NEW YORK — Nothing, we are told, works in Russia anymore.
Nobody, we are also told, works in Russia anymore.
But don't believe it. The Kirov Opera works. In less than five years, the legendary--but, until recently, somewhat dowdy--opera company of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg has become one of the most talked about, most widely and regularly traveled and most recorded opera companies in the world.
And no conductor seems to work harder than Valery Gergiev, who heads the Kirov Opera and who will be appearing for the first time with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as he conducts a two-week mini-festival of Tchaikovsky at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion beginning May 19. Typical of the maestro--who five years ago was almost completely unknown in the West and is now one of the conductors most in demand around the world--these will not be typical Tchaikovsky concerts.
With the exception of the Serenade for Strings, there will be none of the familiar Tchaikovsky. Instead of the inescapably famous First Piano Concerto, there will be the rarely heard Third. Instead of the overly familiar yearning of the "Pathetique" Symphony, there will be the stormy, seldom-played "Manfred." And instead of "Eugene Onegin," there will be Tchaikovsky's little-known last opera, "Iolanta," given in concert performance and featuring singers from the Kirov.
Gergiev is a conductor very much with a mission. Actually, he is a conductor with several missions, and they include the promotion of neglected Russian music, the indefatigable advancing of the Kirov's international reputation and that of its singers, the indefatigable pursuit of international currency through touring and recording to keep the Kirov afloat, the further indefatigable international expansion of his own conducting career and, most lately, the advancement of contemporary music. So irrepressible, in fact, is Gergiev that his very name tends to bring, from those who work with him, the contradictory states of fanatical enthusiasm and a quality of eyes glazing over.
This, for instance, is how Gergiev spent two weeks in New York earlier this year: He brought the entire Kirov company to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the Kirov's production of Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh," an opera, often called the Russian "Parsifal," that is a particular cause of Gergiev's and that had never before been given a major staging in the United States.
But in addition, Gergiev also managed to guest-conduct two subscription weeks with the New York Philharmonic at the same time, back and forth through New York traffic between rehearsals and performances in Manhattan and Brooklyn. On one Saturday, he led a matinee performance of the four-hour "Kitezh" at BAM that ended with just enough time for him to race back to Lincoln Center to conduct the New York Philharmonic that evening and then back to BAM the next afternoon for another "Kitezh."
After his Kirov compatriots left town, the second week, Gergiev sandwiched in a guest-conducting appearance with the Boston Symphony, rehearsals for which began before his final New York Philharmonic concerts were finished. And the main work in Boston, Shostakovich's massive "Leningrad" Symphony, was something he had conducted only once before, and that a number of years ago.
So it is hardly a surprise that a meeting with Gergiev in his hotel room at the end of his New York stay was not without activity. There is the phone, ringing from Russia, from Europe, from New York. "You see how my life is," he says at one point with exasperation. Appointments overlap. A representative from his record company, Philips Classics, brings him a review of the Kirov in New York magazine, which he looks at, struggling over the word peripatetic . He acts pleased to learn that such a word exists in English, one that might have been made for him, and he starts using it immediately.
An interview with Gergiev is unlike one with any other conductor. He tries to avoid them. He says he's tired of being asked about the finances of the Kirov when he wants to talk only about music. He says he has no time, which is true, but then once he starts talking, he simply doesn't stop.
An interview with Gergiev, in fact, tends to be mainly about whatever is on his mind at the moment. And right now that seems to be that the conductor is at a crossroads in his career. The peripatetic lifestyle has been taking its toll. At 42, he's tired. He's well on his way to having accomplished what he set out to accomplish at the Kirov. He's practically a hero in St. Petersburg. The Kirov Orchestra is probably the best in Russia now, better than the St. Petersburg Philharmonic or the Bolshoi. Audiences adore him. He's even a sex symbol; young Russian women swoon at the way he wiggles the fingers of his left hand when he conducts. But life in Russia isn't easy. There's no money, and everything is a struggle.