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Valery Gergiev
Image: www.wildundleise.de

Controversy over Gergiev

Peter Zimmermann / gsw
March 28, 2014

Starting in 2015, Valery Gergiev will serve as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. His stance on politics and support of friend Vladimir Putin have raised concerns about the star conductor's role in Munich.


There's no question that the 60-year-old is the most influential Russian conductor at present as well as one of the most important figures in his field of our age. Valery Gergiev has successfully led the legendary Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg for over two decades. Following the Soviet period marked by glasnost and perestroika, he didn't - like many of his colleagues - head for the West. Instead, he worked relentlessly to turn the theater into the most renowned representative of Russian culture and to make his orchestra one of the world's best.

Valery Gergiev is also currently the London Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor and heads the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra as well as the World Orchestra for Peace, founded by conductor Georg Solti.

Uniquely positioned

"Valery Gergiev is our first choice and represents a new direction in every respect," said Munich's cultural affairs secretary Hans-Georg Küppers. One year ago, Gergiev signed a five-year contract with the city of Munich to serve as the successor to Lorin Maazel. Küppers has praise for the incoming principal conductor of the city's orchestra, whose "youthful energy and enthusiasm" he believes will make themselves felt among the members of the Munich Philharmonic and its audience - regardless of age.

Conductor Valery Gergiev
Gergiev is a towering presence in Russia's classical music sceneImage: AP

"In light of his presence and wide-ranging musicality, he occupies a special place in the world of music," Küppers said.

That helps explain why Gergiev has always been a welcome guest at major concert stages, particularly when it comes to the highlights of the Russian concert, ballet and opera repertoires.

Political conviction

Along the way, Gergiev has made no secret of his appreciation for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin penning an award to Valery Gergiev's suit
Gergiev has been open about his support for Putin's policiesImage: AFP/Getty Images

"He regards Putin as the only politician who can give Russia a future," the Munich-based daily "Süddeutsche Zeitung" wrote. In Western media outlets, the conductor is fond of stressing that "his friend" Vladimir Putin is "a real democrat" in contrast with Boris Yeltsin. In February, for example, Gergiev told broadcaster CNN that many people have the wrong idea about Putin, saying that he is among a small group of the world's leading politicians who really care about and support culture.

Two years ago, the Russian maestro appeared in campaign ads in support of Putin's presidential bid. He also issued a defense of the repressive laws against homosexuals under Putin's leadership, landing in the headlines for doing so. Gay and lesbian advocacy groups in London, Rotterdam, New York and Munich protested his performances and accused him of making homophobic statements.

In a letter to the Munich's secretary of cultural affairs, the conductor wrote, "The city of Munich opposes any form of discrimination or harassment toward people on the basis of sex, ethnicity, skin color, religion, disability or sexual identity. Behavior that stands in violation of this principle is not tolerated. I completely support the city of Munich's position in this regard. Throughout my artistic career, I've operated according to these principles and will also do so in the future. Any accusations to the contrary disturb me deeply."

Strong show of support

After Putin's forces occupied the Crimean peninsula, unleashing concern and protests in many parts of the world, the Russian Ministry of Culture issued an open letter from a number of prominent Russian artists in support of Putin's approach.

Vladimir Spivakov, conducting on stage
Conductor Vladimir Spivakov also signed the letter in support of PutinImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"During the days in which the fate of the Crimea and of our fellow countrymen there is being decided, those active within Russia's arts scene cannot sit back as indifferent, cold-hearted observers. Our shared history and roots, our culture and intellectual background, our basic values and language have always unified us. We hope that unity between our peoples and our cultures will have a strong future together. That's why we declare adamant support for the position of the Russian Federation toward Ukraine and Crimea," the statement read in Russian.

Many musicians - including the pianist Denis Matsuev, conductor Vladimir Spivakov, violist Yuri Bashmet, star soprano Hibla Gerzmava and opera legend Elena Obraztsova - signed the short open letter, and conductor Valery Gergiev was among them.

Resonance in the media

German radio broadcaster Bayrischer Rundfunk reports that in London, some audience members gave back their tickets for a concert planned for the end of March. The London Symphony Orchestra's Facebook page registered comments from audience members saying they couldn't attend a concert featuring Valery Gergiev and Denis Matsuev in light of the current political circumstances.

Meanwhile, the respected German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" published an article questioning whether Gergiev really had a choice in the matter. "For his quick rise and incredible career, he has himself to thank most of all - his explosive talent and his fiery brilliance. But the fact that he was able to secure a unique position of power in the world of music is certainly thanks to Tsar Putin," the paper wrote, adding that Putin renovated and expanded the Mariinsky Theater for around 500 million euros ($686.95 million), turning it into "Gergiev Music City."

However, points out DW's Russian music correspondent Anastassia Boutsko, "Other important personalities in Russian musical life, such as the future General Director of the Bolshoi Theater, Tugan Sokhiev, didn't do the same."

Dr. Florian Roth
Green party politician Florian Roth opposes Gergiev's appointmentImage: Florian Roth

First doubts

Questions have since mounted in the German press as to whether the future head of the Munich Philharmonic should still get the post. When the city elected Gergiev to the post one year ago, 99 percent of the council members involved voted for him. But the Bayerische Rundfunk broadcaster now says the attitude has changed in the state capital.

"A person who supports Putin's violations of international law cannot become the conductor in Munich," said Florian Roth, the chair of the Green party fraction in Munich. "Mr. Gergiev would not just be an artist here, but as the Munich Philharmonic's principal conductor, he's also a representative of the city," Roth said to DW. "In that role, you have to be careful with political statements."

Tatjana Lukina heads the German-Russian cultural group MIR in Munich and finds it difficult to understand why Gergiev has landed in a controversy.

In an interview with DW, she said, "You should judge an artist based on his talent and not on his political statements - certainly not in a democratic society. An artist is also great when he is constantly in search of the truth. And that's how Gergiev is. He needs not to be in error, but also not to be dishonest."

Lukina believes that, as a multicultural and cosmopolitan city, Munich should be proud to have a frank and brilliant artist such as Valery Gergiev. "He's not hurt anyone. I don't approve of what's happening there," she added.

The skyline in Munich
Gergiev is set to begin his post in Munich in 2015Image: Fotolia/Jörg Hackemann

Bavarian reserve

Stripping Gergiev of his post on account of views that are unpopular in Germany would be the wrong move, writes the "Süddeutsche Zeitung." Culture secretary Hans-Georg Küppers was reserved on the matter, telling DW he would prefer not to comment on Gergiev's personal political beliefs at this time.

But on March 27, Munich's Cultural Office announced that the city's representative for cultural affairs, Hans-Georg Küppers, and the director general of the Munich Philharmonic, Paul Müller, will request that Gergiev talk with them during his next visit to the city. The goal being "to inform him on the controversy over his recent statements and to make him aware of the resulting situation for the orchestra."

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