By Anno Hellenbroich

In a recent interview with the Russian press agency Tass (May 17th) the well-known Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, principal conductor and artistic director of the famous St Petersburg Mariinsky Orchestra, who since September 2015 is also principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, emphasized that Russia needs “functioning” Children’s choirs.

Gergiev suggested that, if correctly handled, these choruses should become part of the cultural part of the 2018 World Cup. “The problem of creating children’s choirs is of special importance personally for me”, he told Tass and underlined that the participation of the regions and governors is key in making this musical project a success. He referred to a special experience which he made during this year’s Easter Festival ( In 2001 Gergiev created the “Easter Festival” in Moscow. ) He reported that in one region during the Easter Festival the “receiving party had said that they could not host the festival just days before the scheduled concert. They did not tell me ‘Do not come’. Finances were not the problem. We come and play free of charge but they sell tickets which are quite expensive. I would never have thought of complaining about regions. But what we can talk about if they did not even notify the governor about our arrival?“ Gergiev asked.

On May 16th Gergiev received from the Russian Defense Ministry the award “For liberation of Palmyra”, a medal of honor for the concert which he had given with the Mariinsky Theatre’s Symphony orchestra in the ancient Syrian town Palmyra, that had been liberated from terrorists just a few weeks ago. The concert took place in the famous Roman theatre in Palmyra on May 5th. Solo parts during the concert were played by the Cellist Roldugin, the artistic director of the St Petersburg House of Music and by the violinist Pavel Milyukov.

An extraordinary conductor: We are all equal in front of the composer

The Russian conductor Valery Gergiev is a very gifted and dynamic personality who while studying in detail the musical scores, never -as he once said- would sit at home planning all musical moments in detail before. He is capable to excite the audience by having them participate in a very direct way in the “composer’s” idea. He has become a controversial figure, especially since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine and has been attacked from western press for being too friendly towards the Russian president. There was for example major press hype in Germany before he took his post in September 2015 as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. At that time he wrote an open letter (May 2014) addressed to the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and their friends and supporters in which he explained that he didn’t want to hide the fact that Russian Society lives according to some fundamental principles which are different from Western Societies. With their cultural orientation which is deeply rooted in the Orthodox religion, he wrote that he honours this Russian culture and the tradition of the peoples and stressed, that he is foremost a musician and conductor. “We must listen to each other and exchange our views. Dialogue should never be stopped and music is the way to construct bridges”, he wrote at the end of the open letter.

In another interview with “Deutsche Welle” end of 2015, Gergiev had underlined that the Russian President has an understanding about the eminent significance of culture and education. He referred to the fact that he had the chance to address during a “State council” meeting the assembled Russian governors on the question of Culture: “We talked about the children’s choirs.” For him Putin is a singularity since he has understood the importance for institutionalizing this project. “I believe that Europe and Russia will keep their common cultural identity and find a new political balance.”

Music is the way to construct bridges

Gergiev was born in 1953 in the South Ossetian town Vladikavkaz. His family life, as he once underlined in a background interview, was very much linked to the cultural tradition of the grandparents and many people even today live like their grandparents lived. His father served during the Second World War in the Soviet army. When Valery Gergiev was 14 his father suddenly died, a man who had a “very decisive influence on my life. This was the most tragic moment in my life”, Gergiev said during an interview with BBC. The young boy Valery visited the music school in Vladikavkaz and at the age of 11 his piano teacher judged him to be a “brilliant” pianist, adding that “inside him there is a conductor.” He continued his studies under the teacher Anatoly Briskin. The first major experience for him was to study orchestral scores, a difficult thing, as he said in the BBC interview, since one has to “visualize” all at once the different orchestral sections and then is confronted with the task to “translate” this into music, a “spiritual moment” and artistic feeling. Continuing his studies at the Leningrad music conservatory one of his famous teachers was Ilya Musin, who as Gergiev put it, was deeply steeped in the cultural tradition of St Petersburg which goes back to Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. He won the Leningrad conductor competition among 18 other contenders and at the age of 23 he won the Herbert von Karajan conductor competition in Berlin. At the age of 24, in 1977, he became assistant conductor of Yuri Temirkov at the Leningrad Kirov Opera and Theatre.

In 1989 he became Artistic director of the Kirov Opera and Ballet in Leningrad. He reported at one point how shocked he was about life conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990ies, with “salaries being extremely low, rampant unemployment and a lot of crooks all over the place.” Then, as he recalls, “Putin became President and fixed things in a very simple way, by just saying that the country should work.” Gergiev at that time also created the “Easter Festival”, a spring music festival, the Festival “Peace for the Caucasus” and later the “Red Sea Festival Eilat” in 1996. At that time he also started many musical tours with his orchestra to Siberia, to the South of Russia and to the Volga River, with the mission to confront people with great music.

Gergiev had various engagements as guest conductor in New York and Rotterdam; he became principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Symphony orchestra in 2007. In 1998 he created the Mariinsky Academy for young singers sponsored by Alberto Vilar and in 2014, upon his initiative the project “Children’s choirs of Russia” was created which became part of the reconstructed “All-Russia Choral Society” (2013). Gergiev in 2016 will be the conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of the U.S. which will go on a European concert tour. Despite his very dense schedule, he has always taken the time to travel into the Russian provinces in order to perform for free great music with his excellent Mariinsky Orchestra.

Tundra and Taiga people are hungry for music

In June 2014 an extraordinary article was written in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) by Tatjana Rexroth, who reported about a tour which Gergiev and his Mariinsky orchestra had made throughout the Russian province during that year. Their mission being, that great music and singing must be brought to the most remote areas of the huge country. As Rexroth reported then, the Mariinsky Orchestra in spring 2014 gave 43 concerts in 27 different Russian cities. They had to travel several thousands of kilometers through a territory which was infrastructurally in part not very well developed and through areas with extreme climatic difference.

Children’s Choir of Russia. 2014
Childrens’ Choir of Russia. Moskow’s Kremlin, 2014.

Rexroth reported about a concert tour from Kaliningrad and Murmansk to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok that brought the orchestra to middle sized and small cities. And the very idea to visit the various provinces with his orchestra and perform for the people living there classical music from the 19th and early 20th century, this itself was extraordinary. As the journalist wrote “his message is simple and important which the public understands immediately: The music of Europe, similar to the German education system at that time became during the 19th century part of the Russian Culture. Prerevolutionary opera and concert houses, conservatories, orchestras and ballet companies could only survive the Soviet epoch precisely because they had that great cultural tradition, and this could create within the population a cultural identity which went beyond ethnic and religious borders”. In order to do such a concert tour a special train was given by the Russian Railway System, which also served the musicians and conductor as a hotel. The logistical and organizational task to plan such a tour was immense.

Gergiev, Tatjana Rexroth reported, wants to address the inhabitants of many cities and support them in their own musical initiative. This in particular concerns the choral music and choirs (which in Germany has been over centuries the “secret” for the excellent German music system, namely the fact that since the 19th century there is not one village, not one city where great music isn’t performed.) Gergiev is president of the “All-Russia Choral Society” and like many German musicians and poets in previous centuries, he is very dedicated and engaged to “reconstruct” the choral tradition in Russia, especially focusing on children’s choirs. And the astonishing thing is that he gets immense support from the side of the local choirs whenever he visits a city, which often then also become an integral part of the concert program. When he performed Alexander Scriabin’s “Prometheus” in Yekaterinburg, the various choirs of the city participated. He also aimed at integrating school choirs in concerts which he gave in Irkutsk, Yakutsk and Vladivostok.

The music education for small and medium sized cities, as was demonstrated, is absolutely essential. They often lack scores, or adequate instruments and known artists. During his 2014 tour Gergiev also performed pieces by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy as well as by Johannes Brahms and Mahler. And the Russian public in the polar city Murmansk and the White Sea port had the chance to listen to Pinchas Zuckerman with Beethoven’s Violin concerto.

While the orchestra players during the musical tours are separated for weeks from their families, wherever they arrive, the concert halls are overcrowded and there are often long discussions, which the conductor enjoys having with the public. “People are thirsty and hungry for music. They believe in the magic of music and music playing”, Rexroth wrote. In many places on the spot new festivals were created with the aim to engage the inhabitants in more musical activities.

Wiesbaden, May 2016

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