FILMMAKING #11 - WITH GERGIEV, DIARY OF A DOCUMENTARY - CHAPTER III

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.

 

ARTICLE BY GARRETH DAVIES, PRINCIPAL FLUTE OF THE LSO

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.”


WITH GERGIEV
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