From Russia, with love for its musical tradition Valery Gergiev leads a campaign for the Kirov Opera

September 25, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Russia may have political and economic problems, but its music -- at least in the old imperial city of St. Petersburg -- has rarely sounded so good. That's because a dynamo named Valery Gergiev, the young conductor who is artistic director of the great Kirov Opera, has been staging a one-man fight against stagnation.

"The Kirov is part of Russia, but it doesn't have to be as chaotic and as disorganized as the rest of the country," Gergiev (pronounced gair-GHEE-yev) says. "Somebody has to be strong and to push -- because Russian music in general and the Kirov Opera and Orchestra in particular are simply too precious to be allowed to disappear."

To put it simply, the 40-year-old Gergiev -- who leads the Kirov Orchestra in an all-Russian program this afternoon at the Kennedy Center -- is just about the hottest young conductor in the world today.

He was voted "1993 Conductor of the Year" by the jury of the International Classical Music Awards. His performances with the Kirov in New York, two summers ago, of operas by Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky were called revelations by the critics and received standing ovations from audiences. Critics and audiences were just as complimentary about the conductor's interpretation of Verdi's "Otello" last season with the Metropolitan Opera. And his guest-conducting appearances with the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic have made symphony musicians, who tend to be extremely skeptical about visits by the latest conducting sensation, very enthusiastic indeed about Gergiev. Even Philips Classics, his recording company, has given the conductor carte blanche.

While everybody seems to want a piece of him, however, Gergiev's loyalties remain with the Kirov.

"He's almost impossible to book nowadays because of his commitment to the Kirov and because everywhere he goes, orchestras want him back," says Detroit Symphony executive director Mark Volpe.

"I have to reject things," Gergiev says. "If you want to do something really well with one organization, you have to devote time to it."

The conductor has done more than devote time to the Kirov; it is nothing less than an obsession. It is Russia's oldest opera company, ballet company and orchestra. It was the Kirov that gave the world premieres of such operatic works as Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," and Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades"; it was the Kirov Orchestra that performed Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Sixth symphonies for the first time; and it was both the orchestra and opera that once enticed visits -- from Wagner and Berlioz to Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer -- by the world's great conductors.

But by 1988, when Gergiev became its artistic director, the Kirov had long since fallen upon hard times. For 60 years, the location of the Communist Party bureaucracy in Moscow led to favors that went to the Kirov's Muscovite rival, the Bolshoi. And after the demise of communism, things got worse. The state subsidies that supplied most of the Kirov's budget disappeared almost entirely.

Luckily for music in Russia, Gergiev's talents turned out to be entrepreneurial as well as musical.

The conductor has been a fund-raiser, publicist, hand-holder and general Mr. Fix-It, skillfully introducing several Western approaches in his quest for support. He's led both the opera and the orchestra on more foreign tours in the six years of his tenure than in all the years of their existence combined. Moreover, he's made deals for recordings and video productions. Gergiev's charm and charisma, which come across on the telephone in his precise, idiomatic and almost unaccented English, have enabled him to break new ground for Russian arts organizations by raising money from private sources in the West. He has even entertained Diana, Princess of Wales, at a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser in London.

Gergiev has also modernized concert and operatic formats in Russia. He has introduced what he calls Promenade concerts -- which resemble the Baltimore Symphony's innovative "Casual Concerts" -- and created regular television broadcasts, on the order of "Live From Lincoln Center," of the Kirov's concerts and operatic and ballet productions. These telecasts are now seen on British, French, Italian and even Japanese national television.

"If the Kirov means something only in Russia, it will die," Gergiev says. "We have to show the rest of the world what we are doing."

The strange part is that Gergiev, for all his devotion to the traditions of Russian music, isn't even Russian. Although the conductor was born in Moscow, his parents are from Ossetia -- a non-Russian ethnic region in the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia.

It was in Ossetia that Gergiev received his musical training, before moving in 1968 to the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then called, when he was 18.

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