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.


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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.

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