Final trip to St Petersburg, End of Filming

At the end of March, 2008, we arrived in St. Petersburg for our last days of filming Gergiev. For two years we had traveled with him from his home at the Mariinsky to London and New York, to Moscow and eastern Russia, to his boyhood home in Ossetia, and back to St. Petersburg again—including a wild overnight trip from there to Moscow. It was sad for us: the rare experience of following this great musician around the world was ending.

As Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theater, Gergiev had been entrusted with preserving the great tradition of Russian symphonic music, opera, and ballet. Through decades of economic upheaval and challenge, he had made the Mariinsky financially stable, and with the addition of a new concert hall, had extended its reach. Plans were now being made for building a second opera house, with modernized lighting and stage equipment, to open in 2013. 

During our two years with Gergiev we had covered many of his administrative activities. We had also filmed him conducting rehearsals and concerts. Now, as we planned our final days of shooting we asked ourselves what was still needed to fill out a complete Gergiev portrait. We all agreed: we wanted more of Gergiev's feelings about music, a difficult subject for any musician to articulate. Nevertheless we hoped he would tell us, if he could, what a life in music required of him and what it offered in return.

For a personal interview of this kind, we would have to find a private setting. So we asked about the possibility of filming him at home. He was not happy with the prospect of a camera crew disturbing his wife and three children, but Doug Sheldon, his manager, convinced Gergiev that viewers of the film would want to meet his family, and would wonder why they were left out. As he usually did, Gergiev took Sheldon's advice.

Gergiev lived in a large apartment overlooking the Neva River. The main room was a formal gathering place for guests, containing a massive wooden table, a dozen large, upholstery-backed chairs, and statues and photographs from Ossetia along the walls. The rest of the apartment was reserved for his family. It was more plainly furnished, with bedrooms, a kitchen, and a smaller dining room-study, where the children, ranging in age from six to ten, could do their schoolwork, or draw pictures with their mother, Natalya. Twenty-seven years younger than Gergiev, and, like him, from Ossetia.  She was a former folk musician who accompanied herself on an instrument resembling an accordion. There were two boys—Abisal (Gergiev's father's name) and Valery, and a girl, Tamara. 

A striking feature of the apartment was a music room, one floor below, with a high ceiling open to the main level. We heard a piano playing and went over to look down. Abisal was practicing a piece with busy left-hand figures that seemed to give him no trouble.  Along the walls of the music room were shelves containing Gergiev's many recordings and DVDs. Later, Gergiev sat Abisal on his knee and asked if he too wanted to be a musician. Abisal replied immediately that he was planning to be a captain of a large boat.

We decided to set up the on-camera interview at the big dining room table. Before we could ask him anything, Gergiev began to speak freely about how hard it was to balance his conducting career with family life. Recently he had been invited to conduct in Paris during a few free days between two other European engagements, and it had been a painful decision, as he had planned to be at home on those dates. Gergiev might have argued that he could find new supporters of the Mariinsky in Paris, as he often did on his guest conducting tours, and he may have had other reasons in his debate with himself. But in the end, it was always his life as a musician that came first.  While knowing that he would feel guilty afterwards, he had accepted the Paris offer. 

* * *

An unexpected opportunity for us arrived to film Gergiev in a concert at the Mariinsky—he was to conduct the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto. On an earlier trip to St. Petersburg we had filmed a rehearsal of the Rachmaninov. Now our film would be able to combine the rehearsal with a performance in Gergiev's home theater.

We set up the camera in a box a few feet above floor level, about three-quarters of the way back from the stage. From there we could connect views of Gergiev, Yefim Bronfman, the soloist, and the orchestra on our left, with shots of the audience in front of us. We could also pan up past the boxes and the four balconies, to the ornate dome of lights in the ceiling. 


But there were problems: from our position in the box we were looking over Bronfman's shoulder and could see only his right hand on the keyboard. Nor could we see Gergiev from the front; there was only the back of his head, his shoulders, and his arms. We were not high enough to look down into the winds and brass.  And though we could film the violinists in profile and the violists facing us, neither of these angles provided much visual interest. So we had to pan back and forth from the stage to shots of the audience in order to capture at least some of the excitement of a public performance. 

During the final movement we decided to concentrate on shots of Bronfman and Gergiev together, hoping that if Gergiev turned to him, we would be ready. But Gergiev occupied himself with the musicians, keeping them together with the soloist. If only we had had a camera onstage facing Gergiev. 

But we had made the right decision. Seconds before the final chords of the concerto, Bronfman looked up at Gergiev. At that very moment Gergiev, turning towards Bronfman, lifted his arms and brought them down for the last chords of the concerto, and bounced them up again, producing a deeply resonant fortissimo in the orchestra. Bronfman released his hands upward from the piano in the same after-beat. Their two gestures, with Gergiev looking clearly toward the camera, made for a terrific visual expression of the concerto's ending. 

None of the problems that often beset documentary filmmaking had spoiled our shot: there were no camera bumps, no loss of focus, no recording-sound glitches, no frustrating flickering of the lights. Everything had come together perfectly to capture that last moment with the head-on shot of Gergiev and Bronfman. Though we knew we had prepared for it, we congratulated ourselves on being so lucky. 

Those closing few seconds—and the music building to them—would provide us with a climactic finale to our ninety-minute film. 

* * *

On our last day of filming, Gergiev agreed to sit for one final interview. We still hoped that he would reflect on his life as a musician. Looking for a quiet location where Gergiev would not be distracted, we found the very room in the St. Petersburg conservatory where he had taken his first conducting lessons. A large photograph of his teacher, Ilya Musin, hung on the wall. We were kept waiting for a tense couple of hours—I went running up and down the halls in case he had gone to the wrong room. He finally arrived, saying, without apology, that he had been delayed by one of his meetings. Never mind—we had him now.

We sat him in front of an open piano, facing the camera, and began with a general question: what defines a good conductor. He answered without hesitation: an excellent ear, rigorous training, and an understanding of how to work with orchestra musicians. We tried to get him to say more about his feelings for music but he parried all our questions, discussing only baton technique and rehearsal strategy. Finally I asked him: “Is that all, Maestro, that it takes to be a good conductor?” He paused and looked away from the camera for a moment. Then he continued: “And, one must love the music so much that the musicians come to feel that they love it as much as you do.” 


* * *

After the filming, I walked with Gergiev from the conservatory to the Mariinsky Theater. This was to be our goodbye. I thanked him for the interview and for the privilege of following him around during these two and a half years. He said he hoped we had some good material and quickly shifted the conversation to something else that was on his mind. As the founder of the upcoming annual White Nights Festival, named after the twenty-four hours of daylight the northern city of St. Petersburg experiences during the summer solstice, he was busy arranging the programs and hiring the performers for this huge undertaking. There were to be sixty-seven evenings of concerts, ballet, and opera performances with major stars from many countries. He wanted me to understand how the festival had become a world-wide attraction: “Number one, other festivals don’t have the stars we have,” he said, “and the other festivals hire different conductors for different performances. Here I conduct forty performances.” 

He looked at me for a reaction. I told him that I was impressed but not surprised. He smiled, and we shook hands and parted.

* * *

The editing process took up the next two years. We used not only the footage we had shot, but also excerpts of concerts that had been videotaped by others. We wanted to show Gergiev conducting over the past several decades of his professional life, and to indicate the astounding range of his repertoire. 
In the course of our research we discovered several television programs in which Gergiev coached young conductors. In one such class he advised a student not to overdo his gestures when the musicians needed no more than a simple beat to keep them together. Gergiev stepped onto the podium to demonstrate. At a calm passage in the music, his beat became quiet. “See,” he said, “They don't really need me here; I'm not important.” The music came to a resting point and the musicians looked up at him, waiting. He turned to the violins. “I’m important now,” he said to them. “You cannot start without me.” He gave them a vigorous downbeat and they entered together. We played the scene again, and there was the title of our film: “YOU CANNOT START WITHOUT ME.”  


              Note:  DVDs of "YOU CANNOT START WITHOUT ME" can be acquired via Amazon.