filmmaking #9 - WITH GERGIEV, Diary of a Documentary - Chapter I


We filmed conductor Valery Gergiev in several ten-to-fifteen-day periods from 2006 to 2008. Our cameras were present at rehearsals and concerts in St. Petersburg, London, New York, and Moscow. and we traveled with him to concerts in three eastern cities along the Volga River — Nizhny Novgorod, Ulyanovsk, and Samara. Everywhere we went, we filmed his conversations and meetings in offices, dressing rooms, and on stage during orchestra intermissions. We rode with him in taxis and trains. When he made a quick visit to Vladikavkaz, his home town in the Caucasus, we went with him.

On our first visit to St. Petersburg, in late June, when daylight lasts for twenty-four hours, we captured some of the famous White Nights activities: fireworks and dancing along the Neva River and up and down the avenues and side streets. The whole city, it seemed, was wildly celebrating.

Valery Gergiev had lived in St. Petersburg since his student days. For the last twenty years, he had been Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theater, and had built a vast repertory of opera, ballet, and orchestral music. Thanks to critical and popular success at home and guest appearances around the world, at the age of 53 Gergiev had become one of the most highly regarded musicians of his day. 

* * *

Home since 1860 to ballet, opera, and symphonic performances, the Mariinsky Theater was named in honor of Empress Maria Alexandrovna. The U-shaped auditorium, rising through four lavishly gilded balconies, seats 1625. The Royal Box still retains the aura of elegance that once attracted the Imperial family, and then the leading Communist bureaucrats. Today, those seats are taken by business moguls in designer suits.

Inside the Mariinsky we filmed a wide range of artistic and administrative activities: ballet classes, dueling lessons, opera stage rehearsals, set construction, costume sewing, and casting meetings for coming opera seasons.  We filmed Gergiev presiding at a press conference promoting a Parisian jewelry company that had lent precious gems for performances of Balanchine's ballet, “Jewels.” And in a small, private office, we found two assistants compiling an urgent list of matters for Gergiev to resolve before the end of the day. 

One of the reasons Gergiev gave us free run of the theater, and allowed us to follow him so closely everywhere he traveled, was the easy working relationship he formed with our producer Margie Smilow. She was responsible for getting permission for us to shoot in various locations in a busy theater, and for making sure that the crew and equipment were set up on time. That Gergiev gave us free run of the Mairiinsky was ultimately due to his trust in Margie's friendly professionalism.  In no time he called her Margie and he was Valery to her. 

Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra

Our first opportunity to film Gergiev conducting was a rehearsal on the stage of the Mariinsky Theater; pianist Yefim Bronfman was playing the Rachmaninoff's Concerto no. 3. 
At first we kept our camera at a distance to avoid distracting Gergiev. As he became used to us, we slowly moved in closer. But we noticed that the microphone, fastened to the end of a moving boom above his head, annoyed him. To eliminate the problem we fastened a wireless mike just below his collar, passing the cable under his shirt to a transmission pack in his pants pocket. I worried that he would become impatient with this complicated procedure. But after a few days, when we marched up to him with the apparatus, he quickly unbuttoned his shirt and raised his arms, like a child who sees a parent approaching with a sweater.

As the musicians tuned their instruments, cameraman Nyika Jancso set up behind the orchestra. This afforded him a wide shot of either side of the group and a head-on portrait of Gergiev. I had worked on several films with Nyika and we had become good friends. He had great instincts in filming music: how long to hold a shot, and how to let the music tell him where to find the next one. 

The auditorium lights had been turned on for us, creating a background that lent depth to our pictures. Gergiev walked on stage and the tuning quieted down. Before he could begin, a violinist half-way back in the section, stood up and complained: “Maestro, that light up there is in our eyes.” From other parts of the orchestra came murmurs of agreement. Gergiev asked me to lower the lights. Sometimes when we set up for an orchestra we make the lights purposely too bright. We wait for someone to complain, then we bring them down to the level we wanted in the first place. But not this time: we were embarked on a long project and did not want to risk any bad will at the very beginning. Nyika and his crew lowered the light — a little. 

This rehearsal provided us with two usable scenes. One involved a string passage in which the violas had played a phrase in two separate sections. Gergiev sang it for them as one long, smooth melody, at the same time reminding them not to be too expressive — it should only be a calm background. He turned to the first violins. “Here you must all be soloists,” he told them. He sang the passage and we could hear a much warmer expression in the violins when they played it back to him. Nyika had anticipated this change and panned across the whole violin section. Off to the side, I saw some of the violas smiling in admiration of what the violins had done, but with our single camera we missed that shot. Nyika now zoomed in on Gergiev as he so clearly conveyed the rise and fall of the music, phrase after phrase. It was a fair trade.

In another spot, Gergiev wanted a more rounded tone from the trumpets: he imitated their rough sound with an ugly, humorous squawk: “Yark yark yark.” The trumpets pretended to take offense, then gave him the beautiful quality he wanted. We saved filming the bravura playing of Yefim Bronfman for the concert, when we would have a better camera angle from a box Gergiev had reserved for us. We now had five minutes of gold out of a two-hour session.

A few days later we filmed a rehearsal of Gergiev and soprano Renee Fleming preparing for a gala fund raising concert of favorite operatic arias. Fleming sang with her usual creamy tone and sense of authority, and the two of them worked beautifully together. I was astonished when during a short pause in the rehearsal, several members of the orchestra stood up boldly and complained to Gergiev that they had too many programs to rehearse — they were being worked too hard. Gergiev replied sympathetically that they had a point, which quite caught them off guard, especially when he urged them to send a group to meet with him and work out a more comfortable weekly schedule. 

After the rehearsal Fleming gave us permission to film a conversation between her and Gergiev in his office. Gergiev did most of the talking, on the subject of the need to modernize the Mariinsky. All the technical equipment was outmoded, but the biggest problem was the lack of backstage space for scenery. For daytime opera rehearsals, the sets had to be trucked in from another building, then dismantled and returned to storage in time to set up for a different opera performance that evening.

In the end, we only used a small part of this conversation: Gergiev's heartfelt insistence on preserving the historically important features of the Mariinsky in any plans for renovation. And nothing of the rehearsal with Fleming was included in the film. The arias were too long to make interesting with our single camera shooting from the side. 

* * *

A Scene with Gergiev and the Prima Ballerina

We are at the ready – camera, microphone and one light, in what has become our every-day staging area: the corridor outside Gergiev's office in the Mariinsky Theater. Gergiev might arrive from any of several directions, and we must be ready for him. He often falls behind in his planned schedule, and he is famous for extending his meetings, or suddenly adding an appointment in the city. But we have learned to wait. Meanwhile we are talking to Ulyana Lopatkina, one of the theater's great ballerinas. She tells us she wants to protest to Gergiev about a choreographer who is changing one of her dances to make it more “up-to-date.” Tall and erect, she is dressed in a long, dark, shirt-dress, open at the collar, her chiseled face punctuated by a thin stripe of red lipstick. The end of a multi-colored bandana, wrapped around her head, falls down her back to her waist. She wears pearl drop earrings and an old fashioned, delicately-jeweled silver necklace: Ulyana Lopatkina, the star in elegant casual. 

Gergiev arrives. We roll the camera; he pretends not to notice, a signal that he is giving us permission to continue. Filmmakers fool themselves when they claim that they are invisible, merely observing events without influencing them, but I know that our presence shapes those events and the behavior of our subjects. Regardless of what takes place in front of our cameras, the reality that ends up on the screen is the one we construct to tell our story. 

Gergiev beckons Lopatkina into his office. I follow, pushing Nyika and the sound man ahead of me. Gergiev sits at his desk and turns to the dancer. I can barely contain myself with the thrill of this opportunity, and I crouch over Nyika like a baseball umpire behind the catcher. I am certainly surprised that Lopatkina raises no objection to our presence. She is taking a big chance going over the head of the choreographer to the boss of the theater. But she is not going to lose this opportunity. She forges ahead.

In the corner of the office a television set is showing a semi-final World-Cup soccer match. The sound is turned down, but definitely audible. During the next fifteen minutes Lopatkina pleads her case while Gergiev watches the game, looking away from the screen from time to time to ask her a few questions. I gently push Nyika closer to Gergiev. We need as many camera angles as possible and Gergiev seems to be giving us complete freedom. Lopatkina never glances our way — she ignores everything in the room, concentrating on Gergiev. In fact he has been listening carefully to her in spite of the soccer match. He shows genuine concern for his leading ballerina. As Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theater he must deal with this issue. He telephones his secretary and asks her to arrange a meeting with Lopatkina, the choreographer, and himself. She thanks him as we quietly back out of the room. We refrain from high fives.

Addendum: Some time later, the choreographer, who was also head of the Mariinsky's ballet company, was dismissed.

*   *   *

APPENDIX - Gergiev on a train, October, 2006

Four months later Maestro Gergiev agreed to let us bring a camera along on a train ride from New York City to Washington D.C. Here are two excerpts:

1. “There is a rapport between an orchestra and a conductor when they've worked together for many years, like Levine at the Met or Muti at La Scala. And that is the story of the Mariinsky. Even if I make changes in a performance, the musicians will understand what I want, and will respond. It is important to remember that when I work with the Mariinsky six times a week, I rely on our cooperation over twenty years and on rehearsals we had maybe one year ago, maybe seven years ago. There’s a large list of symphonies and operas which could be more or less easy for us to perform with a ten-minute rehearsal. So sometimes I can make short rehearsals — not because I don’t like to rehearse. Everyone knows I like to work. That’s not a secret.” 

2. “A conductor must be very well prepared for a particular piece of music. He must also be in a good mood and share this mood with everyone else. Imagine that you are conducting music of Beethoven, or music of Prokofiev, and a hundred or more people are involved in the same story, just playing music of a great composer. The conductor has to know how to make this a very, very important thing for the people who are involved.”

* * *

Diary of a Documentary

Chapters to come:

II. The Metropolitan Opera
III. The London Symphony Orchestra
IV. Moscow and Eastern Russia
V. Ossetia (The Caucasus), and back to St. Petersburg