Valery Gergiev sets his sights on Munich | Music | DW | 08.02.2013
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Valery Gergiev sets his sights on Munich

Following principal conductors Christian Thielemannn and Lorin Maazel, the Munich Philharmonic, one of Germany's most renowned orchestras, has engaged the Ossetian maestro Valery Gergiev.

Valery Gergiev is one of the most charismatic Russian artists active today. Born in 1953 in Moscow, he grew up in the western Russian city of Ordzhonikidze, known today as Vladikavkaz. His father, a World War II veteran, died at age 49 of injuries incurred in battle. Valery, the oldest of three children, was 13 years old at the time.

The conductor and culture manager says that his roots and his early years spent in the conservative Christian North Caucasus region shaped him in a lasting way and filled him with energy.

'Valery is a genius!'

The gifted child got swept into the selective Soviet music education system early on. At the St. Petersburg State Conservatory, Gergiev became a student of the famous "conductor-maker" Ilya Musin, instructor of artists as diverse as Semyon Bychkov, Mariss Jansons, Anu Tali and Tugan Sokhiev. Gergiev was Musin's favorite student. Later hearing complaints that his star student didn't practice enough and was otherwise too "spontaneous," Musin is said to have angrily countered, "Valery is a genius! He doesn't need to practice! He just looks at the score - and already knows everything!"

Nevertheless, Musin taught Gergiev all he needed to know about the technical side of things. In 1976, the 23-year-old was a prize-winner at the Berlin competition sponsored by the Herbert von Karajan Foundation. Two years later, he became a conductor at St. Petersburg's legendary Mariinsky Theater, which he was then able - even compelled - to lead a decade later as artistic director.

"Everything around us collapsed," Gergiev recalled in an interview with DW. "It was about sheer survival - about saving the theater and the orchestra."

Valery Gergiev on stage Photo: Yuri Belinsky +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Conductor Valery Gergiev will assume leadership of the Munich Philharmonic in 2015

Gergiev would go on to devote his life to Mariinsky. Today, it is Russia's only world-class opera house, capable of staging an epic like Richard Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung" under its own power. Its systematic training program, including an in-house singers academy, has produced a number of superb new operatic stars.

Russian insider with international reach

Those who want to talk to Valery Gergiev have to wait in line. The hours of waiting outside his office in the Mariinsky Theater offer insight into how his empire works: investors, politicians, architects, festival directors and artists all wait patiently for an audience with the maestro. Not even janitors are employed at Mariinsky without Gergiev's approval. One applicant for a job cleaning the prestigious hall went on to be an opera star in her own right: Anna Netrebko.

After a long wait, suddenly the maestro appears - in a yellow construction helmet, no less. Behind the old theater, a second Marinsky complex is being built. The conductor disappears without a trace, and nobody seems to know whether he'll be back.

Gergiev heads more than a handful of international festivals, including the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Gergiev Festival. For years, Baden-Baden, the German spa town, was affectionately known as the Mariinsky Theater's summer residence. Around the year 2000, Gergiev undertook major efforts to save the Festspielhaus there from financial ruin.

For all the accolades, there is one one well-known flaw: Gergiev is far from punctual. The maestro manages to regularly arrive at his own concerts late, leaving the impression of someone who's chronically stressed. All the more astonishing is that such an efficient system of worldwide commitments and relationships can emerge from such chaos. Gergiev also maintains an excellent relationship with the Kremlin. As a kind of unofficial music minister in Russia, he eagerly takes part in President Vladimir Putin's effective publicity campaigns.

The Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg (c) Fotolia

The Mariinsky Theater just got a facelift - now it will get an annex

A new focus in Munich?

Even with all of his business and public engagements, the artist in Gergiev remains ever on the lookout for new endeavors. A frequent guest conductor, the Russian maestro is head of the London Symphony Orchestra, a job he'll give up in 2015 to lead the Munich Philharmonic.

Critics in the West have pidgeonholed Gergiev as a man for the Russian repertory, loud rather than refined and with a clumsy approach to the classical and Romantic traditions. However, Gergiev has in recent years performed all of Mahler's symphonies with the Mariinsky Orchestra, developing a much-praised sound along the way. On the conductor's best days, his Wagner sounds simultaneously grand, poetic and down to earth. Gergiev made his debut with "Lohengrin" and says that Wagner enjoys "a special place" in his repertory.

Valery Gergiev will turn 60 on May 2. One might suppose that he will now allow himself the luxury of concentrating on music in Munich. If so, audiences can look forward to some outstanding performances in Bavaria in the coming years.

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