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.