Biography of the conductor, general and artistic director of the
Mariinsky Theater/Kirov Opera, St. Petersburg
Article added in November 2000, last update: January 30, 2006
Valery Gergiev was
born in Moscow in 1953 to Ossetian parents. He spent his youth in
the Caucasus. For a Russian career at a relatively old age, he learned to play
the piano. At the Leningrad conservatory, he studied conducting with Ilya Musin. While still a student, he won the All-Union
Conductors' Competition Prize in Moscow. At the age of 23, he was the winner
of the prestigious Herbert von Karajan Conductors' Competition in Berlin. The
following year, he became the assistant conductor to Yuri Temirkanov at the
Kirov Opera where, in 1978, he made his debut with War and Peace, productions
of Mazeppa, Prince Igor, Lohengrin, etc. followed. From
1981 to 1985, he was the Chief Conductor of the Armenian State Orchestra. He
also conducted the leading orchestras of the former Soviet Union. In 1988, he
was appointed chief conductor and artistic director of the Kirov Opera which
is situated in the heart of St. Petersburg. In
1996, the Russian government appointed Valery Gergiev general director of the
Mariinsky Theatre/Kirov Opera. Gergiev even
decides on the casting of singers, with a preference for the Italian school
over the Russian.
In 1989, Valery Gergiev had
his first international success at the Schleswig-Holstein-Musikfestival in
Germany. Whereas the Moscow music scene fell into decay in the post-communist
era, Valery Gergiev was able to lead the
Mariinsky Theater to the level of the best opera houses in the world. He
regularly tours the world with it. This summer, amongst others, he was part of
the Lucerne Music Festival in Switzerland. Gergiev's recordings encounted
worldwide success and made the the Mariinsky Theater known outside Russia. In
this, television productions play an important part. In 1989,
Gergiev took over the function as guest conductor at the Rotterdam Philharmonic
Orchestera. Four years later, he become its chief conductor. Since 1997, he
also works as guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Gergiev
has won a lot of national and international prizes, among them the Classic Music Award
as Conductor at London's Royal
Albert Hall in 1993. He founded several festivals. He is the Artistic director
of the St. Petersburg White Nights Festival founded in 1993, the annual
Mikkeli International Music Festival in Finland created in 1994 and, since the
autumn of 1996, he is in charge of the Rotterdam Festival and part of Israel's
Red Sea International Music Festival.
In 1991, Valery Gergiev made his European opera
debut with the Bayerische Staatsoper, conducting Johannes Schaaf's new
production of Boris Godunov. The same year saw his American opera debut
with a new production of War and Peace at the San Francisco Opera. In
1993, Gergiev was named Conductor of the Year at the Classical Music Awards.
He has guest conducted most of the world's leading orchestras, including the
Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Amsterdam's Royal
Concertgebouw, London's Royal Philharmonic, Rome's Santa Cecilia, Boston
Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, London
Philharmonic, London Symphony, Tokyo's NHK Symphony and the Berlin
The Mariinsky Theater
was founded in 1860. Its "golden age" began with the appointment of
the Czech Eduard Napravnik as assistant conductor in 1863. In 1869, he became
the Mariinsky Theater's chief conductor and shaped it for half a century.
Giuseppe Verdi's La forza del destino had its world premiere at the
Mariinsky Theater, in the presence of the composer. Russian operas such as Boris
Godunov (1874) and Prinz Igor (1890) as well as the ballet Swan
Lake had their debut at the Mariinsky Thater as well parts of Wagners Ring
and Tristan, before they were heard in Bayreuth. Tchaikovsky,
Rachmaninov, Berlioz, Schönberg and Mahler presented some of their symphonic
works at the Mariinsky
Theater. Famous conductors such as Alexander von Zemlinksy, Bruno
Walter, Erich Kleiber and Otto Klemperer, to mention just a few, conducted
Gergiev dedicates a lot of time to the works of Sergei Prokofiev
music by Prokofiev) and Dmitri Shostakovich
music by Shostakovich), who were, like the better accepted Igor
Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, natives of St. Petersburg. Prokofiev, who had
studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, left Russia in the year of war and revolution.
He traveled over Japan to the United States. Prokofiev spent 17 years in
Western countries and only returned in 1936, in the midst of the Stalinist
terror, to the Soviet Union. He was guided by the illusion that, unlike in
Paris where he had stayed last, he would not be one composer among others, but
the composer and that he would not have to work as a pianist anymore.
The politically naive or even ignorant Prokofiev had to make many compromises
and serve the Soviet Union through his music. In this field is a
birthday hymn for Stalin. Despite that fact, in 1948 at the Congress of the
Soviet Composers Union, he was accused of having lost contact with the Soviet
people. Prokofiev was completely unprepared for this turn of events; he had
thought he would be honored. This was not the end of his career, but,
according to witnesses, these accusations shortened his life because he
suffered a lot from them. In 1953, before the dictator's death, he was awarded
the Stalin Medal. The composer left an oeuvre of 131 works.
Valery Gergiev considers Sergei Prokofiev
one of the most neglected composers. Therefore, for his 100th birthday, he
erected a monument for him in the form of a Prokofiev Festival. In the 1990s, he
began recording his operas. Among them are War and Peace. In 1993, BBC
transmitted the opera over satellite to a public of millions of television
viewers in the West. Gergiev has already recorded five of Prokofiev's
eight operas, among them The Mirror and Semyon Kotko.
In 1939, Prokofiev composed
the opera Semyon Kotko after a short trip to the United States.
He needed to produce a work that would be both popular and politically
acceptable, since his ambition to be regarded as the leading Soviet composer had
not yet been satisfied. Semyon Kotko is based on the novell I am the
son of working people by Valentin Katajev (1897-1987), published in
November 1937. The politically correct story premiered at the opera in Moscow
on June 23, 1940.
The opera is set in a
Ukrainian village in 1918. The revolutionary Bolshevik government in Moscow
has made peace with Germany, but much of Ukraine is still under German
occupation. The Red Army is advancing, supported by scattered revolutionary
partisan units. They are opposed by the German army and Haydamaks, members of
a cavalry detachment loyal to the reactionary Ukrainian nationalists. Semyon
Kotko has returned home after four years in the war as a gunner in the Russian
army. He tells his friends in the village about the revolution and hopes to
marry his beloved fiancée Sofya (Sonya), daughter of the rich peasant
Tkachenko. But her father does not accept Semyon Kotko as his son-in-law. As
German troops arrive in the village, Tkachenko hands over a list of names
with people who support the revolution to them. Among them is Semyon Kotko who is
sentenced to death, but saved at the last minute. There would be nothing in
the way of a marriage with Sofya, but the revolutionary leader convinces the
lovers to serve the fatherland first and help to liberate the country from its
For Semyon Kotko,
Prokofiev studied the folk songs of Ukrainian peasants. He integrated their
distinctive intonation in his melodies. He uses musical satire to describe the
different social classes. Katayev and Prokofiev seem to have ignored the fact
that after the Soviet collectivization of agriculture in the Ukraine and the
subsequent famine some 15 million people starved to death. In the opera
of course, nothing is said about this genocide caused by the Soviets.
Prokofiev seems to have been satisfied with the music because, for years
later, he used themes from Semyon Kotko in a symphonic suite in eight
movement of the same name.
Valery Gergiev's new
production of Semyon Kotko premiered at St. Petersburg's White Nights
Festival of 1999. Later, it became as great success at the Wiener Konzerthaus,
again under the direction of Gergiev and with the orchestra and the singers of
the Mariinsky Opera/Kirov Choir and Orchestra.
Another recent CD by Valery Gergiev,
in collaboration with the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, is dedicated to
the Concert for piano op. 16 by Edvard Grieg
and the Concert for piano op. 21 by Frédéric Chopin (Decca). Jean-Yves
Thibaudet is accompanied by the Rotterdam Philharmonic. The pianist's
passionate play in the finale of the Grieg concerto as well as in the
introspective passages is admirable, whereas the orchestra under the direction
Gergiev, besides convincing expressive moments, offers some embarrassing ones.
Valery Gergiev. Photo Copyright Decca.
Added on May 25, 2005: In January 2007, Valery Gergiev will become the
principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra - one of the world's
ten leading orchestras - and one of my favorites.
Check also our review of Gergiev's performance with the Mariinsky Theatre in
Graz, Austria, in September 2003:
review in German.