Filmmaking #8 - Pursuing Valery Gergiev

I first saw Valery Gergiev conduct in March, 1995, when he led the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. The program included works of Liadov and Berlioz, and concluded with Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. Gergiev's performance of this familiar piece gave it a dramatic shape I had not heard before. The virtuoso winds and brass played with an unusual variety of colors, and there was a newly acquired urgency and warmth in the sound of the strings.

Orchestra players will tell you of the rare conductor whose gestures and facial expressions convey a deep, personal involvement in the music. Somehow, the musicians understand what the conductor is showing them, and by an inexplicable kind of magic they embody it in their playing and convey it to the audience.

At the Lincoln Center concert in 1995 Gergiev's face was not visible from my seat in the side balcony. But once, when he turned his head in profile to ask for a crescendo from the viola section, I saw his expression, and the phrase he drew from the violas told me they had seen it too. 

I decided to make a film that would try to show how Gergiev connects with an orchestra.

* * * * 

I spent the next eight or nine years pursuing him. I went to several of his concerts but could not get backstage to be introduced. I wrote a couple of letters that were not answered. In the meantime I read about his career and watched many of the videos made about him, some biographical, some centered on a particular piece of music. His life was certainly well documented, but none of the films I saw dealt with his mesmerizing qualities as a conductor.

To be sure, I was busy during those years. I went to China to make a film about Zhao Jiping, a composer who wrote music for major Chinese movies. Among other documentaries I made “Small Wonders” (nominated for an Oscar), about violin teacher Roberta Tzavaras; “Fiddling for the Future,” with Itzhak Perlman; “The Turandot Project,” the Puccini opera staged in Beijing; and “Seven Beethoven Master Classes,” a TV series featuring Daniel Barenboim. All the while I kept trying to talk to Gergiev.

Finally I met someone who not only knew Gergiev but had made a film about him: Lisa Kirk Colburn. Her film, called “Sacred Stage,” featured Gergiev in his role as chief conductor and general director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Gergiev conducted symphonic and operatic excerpts in the film, and he also narrated it – in perfect English – but little of his musical character came through. When I told Colburn about my hope of making a film that focused on Gergiev's way of conducting, the idea of collaborating with me interested her.

Colburn had scheduled a screening of “Sacred Stage” at the Kennedy Center in early 2005, to coincide with a time when Gergiev was to be conducting there, and she thought we could find an occasion to talk to him. I arrived at the Kennedy Center a few minutes before the screening was to begin. As the lights dimmed, Gergiev entered along a side wall. For the first time I saw him close-up. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with thinning hair and the scruffy beginnings of a beard. He took a seat in the last row, with his overcoat collar turned up. I waited till the end of the film to approach him, but during the applause, as the house lights came up, he left the hall.
Colburn invited me to a gala dinner the next night, where she hoped for another chance to introduce me to Gergiev. About forty guests sat on both sides of a long table set with candles, flowers and a promising variety of wineglasses. Gergiev was seated at the center, and everyone nearby was trying to talk to him. I sat across the table, but too far down to manage more than a quick greeting. Once or twice I caught him looking at me. But we never spoke.

Lisa Kirk had married Richard D. Colburn in 2002. A Los Angeles business man, philanthropist, and amateur violist, he had become a friend and close advisor to Gergiev, helping him identify potential supporters of the Mariinsky Theater in the U.S. Gergiev called him the wisest man he had ever met. Richard Colburn died in June, 2004.

In July, 2005, Gergiev was to conduct Tchaikovsky's opera “Mazeppa” at the Salzburg Festival. As Richard Colburn had owned a large house outside Salzburg, now vacant, Lisa Colburn and about a dozen friends arranged to use it for a few days while waiting to see the opera, and they invited Gergiev to stay in a small annex on the property during his rehearsals and performances. Lisa Colburn arranged for me to be included – there would finally be an opportunity to meet Gergiev. 

Henry Segerstrom seemed to be the head of the group of guests. Rich, self-made, and shrewd, he was a successful business man from Orange County, California, and had built the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. His contribution of $40 million went toward a concert hall which bore his name. Gergiev often performed there with his Mariinsky Orchestra, and soon brought Segerstrom into his circle. He became an important contributor to the White Nights Foundation, an American organization that raised money for the Mariinsky Theater. Segerstrom was totally devoted to Gergiev – he always called him “Valery,” as did the rest of the guests. Like all those who orbited around Gergiev, they were first attracted by his music making, and if they had a chance to get to know him, they soon joined those who helped support the Mariinsky. This conferred on them the right to use his first name, they felt, and Gergiev seemed perfectly comfortable with it. 

I arrived at the Colburn house a few days before the opening performance of “Mazeppa.” Gergiev was already in residence, but he never had time to meet with me. He traveled to Salzburg every day for rehearsals, and during the few hours he was at the house he was immersed in discussions with scenery and costume designers, in meetings with members of the Vienna Philharmonic to plan future concerts, or on the phone with his office in St. Petersburg. There was no way for me just to walk up to him and say, “I'd like to make a really interesting film about you – can we discuss it?” I did get to attend some of the rehearsals, however, and could observe Gergiev more from the front. He was completely focussed and said very little. He was able to show the orchestra everything he wanted.

I thought that maybe I'd have a chance to talk to him at one of the dinners held every evening after the rehearsals. The guests, usually numbering about twelve, were seated around a large oval table, making small talk, or participating in general discussions about politics and the history of Salzburg. Gergiev kept up with the conversation in a cordial way.

At one of these dinners someone finally asked me why I was there. I answered that I was exploring the possibility of making a film about Maestro Gergiev. “What kind of film?” someone else asked. “One that explores his special gifts as a conductor,” I answered. This produced blank looks and a change of subject. For the rest of the dinner I said almost nothing. But when Gergiev asked me if I had made “From Mao to Mozart,” I realized that he knew who I was and had begun slowly making up his mind about me. 
In the afternoons I strolled around the grounds of Colburn's estate. I also toured Salzburg and visited Mozart's house. In the room where Mozart worked, it occurred to me that after all these centuries, artists were still forced to spend time seeking patrons to support their work. 

After the performance of “Mazeppa,” which was thrilling, I was included in a small dinner party honoring Gergiev. The conversation was all about the exciting performance; it was definitely the wrong time to bring up the film.

The next day, as Gergiev was getting ready to leave for Russia, I met him in the driveway. I told him I hoped to see him soon in New York. He smiled and nodded yes, and his car pulled away. During these Salzburg days, I thought, I hadn't made much progress, but perhaps I had opened a door and left my calling card.

* * * *

During the next few months I waited for Doug Sheldon, Gergiev's manager, to arrange a New York meeting for me with Gergiev. For most of that time, Gergiev was conducting in St. Petersburg or guest-conducting outside the U.S. But when he finally came to New York, Sheldon still seemed in no hurry to get us together.

Meanwhile I was trying determine what the ambitious film I had in mind might cost. It would certainly be expensive, requiring shooting in St. Petersburg, possibly in New York, and in many European locations. The person to see was Margie Smilow, then Producer of Arts Documentaries at Channel Thirteen, WNET. Smilow and I had made several films together, and had become good friends. I asked her whether WNET might become one of the funders of a film about Gergiev, as well as the venue for a broadcast. Smilow was immediately enthusiastic. She said she'd make a draft budget and talk with her colleagues about the possible participation of WNET. 
In the first week of March, 2006, almost eight months after our Salzburg meeting, Gergiev was to conduct another series of performances of “Mazeppa,” this time at the Metropolitan Opera. Lisa Colburn managed to arrange an intermission meeting with us in Gergiev's dressing room to discuss the film project. Also present would be Doug Sheldon and Margie Smilow, as well as David Horn and John Walker, producers from Channel 13. Our purpose was to assure Gergiev that we would make an exciting film, and that a major broadcast would be guaranteed. 

Gergiev was not the kind of conductor who liked to be alone at intermission time, contemplating the music that was to follow. During the breaks, his dressing room was usually filled with orchestra executives, potential funders, and famous musicians. His friends and colleagues also knew that they could pop in unannounced to say hello. 

Even before a performance Gergiev shunned solitude. He usually arrived at the hall very near performance time, and after adjusting his tie and combing his hair, go straight out to conduct. He would bow to the audience, step onto the podium, look around at the orchestra, and be immediately lost inside the music.

As our intermission meeting proceeded, Gergiev asked me a challenging question: “With so many films already made about me, why do you want to make another?” Everyone was looking at me. I couldn't really say that my film would be more interesting than all the others, so I was glad to be saved from the embarrassing silence by the sound of the orchestra warming up for the next act. The meeting was now over and I had barely said anything about the film; I felt the whole idea was doomed. But when Gergiev stood up to go, he told me to arrange another meeting with Doug Sheldon. I heard myself say that I had been trying to schedule such a meeting for a long time but that Sheldon had not been terribly cooperative in making it possible. Silence. I could see Sheldon was furious. At this point, the orchestra began tuning to the oboe A; Gergiev said goodbye to everyone and left. I got out of there fast.

The next morning I received a sharp email from Doug Sheldon, excoriating me for complaining about him in front of the others, especially Gergiev. I wrote back an apology, and waited. A week or so later I was surprised to be invited to meet again with Gergiev and Sheldon, this time in the apartment Gergiev stayed in near Lincoln Center. I remember walking up and down Central Park West. I had left much too much time before the meeting, and was experiencing maximum anxiety. Were things gong to be settled? I sat on a nearby bench and agonized.

Gergiev's apartment was on a high floor, with huge picture windows facing New York City in three directions, We sat at the dining room table. The view toward New Jersey reminded me of Steinberg's map of the American continent seen from Manhattan, and looking out past Gergiev, I thought I could see beyond San Francisco all the way to St. Petersburg.

Sheldon asked me if I had a written contract with Lisa Colburn. I said no, but I would feel bad if after all she had done to get the project going, she would not be allowed to continue. He made no reply to this and went on to ask me about Margie Smilow. Sheldon had apparently talked to her since the Met intermission meeting and was impressed with her. I said I was a big fan of Margie Smilow. Sheldon and Gergiev both seemed to like that.

The second question was from Gergiev - whether I could meet with him on April 5 in Miami, to discuss the film during a long afternoon. It was now mid-March. I said indeed I would. (I would have been free to go to Uruguay for such an afternoon.) 

The meeting was adjourned. There was no commitment, but things seemed to be moving forward; I wondered what Sheldon would say to Lisa Colburn. 

One month later, on April 5, 2006, my taxi pulled up to a large gated house in Miami. A servant let me in and a few minutes later I was greeted by M. Lee Pearce, a man of medium height in his late seventies or early eighties. I learned later that he had both medical and law degrees, and that an investment business he owned had earned him enough to endow hospitals, clinics, and several arts organizations. He was also a member of the Distinguished Board of International Advisors to the White Nights Foundation.

The house had many spacious, sunny rooms filled with sculptures and large paintings. Through a rear window I could see a canal, and I noticed a boat moored at a small dock. Pearce escorted me to the dining room where Doug Sheldon was already seated at a large table. 

A few minutes later Gergiev came in and greeted me. I sat at the side of the table, with Gergiev at the head and Sheldon at the foot. The first thing Gergiev did was to line up three cell phones in front of him. He explained that the first one was for his American concert and opera managers, and the second for administrative business at the Mariinsky. The third had a number known to only one person in the world. I guessed it was either a high Russian official, or his mother, who was ailing.

For the next ninety minutes, Gergiev talked non-stop. He began by telling me about the extraordinary growth of the Mariinsky Theater during his tenure, enabling him to raise salaries for the staff and the performers. Then he talked about the Russian economy: six years ago Russia had been one hundred years behind the US and Europe; the national budget was twenty-five billion. Today (2006) the budget was two hundred billion. He talked about oil prices, about Gorbachev, about Yeltsin (whom he called erratic). According to Gergiev, Yeltsin had fired some of the best Russian brains in the country, and sold the oil, gas, and aluminum industries to the oligarchs. In passing, Gergiev mentioned Putin's efforts to resurrect the country.

Barely taking a breath, he picked up the second phone and called someone in Moscow. When he hung up he said he had just told a television producer named Alexander Malinin to expect to hear from me, and gave me his number. 

A few minutes later the Russian phone rang and he talked for about ten minutes. When he hung up, he said he had just instructed his office to contact a ballet dancer who did not want to participate in an upcoming international tour. We waited a few minutes, and the phone rang – it was the dancer; I could hear her voice on the phone. When the brief conversation was over, Gergiev told us, with some satisfaction, that he had praised her lavishly while strongly hinting that by not going on tour, she might jeopardize her standing in the company. He was sure that now she would agree to travel with the troupe.

He then described a terrible fire in 2003 that destroyed a storage warehouse next to the Mariinsky theater. It contained all the company's sets and costumes: a disaster. Gergiev had gone the next day to Moscow, and had spoken to a meeting of six or seven rich men convened by his good friend the mayor. The mayor demanded that each of those present immediately pledge to contribute $1 million within a few days to replace the warehouse and its contents. Then Gergiev switched to another story about how he had raised money for a new concert hall, budgeted at $10 million, but in the end at a cost of $30 million – the first building in Russia ever financed by private funds, he said. He had quickly sold 13 million tickets – next season the figure would no doubt climb to 15 million. 

Gergiev never said anything about the film, but I supposed that filling me in with all the background material was his way of indicating that we were going forward. When the taxi arrived to take me back to the airport, he walked me to the door and we shook hands. Then he thought of something else to tell me. He mentioned the name of a television producer who was pursuing him. “Avoid him,” he said. “He's a born idiot.” 

* * * *

Later that month Margie Smilow negotiated contracts for a ninety-minute film with Gergiev, the White Nights Foundation, and Channel 13. Soon after, I signed my own contract.

Next chapter: the making of the Gergiev film.