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Gergiev: 'Putin is cleverer than most'

Anastassia Boutsko / rfSeptember 15, 2015

About to begin his tenure with a big-name German orchestra, the controversial maestro makes no apologies for his warm relationship with the Russian President.

Valery Gergiev. Copyright: CTK Photo/Michal Dolezal
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/CTK Photo/Michal Dolezal

On September 17, Valery Gergiev makes his first appearance in his new function as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. The Russian star maestro and the orchestra open the 2015/16 season with Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2.

Gergiev has served as director of the legendary Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg for over 20 years. He's been principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra since 2007 and is a frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Born in Moscow, Valery Gergiev studied under conductor Ilya Musin at the St. Petersburg - then Leningrad - Conservatory. As a student he won the Herbert von Karajan conducting competition in Berlin.

His political convictions - in particular, his close connection to Vladimir Putin - have stirred controversy in the West.

DW's Anastassia Boutsko spoke with the Russian conductor in March 2015 in Berlin.

Mr. Gergiev, you're a busy man, racing across the world from one appointment to another. Now, as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, you will have to commit to spending a substantial part of your precious time in that city. Why?

It's my reverence for the great German music tradition. And a bit of nostalgia for my own youth. Munich was the first city that invited me to appear after I'd won the Karajan competition in West Berlin.

In St. Petersburg, you were instrumental in establishing a new theater - the Mariinsky Theater. That subject is bound to pursue you in Munich, where we're seeing ongoing controversial discussions over a new concert hall. Or are you satisfied with the current Philharmonic Hall at the Gasteig?

I never complain about the Gasteig. For if I start griping about the hall not being good enough, people will justifiably ask, "Why, then, do you perform in such a lousy hall? Go somewhere where there's a better one!" The Gasteig isn't an easy place to work, but it's not bad either. On the subject of a new concert hall, I'm pragmatic and ask first, "Where?" Yes, I had new facilities built in Petersburg - a new theater and a new concert hall - but I knew exactly what I was doing. It doesn't have to be in the historic city center. In Paris, they built the new philharmonic hall on the outskirts of the city.

Vladimir Putin bestows the "Workers' Hero" honor on Valery Gergiev. Copyright: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
In May 2013, Gergiev received the "Workers' Hero" medal from Vladimir PutinImage: AFP/Getty Images

In Munich - and not only there - people are concerned about your personal loyalty to President Putin.

Am I supposed to run around and cry, "We have a terrible president in Russia"? I think I'm far better informed about what President Putin really does than those who make a lot of noise.

It's very important for a president of my country to understand that culture and education are essential issues. And Putin knows that. For example, at the end of December 2014, I gave a speech at a meeting of the Council of State. Governors from all over Russia had gone to Moscow just to talk about cultural policy.

He's simply cleverer than many others. And incidentally, I hope that the present crisis isn't a lasting one. I am firmly convinced that Europe and Russia will preserve their common cultural identity and achieve a new political balance.