Conductor Valery Gergiev champions Russian music—from St. Petersburg to New York to Tokyo. Brian Wise keeps pace with the maestro's unique tempo Valery Gergiev in front of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City.
Catching up with Valery Gergiev—in a backstage room at New York's Metropolitan Opera House—amounts to a small miracle. Just off appearances with orchestras in Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, and on his way to Englandfor a weeklong residency with the London Symphony Orchestra, he is in Manhattan to lead performances of Strauss's Salome. The 51-year-old artistic and general director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theaterlearned years ago how to transcend the limitations of 24 hours. Music critics call the zone in which he operates Gergiev Standard Time. Translation: a time-bending total involvement in the "hear" and now. Gergiev may not always know what day it is or which city he is conducting in, and he is notorious for ending rehearsals (in Russia, at least) at about the time a concert is scheduled to begin. But over the past decade, the Mariinsky—historic home of the Kirov opera and ballet companies—has established residencies in cities from Berlin to Tokyo. With his dervish-like tendencies on and off the podium, Gergiev embodies both maestro and global entrepreneur.
HOME RUN Even while his company maintains a grueling schedule of some 450 performances a year and he routinely jets from Russia to Los Angeles to New York, Gergiev is as loyal to Peter the Great's city on the Neva River as he is to the Russian repertoire. He arrived in St. Petersburg at age 19 to study at the Leningrad Conservatory and, when he's not traveling, lives there with his wife and three children. For the last 12 summers he has been the driving force behind the Stars of the White Nights Festival, a showcase for the Mariinsky's ballet and opera.
Gergiev is the consummate civic booster. He walks nearly everywhere in St. Petersburg, praising the restoration of the city's gleaming white-and-turquoise façades, completed for its 300th anniversary, in 2003. His idea of a perfect summer day: "In the morning, visit the Hermitage Museum. Walk along the canals in the afternoon, and in the evening attend a performance at the White Nights." Gergiev advises,"The sun will stay low on the horizon until ten or eleven. Sometimes until three, there is a very special twilight."
TIMING IS EVERYTHING At the Mariinsky, Gergiev fills the roles of artistic and general director and oversees a staff of 2,000 (at comparable institutions, those positions are held by at least two people). Besides fulfilling his obligations at the Mariinsky, Gergiev serves as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and director of the Moscow Easter Festival. Consequently, Gergiev receives a flood of faxes in St. Petersburg that follow him wherever he goes. "Time is an important factor, and a challenge, whether it's timing a performance, timing a rehearsal,or, of course, the strictly musical elements of rhythm and tempo. Not to mention the time involving travel." Because Gergiev is always on the move and commercial airlines can not always accommodate his schedule, he uses charter jets to make his seemingly impossible calendar work—in its heyday, he flew the Concorde.
KEEPING SCORE Gergiev is no less intense when he is in residence in a city and not traveling. In New York, he is best known for feats such as last season's double whammy of conducting the opening nights at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall within a two-day span. This month and next, he leads one of the Met's blockbusters, Wagner's Die Walküre, with tenor Plácido Domingo as Siegmund. After that, he'll conduct the Vienna Philharmonic on its tour of Japan. Finding time to learn four- and five-hour operas isn't easy. He seldom boards an airplane without a stack of musical scores under his arm—sometimes as many as eight. In hotel rooms, in backstage dressing rooms, he listens constantly to recordings on his Discman, comparing interpretations by legendary conductors.
MOUNTAIN HIGHS Gergiev grew up in Vladikavkaz, Ossetia, a non-Russian ethnic region in the Caucasus Mountains, in the southwesternmostcorner of the Federation, and he periodically returns. "You have a certain outlook when you grow up near the mountains," he says. "There is enormous power in their beauty, and I derive strength from it." Wherever work takes him, he escapes, if possible, to the nearby countryside. When Gergiev is in New York (he is principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera), he likes to go for walks in the Catskills. "For three or four hours," he says, "so that I can get some fresh air—even if it's raining or snowing."
FINNISH LINE Since 1992 Gergiev has spent a part of each summer in central Finland's lake district, a region whose resorts were once favorites of the Russian aristocracy. He stays in a rustic cottage with his family, organizes the occasional informal soccer game, and enjoys Finnish saunas. It sounds wonderfully relaxing until you hear the real reason for his visit. "I have a summer festival there," he confesses. The Mikkeli Music Festival, in July, is an annual "musical retreat" that he arranges for the Kirov Opera and Orchestra.
PERSONAL HIT LIST Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the daily exigencies of travel do not excite Gergiev and that he leaves mostlogistical matters to managers,assistants, and advisors. After conducting a five-hour opera, the flat bed in British Airways' Club World business class helps him recharge. In New York and Salzburg, he is provided with apartments; while on tour he stays at such hotels as Brenner's Park & Spa, in Baden-Baden, the Imperial in Vienna, and the Ryokan Shigetsu in Tokyo. When it comes to his wardrobe, he has more than 20 full-dress evening suits, as well as all-black, custom-made ensembles (quicker to change into) by Ermenegildo Zegna.
For Gergiev, dining is often a matter of business rather than pleasure, but he does have favorite restaurants. In New York, Picholine is as quiet as it gets amid Lincoln Center's pre-theater hubbub, and Gergiev adores its celebrated cheese cart. Nearby, Café des Artistes, with its Old New York ambience, is a typical Gergiev choice.
Ultimately, Gergiev sees travel as a way to expand the world's appreciation for music—especially for the music of Russia. "Sitting in a plane is not the most interesting part of our lives. But if we want to spread the gospel, we have to do it. You certainly don't fly 17 hours from Moscow to Los Angeles, just to conduct for yourself. Music is made, after all, with others, for others."
Brian Wise is a producer at WNYC radio in New York and writes about music for the New York Times, Time Out New York, and Opera News.
How do you conduct two orchestras on two continents within a span of 18 hours?Valery Gergiev led the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the Kirov Orchestra in concert halls in Europe and the United States. Here's how he did it:
1:30 P.M. Conducts Rotterdam Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
3:45 P.M. Departs for Schiphol Airport.
5 P.M. Takes off via chartered jet for New York.
7:10 P.M. Arrives at Teterboro Airport in Bergen County, New Jersey.
7:25 P.M. Flies via helicopter to Manhattan.
7:40 P.M. Arrives at VIP Heliport at W. 30th St. (Snag: limo is late.)
8:10 P.M. Arrives at Carnegie Hall to conduct second half of a gala benefit concert, featuring the Kirov Orchestra.
8:45 P.M. Conducts Kirov in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite.
9:45 P.M. Departs for black-tie dinner at the Pierre hotel.
12:30 A.M. Heads to New York apartment for a rest, but not before phoning family in St. Petersburg.
Richard Wagner's Die Walküre; September 25-October 12
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
The World of Tchaikovsky festival; October 16-23
Tour by Vienna Philharmonic
Programs in Osaka, Fukuoka, and Tokyo
Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Swan Lake with the Kirov Ballet
Kirov OperaMariinsky Theater.
Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride
Tour by Kirov Orchestra
Performances in 17 cities in Florida, New York, California, and Canada
March 26-April 22
GERGIEV'S TOP NEW YORK RESTAURANTS
DINNER FOR TWO $136. 35 W. 64TH ST.; 212/724-8585
Café des Artistes
DINNER FOR TWO $130. 1 W. 67TH ST.; 212/877-3500