tchaikovsky Concert Hall


Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune


Symphony in Three Movements


Symphony in C


‘La Mer’


14th APRIL, 15.00, Saturday — Moscow, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire


Piano Concerto No. 4
Soloist: Alexei Volodin, piano


Symphony No. 5


23rd APRIL, 19.00, Monday — Moscow, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire


Cantata ‘The King of the Stars’


‘Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien’


‘Oedipus Rex’


24th APRIL, 19.00, Tuesday — St. Petersburg, Mariinsky Concert Hall


Symphony No. 4


8th MAY, 19.00, Tuesday — Moscow, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre


‘Love for Three Oranges’ (staged)


9th MAY, 13.00, Wednesday — Moscow, Poklonnaya Gora

Gala Concert for the Victory Day


9th MAY, 19.00, Wednesday — Moscow, Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire


‘Les Noces’
Symphony of Wind Instruments
‘The Rite of Spring’


The London Symphony Orchestra, January-March, 2007

Valery Gergiev had recently been appointed Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He would continue the gigantic task of running the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, while retaining his other positions, including Director of the Gergiev Festival Mikkeli in Finland, Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.


To prepare for the LSO segment of our film on Gergiev, we traveled to London in January, 2007. Our first task was to survey the space in St. Luke’s Church where the orchestra holds its preliminary rehearsals. Then we would have a look at the Barbican Centre, a performing arts complex in the City of London, where the final rehearsals and the concert would take place. We had to know how the orchestra would be set up in each location, in order to choose the best camera angles and microphone placements, and see if additional lighting would be necessary.

At the Barbican, the strings closest to the conductor sit on the stage floor, while those further back are placed on raised platforms. The winds and brass also sit on a series of risers, ascending one above the other to a row of percussion instruments along the back wall. That way all the musicians can see the conductor and their sound is projected over the players in front of them.

Four or five automatically-controlled cameras connected to an upstairs control room are permanently mounted on the side walls of the stage. The Barbican gave us permission to record rehearsal and concert footage using these cameras. We would later combine this material with the footage from the camera we had brought with us. Nyika Jansco, our cameraman, set up his tripod on a riser next to the basses, a location which gave us various views of the orchestra and a zoom-in shot of Gergiev on the podium. To complete the coverage, the Barbican placed several additional manned cameras of their own at various locations in the hall. (After early objections, audiences have learned to accept the presence of these intruders, as long as they and their operators are dressed in black, and are quiet during performances.)

Our scouting trip complete, we flew back to New York to assemble the rest of the crew and to order the equipment. We returned to London late in March. We had scheduled our shoot to coincide with Gergiev’s concert performance of Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring.”

* * *

In 1913 the Paris premiere of “The Rite,” choreographed and danced by Nijinsky, created a sensation. The work begins with a solo bassoon, straining in its highest register—an eerie sound never before heard in an orchestral work. Stravinsky reported that at the beginning of the ballet a storm broke out when “the curtain opened on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down.” As the ballet continued, jeers and catcalls filled the hall. From the balcony came a call: “Un docteur!” Then another: “Un dentiste!” And a third: “Deux dentistes!” In the riot that followed a man “beat rhythmically with his fists on the head of the man in front of him,” and an argument between two men seated in adjacent boxes led to a duel the next morning. Top hats were thrown into the orchestra, but conductor Pierre Monteux, Nijinsky, and the ballet corps persevered through it all.

Gergiev had conducted “The Rite” as a ballet and in its concert version many times during the course of his career. His recording of the work came about almost by accident.

In 2001, Gergiev had just completed recording Scriabin’s “The Poem of Ecstasy,” which required many hours of correcting and rerecording. Finding that there was still a chunk of time left over, Gergiev proposed taking a look at “The Rite of Spring.” The music was distributed, and they recorded it straight through. That version of “The Rite” proved to be so good that it was combined with the Scriabin in the CD and featured on the cover as the main work. It became one of Gergiev’s most successful recordings. Now we were going to see him present this work to the LSO and prepare it for a live concert performance.

* * *

At the start of his first rehearsal of “The Rite” in St. Luke’s Church, Gergiev played through the entire piece, stopping only to repeat difficult passages. These musicians had played “The Rite” many times before, but it's a very tricky piece, with continually shifting meters. (At one place a measure in 5/8 is followed by 2/8, 4/8, 5/8, and 6/8.) In these church rehearsals, Gergiev did not focus on blend and dynamic contrasts. That would wait until he heard the orchestra in the acoustics of the concert hall.

After the orchestra moved from the church to the Barbican, Gergiev began working on the orchestral colors Stravinsky had created with his unusual combinations of instruments. (One example: flutes and muted trumpets sounding together with a trilling clarinet, combined with a sustained trill in the violas and soft pizzicatos from the cellos and basses.) Throughout the rehearsal Gergiev emphasized the surprises Stravinsky created through sudden changes of dynamics and tempo. Gergiev reminded the musicians that this was a theatrical piece—a ballet with a dramatic story—that the main task of a concert performance of “The Rite” was to capture the theatricality of the work.

During the rehearsal intermission, Gergiev agreed to a filmed interview. There was a grand piano in the reception area outside his dressing room, presumably placed there for soloists to warm up before going onstage, and we seated Gergiev on the piano bench. I was hoping that he would demonstrate his celebrated ability to reduce complicated orchestra scores to a version for two hands on the piano. I had brought along a full score of “The Rite of Spring,” for that purpose. Without asking, I opened it on the piano stand in front of him.

Gergiev began with some remarks about the difficulties Stravinsky presents in “The Rite,” both for the conductor and the orchestra, but each time I hinted that it would help if he illustrated his points on the piano, he resisted. Finally I asked him directly: “Maestro, would you please play some of ‘The Rite of Spring’ on the piano?” He was still unwilling, but he did play some short rhythmic chords from the piece, perhaps to get me to stop asking. I thought that maybe he didn’t want to feel like a trained seal performing his tricks. He said that in fact this ability was not so extraordinary—it was part of every conductor’s training. But to read an orchestral score as complicated as “The Rite Of Spring” and simultaneously play it on the piano was surely an achievement few could match.


Igor Stravinsky, "The Rite of Spring"
sample page from the full score

 Igor Stravinsky, "The Rite of Spring"  sample page from the full score

*  *  *

As the rehearsal continued, I looked over to see how the automatic cameras on the wall were panning around the orchestra, but they weren’t moving. I raced up two flights of stairs and knocked on the studio door. Two men were sitting in front of the control panels, eating sandwiches and chatting; the television monitors for the automatic cameras were dark. Turn on the cameras, I begged. We’re filming the rehearsal. That surprised them—they normally recorded only the concerts. But they cheerfully agreed, and turned on the switches. Thank God they didn’t have to make several phone calls to get permission. When I returned to the stage, I was relieved to see that we had lost only five minutes or so of the rehearsal.

As the final rehearsal proceeded, Gergiev asked the LSO not to hold back, not to save themselves for the concert. That way they would feel confident that all the difficulties in the work had been solved, thus allowing them to feel free to respond to any small variations he might make in the excitement of the performance.

Gergiev ended the session with a run-through of “The Rite” with no interruptions. He did not speak, conveying the music through gestures and facial expressions, and the musicians did not hold back: they gave him everything he asked for. Gergiev did become impatient at one point. He wanted a rounded tone from the trombones, but they kept playing with a hard-edged attack. Several times he asked them: “Please play ‘da-da-da,’ not ‘ta-ta-ta.’” When the trombones still didn’t give him what he asked for, Gergiev stopped the orchestra one last time. “Tomorrow, with another conductor, you can play ‘ta-ta-ta,’” he said. “Now it should be ‘da-da-da.’ Please do it.”

We filmed the concert that evening in front of an enthusiastic audience. Gergiev was at the top of his dramatic form, and “The Rite” sizzled. We got great shots of the orchestra in groups and close-up singles, and, most important, of Gergiev at his most intense. I was not sure whether he was finally satisfied with the trombones that evening, but I later heard that at the end of the season two of them had been replaced.

We left London for our next filming dates in Moscow and eastern Russia. Everything in London had gone so well. My only regret was that I’d left my new digital electric razor in the hotel room.

* * *

VALERY GERGIEV COMMENTS ON CONDUCTING “THE RITE OF SPRING,” from our interview in New York, Feb., 2007

“I happen to think that music written for the theater has to have an even stronger theatrical message when played in the concert hall. If it’s in the opera house and there is a ballet company dancing to the music of ‘The Rite of Spring,’ then you are helped by the costumes and the people jumping on stage. But when you are alone with an orchestra you have to be theatrical—you have to be a storyteller. You have to learn how to play that role and provide the magic for the audience. Because you ask yourself: why at eight o’clock should someone who lives at 98th Street travel to Carnegie Hall?. What’s down there? At home there is food in the refrigerator, maybe even a bottle of wine. Maybe there are some wonderful family members, children, a wife, grandparents, maybe neighbors and friends. Why leave all this and go to the concert hall? Because people still believe in the magic of theatrical life. So the conductor has a responsibility, and the responsibility is great. You feel disappointed when you don’t perform well.

But if you come close to this great excitement and great atmosphere, you feel it, you just feel with your back that people are sharing with you a moment of the striking, uplifting power of music—striking colors, striking rhythms— you feel it, you feel it.



In 2014 Gergiev left the London Symphony Orchestra, and accepted the position of Music Director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. As a farewell from London, Garreth Davies, the principal flutist of the LSO wrote the following tribute, published in the LSO Magazine, October, 2015.


“He (Gergiev) said to me once in an interview, that there are times when he is deliberately unclear to the players in his gestures; he likes to create tension and a sense of reinvention – certainly I don’t recall ever giving the same performance twice with him in charge. I think what he does is not only create a theatrical atmosphere of anticipation, danger and unpredictability for the audience, but also crucially for the orchestra. At the end of ‘The Rite’ there is a distinctive pause before the final scream of the piece. Most conductors wait awhile, but nobody else ever waits quite as long as Valery–every single person in the hall waits and watches. The pause isn’t in the score, but as he stands unmoving for what seems like forever before suddenly clawing the final primal sounds from the orchestra, once again, the theatre is there for all to see.

“This response is easy to justify in the ‘theatrical’ works. It’s simple to draw parallels with the moves of a dancer and a conductor; we can all make comparisons with the way a conductor spreads his arms wide like the wings of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird.’ What separates Gergiev is that he brings this same approach to the purely orchestral works too...When you hear the Bartók Dance Suite or the Concerto for Orchestra, close your eyes and in Gergiev’s hands you can still see the dancers.”

Diary of a Documentary

1. St. Petersburg, first visit
II. The Metropolitan Opera, New York
III. the London Symphony Orchestra

next -
IV. Moscow and Eastern Russia
V. St. Petersburg, Ossetia (The Caucasus), and back to St. Petersburg