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Musical Czar of St. Petersburg : Music: Valery Gergiev is returning the Russian city to its former artistic glory. He will bring the Kirov Orchestra to Costa Mesa on Monday.

October 08, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Forget for a moment that he seems to fit the bill of the dark, brooding Russian. Forget for a moment notions about the sound of Russian orchestras being somewhat gruff.

Remember instead that as artistic director of St. Petersburg's "Stars of the White Nights Festival"; of the Kirov Opera, which hasn't seen such glory days since the czars, and of the Kirov Orchestra, which plays Sunday in Los Angeles and Monday in Costa Mesa, Valery Gergiev single-handedly has turned around the musical fortunes of his beloved city.

Just think of him as the white knight of the White Nights.

"Yes, I love my city, but also I am trying to do something," the 41-year-old said on the phone from San Francisco between rehearsals of Prokofiev's "The Fiery Angel." "Not just declare that I love it, but do something to prove it."

"The Fiery Angel," a co-production of the San Francisco Opera and Kirov Opera soloists, is typical of Gergiev's efforts on behalf of St. Petersburg, not so long ago known as Leningrad.

"Sometimes I conduct the Met or New York Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony, but in fact I do it very selectively," he said. "If the Kirov is in Japan, it is for major projects, same with Covent Garden. I always want to see a theme for my appearances.

"Instead of the traditional cliche of things, one Tchaikovsky and one Mussorgsky, I try to offer something as interesting and as new as possible. The festivals we do are challenging, very, very challenging. But they attract attention; the impact is strong and memorable, so people will see the appearance as something visible for the Kirov."

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At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Sunday, he will lead the orchestra in a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh," Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 with Viktor Tretyakov as soloist and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite in its 1910 version.

Monday's program, sponsored by the Orange County Philharmonic Society at the Performing Arts Center, includes the prelude to Wagner's "Parsifal," Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5 in G with soloist Alexander Toradze and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 in C Minor.

"The Prokofiev Fifth, the Shostakovich Eighth--these are not everyday pieces," Gergiev noted.

Pianist Toradze defected in 1983 and lives in South Bend, Ind. With Russia in seemingly perpetual crisis, it is interesting that the Kirov musicians under Gergiev aren't rushing to join Toradze in what certainly must be an easier life.

"Yes, many musicians have left Russia; many singers have left," Gergiev said. "So far, unlike many other institutions, the Kirov has not lost many artists.

"First of all, I try to make our musical life together an exciting and interesting situation, not boring and depressive. Second, we manage to attract international attention. We participate in so many international festivals; we tour, we make many audiovisual projects.

"Our life is not so uninteresting; it is not so depressive. We look at ourselves as one of the truly interesting orchestras of the world."

All of which may sound like self-serving hype, but it's true.

Housed in the Mariinsky Theatre, the orchestra was founded in the 18th Century under Peter the Great. In its golden age, the theater saw world premieres of Borodin's "Prince Igor," Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," "Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty," even Verdi's La forza del destino. Wagner, Berlioz, Mahler and Schoenberg guest-conducted the orchestra, as did Hans von Bulow, Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter.

With any number of festivals featuring new opera productions--the Mussorgsky cycle of five operas at the Edinburgh Festival in 1991, for instance--and symphonic concerts focusing on individual Russian composers--the complete Shostakovich symphonies at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam--the Kirov theater is experiencing renewed international acclaim under Gergiev.

Let's face it--he may be one of the truly interesting conductors of the world.

At 23, he won the Herbert von Karajan Conductors Competition in Berlin. He was named artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1988. In 1992, he led the Kirov Opera in its U.S. debut and last season made his Metropolitan debut in a new production of Verdi's "Otello" with Placido Domingo. In 1993 he founded Finland's Mikkeli International Festival, inaugurated an annual Royal Philharmonic/Kirov series in London's Royal Albert Hall and was voted conductor of the year by the jury of the International Classical Music Awards.

Gergiev took stock of his life and the challenges facing him now.

"When you are 25, you are learning. When you are 35, you want something. When you are 40, you are not any more a young conductor, and you rethink many things.

"The first period of my music directorship of the Kirov is over. People don't (ask) anymore, how do we manage to keep this institution alive. Now we must make it stable and serious, with planning and precision, and this is not easy. This is a serious, serious thing.

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