He Comes, He Sees, He Conquers

“He gets bored when things are too well planned,” said stage designer George Tsypin of his close colleague Valery Gergiev. This phrase is a telling thumbnail sketch of the essence of the Russian conductor, whose calendar has room for two hundred concerts annually, press conferences, and even political events, but who has to rush everywhere. This isn’t the first time he has been to Budapest. He last visited two years ago, but his performance is still a “must see”.

What is the secret of a conductor who, in spite of his performances being beset by demonstrations and his public appearances being interrupted by activists, still manages to get the cities of London and Munich to hand over their symphony orchestras to him? It was he who discovered Anna Netrebko, who made the Mariinsky Theatre competitive, and who has earned the Russian “Hero of Labour” award, the French Order of the Légion d’Honneur, the German Officer’s Cross, and the Karajan Prize from his profession. Gergiev’s cosy relationship with the Russian government is conspicuous to many, so much so, that Gidon Kremer, Martha Argerich, and Daniel Barenboim have demonstrated against him and the Russian president with protest concerts. And yet most critics recognize that, regardless of the scandals, differences in worldview, or judgmental opinions, few interpret the rich repertoire of Russian music with greater understanding than Valery Gergiev, whether the venue be the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, the stage of Müpa Budapest, or (and here come the more stinging examples) Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital captured by the Russian army, or the Roman Theatre of ancient Palmyra in Syria, re-occupied from the Islamic State with help from the Russians.

Valery Gergiev is captivating at the helm of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. One critic wrote that the bass section of the orchestra is as thick, dense, and dark in tone as Russian black bread, but settled on top is a colourful, flavourful topping. Gergiev debuted more than forty years ago, in 1978, at the head of the orchestra then named after the Soviet politician Kirov, and ten years later he was its musical director. During the time of glasnost and perestroika, rather than emigrating to the West, he invested all his energy and connections into elevating the St. Petersburg theatre to the highest level possible, setting it among the foremost in the world. He realized that the Mariinsky had to compete with the entertainment industry, and needed private donations, a talent programme, stars, and quality productions that could be sold anywhere. It was in this spirit that he paved the way for the careers of Anna Netrebko, Olga Borodina, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died tragically early in 2017.

And Gergiev did indeed make the Mariinsky Theatre great: he put Wagner’s operas back on the programme, though they had been tacitly forbidden in the Soviet era; he broadened the symphonic repertoire to include universally admired masterpieces; and year by year he made it a custom to celebrate anniversaries in music history. New performance spaces were created in the building; opposite the pale green building evoking Tsarist splendour, a modern, angular palace was erected; and between the two, a concert hall was added in 2006. The theatre gives 200 performances abroad, an enormous number even taking into account that these include the ballet, the opera, and the orchestra. The constant tours have unequalled diplomatic value and also open Russia up to the world, after it had been closed off for decades. There is, after all, a reason that the Mariinsky is known as a global institution.

This flourishing was made possible by Gergiev’s clever feel for politics, and many have criticized the visionary artistic director, saying that his business card should instead say politician or businessman. “This country is huge,” he said, replying to why he does not spurn friendship with the Russian president. “If your voice is very soft and you don’t make it clear that this is the way things should go, they probably won’t go.”

Valery Gergiev arrives to this year’s Budapest Spring Festival with two productions, giving three performances. On 20 April, he conducts Tchaikovsky’s final, one-act opera at the helm of the Mariinsky Orchestra. The piece was premiered in December 1892, on the same day as The Nutcracker. While the ballet went on to become the composer’s most popular work, Iolanta, the story of a princess born blind and secluded from the world, remained generally unknown outside Russia – quite a different fate from that of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, which will be performed twice on 22 April in the Erkel Theatre. Alexey Ratmansky’s choreography, premiered in 2002, is Russian through and through: melancholy, romantic, and with a tinge of cynicism.

The Home of Ballet?

Though it developed elsewhere and was adopted in Russia as part of the westernization programme of Tsar Peter the Great, presently, Russia is considered the leading world power in the art of ballet. The company of Sergei Diaghilev conquered Paris at the beginning of the 20th century, while Anna Pavlova’s swan, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s elegance, Rudolf Nureyev’s rebellious character, and Sergei Polunin’s outrageous behaviour and tattooed body have captivated the world. The Russian ballet is the art of extremes, less restrained than the French or the English; its dancers have a more audacious nature, almost exotically so. One anecdote, told of the legendary choreographer Michel Fokine, is that he complained that in Russian ballet, art is nothing more than corporeality and technical brilliance, but even since then the paradigm has not changed. There is something truly otherworldly when a ballerina elevates her legs a few centimetres higher than we would have thought possible.

Author: Máté Csabai

This article first appeared in the BSF Magazine.

April 20 | 7.30 pm
Müpa Budapest – Béla Bartók National Concert Hall
Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Iolanta – concert performance
Performed by: Stanislav Trofimov, Irina Churilova, Alexei Markov, Najmiddin Mavlyanov, Roman Burdenko, Andrei Zorin, Yuri Vorobiev, Natalya Evstafieva, Kira Loginova, Yekaterina Sergeyeva
Featuring: Hungarian National Choir (choirmaster: Csaba Somos)

April 22 | 3 pm, 8 pm
Erkel Theatre
Prokofiev: Cinderella
Performance by the Ballet Company of Mariinsky Theatre
Featuring: Maria Shirinkina / Nadezhda Batoeva, Alexander Sergeev / Vladimir Shklyarov, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Mariinsky Orchestra
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Libretto: Nikolai Volkov (after Charles Perrault’s fairy tale)
Set: Ilya Utkin, Yevgeny Monakhov
Costumes: Elena Markovskaya
Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky
Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky
Conductor: Valery Gergiev