I owe Valery Gergiev a debt of gratitude. Several years ago, he presented me with one of the greatest experiences of my life so far. The Kirov Ballet and Orchestra came to Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, and on opening night Gergiev himself was in the pit – he was probably conducting on three other, different continents in the coming three days – and led performances of Balanchine’s Chopaniana, Scheherezade and The Firebird, in that order. I remember most of the program being wonderful, but honestly do not remember experiencing anything other than Scheherezade.
As a classic, narrative ballet, and not choreographed by Mark Morris, it’s what you would expect; lush, “realistic” production values, lots of veils and swords, the jealous empress falling for the slave, a pas de deux, the emperor ordering the death of the slave, the empress dancing over his body, fin, cue curtain. Of course, this comes with Rimsky-Korsakov‘s wonderful, enduring music, but still . . . still, it was a case for the power of sincere, sympathetic narrative. The sheer human feeling presented by musicians and dancers was indescribably overwhelming. As the piece came to a close, with the simple, tender octave rise in the violin the empress performed a series of slow pirouettes over the corpse, staring implacably at audience, demanding quietly but urgently that we maintain witness over this spectacle. We all held our breaths. The combination of the basic and simple tragedy of the story with the formal elements of expression in music and rigorous physical movement, channeled through the artistic talents of the performers, created an almost overpowering combination of pathos and dignity. The music came to its glowing final chord, the dancer draped herself across the corpse, and there was silence in the auditorium. Silence, followed by the gradually perceptible sound of a revving freight train engine, of multi-story breakers crashing against the rocks of the shore. There was only a little yelling and very little standing at first. It was one of the rare times when the spectators were putting all their concentration into thick, resonant applause. Also, we had to catch our breaths. The bravos were to come, many, many minutes into the ovation. Later, as I was walking downhill through campus towards the BART station, I caught up with a middle-aged man doing the same. Everyone on the path was in silence. Then, as I slowly passed this man he turned to me and said that he had been going to the ballet for decades, and that this was the greatest thing he had ever seen in his life.
The sheer memory of this for me almost stops me in my tracks, and always catches my throat. I’ve realized recently that the urgency of living with that experience, the beautiful urgency of catching a glimpse of the immortality of the human experience, is a fundamental force behind everything I write here, everything I write anywhere, why I bother to do it at all. Everyone should have experiences like that, and perhaps I can in some small way be a guide towards the slightly greater, or less expected, chance for that to happen. Thank you, Maestro.
And so this is why I must comment on the strange profile of Gergiev in the Sunday Times magazine a bit more than a week back. Strange, because ultimately, literally pointless; the writer, Arthur Lubow, begins with the premise of Gergiev’s nationalism as a critical point and then abandons it for a sort of over-the-shoulder view of perhaps the world’s leading, and busiest, conductor. Gergiev gave a noticeable concert in Tskjinvali last year. This should surprise no one, since he is a native Ossetian and a Russian patriot. Given the general tendentious geo-political ignorance in the West, especially that exemplified by neo-liberals at the Times, The New Republic, et. al., the tut-tutting should surprise no one as well. The fact that Georgia attacked Ossetia, and that Georgia is a thugocracy, disappeared down the memory hole over atavistic concern over Russian power. We were back at the old narrative, which is that we are the good guys and the Russians are the bad guys, and that we have every right to tell them how to behave. We confuse our own self-interest with virtue, and condemn that self-interest of other states simply because, since they are not us, they cannot be virtuous. Imagine living with neighbors like that.
I am not fan of the Russian political system. It is a soft-fascist authoritarian state. It is waging an atrocious war in Chechnya. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t see it for what it is, think about it and deal with it honestly. It is an acute but limited power which has friends on its borders it will protect, it sees the world as hostile to it, which it is, and the United States in particular as trying to strategically surround it and hem it in, and so it pushes back. Any state would. The question is why we are treating it like it needs to be contained. There is no real threat of Russian expansion. If it has influence across its boarders then so be it, all states do. It’s called geopolitics, after all. Are they somehow not worthy of being treated like a sovereign state?
Russia also is not a Western country, and it seems we confuse it for one, which trips us up. This is a strange form of materialistic prejudice, as if the strain of Modernity that developed after the Russian Revolution could only possibly Western, that modern strains of thought, action, manufacturing and technology can only exist in the West, and so where they exist is Western. But Russia is not the West, and the best place to experience this directly is through its art. Considering its size, perhaps its best to think of Russia as its own continent, neither simply Occidental nor Oriental, but something vast and important enough to be considered on its own.
And so, through Gergiev, we consider Russian music, which is his natural and temperamental strength and preference. In Tskhinvali, he presented the stately Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony, and Shostakovich’s Seventh, “Leningrad” Symphony, which is a work of musical propaganda. Ah, the hand-wringing concern. Lubow ascribes concerns that Gergiev “lost his sense of proportion,” although he mentions no names and presents no quotes (the usual, weak “people are saying” trope to create and excuse for a story); the “Leningrad” was about the good guys fighting the Nazis, not the Russians coming to the defense of their neighbors. And this nationalism in music is just so unpleasant anyway, music is music, not propaganda.
Of course, this conveniently avoids the rather more messy truth, probably because this truth doesn’t make us in the West seem so grandly wonderful. The Seventh is not terrible, but it’s certainly one of Shosty’s weaker works – memorably mocked by Bartok in his own Concerto for Orchestra – and when it premiered, a great show was made of the score being spirited out of Moscow to New York to be performed on the air by Toscanini. It was meant to stir spirits in both Russian and the West during the war. Russia was never the good guy in World War II, they were a necessary and expedient ally, the country which bore the vast brunt of the carnage, without which the outcome would have been seriously in doubt, and against which planners in the US and Britain were scheming even while the war in Europe was being fought.
Lubow plays the innocent American, wondering how is it that music gets mixed up in politics in these non-US style countries. Not like our own, where music is never marshaled for political purposes, like war propaganda, political campaigns, national messages . . . well, never mind. This is not a value judgement, music has always been used for political and propaganda purposes, it is a useful social tool after all. Doing so doesn’t mean music itself is terrible, nor does it besmirch a country that produces such music. What are national anthems, after all?
So this attempt to criticize Gergiev doesn’t fly; it’s childish, weak, nonsensical and offers no insight. Eventually it disappears from Lubow’s article, and the importance of Gergiev as a non-musician comes in. Working with the state, cadging money and resources like a good capitalist artist after the end of Soviet state support, he has almost single handedly made the Kirov Orchestra, Opera and Ballet into the leading ensembles they are today. He also has done a great service to his own national musical legacy, which is a gift to the world. Composers like Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Shostakovch have had a profound effect on the world of music. Musicians likes David Oistrakh, Sviatoslov Richter, Mistislav Rostropovich and Mikhail Pletnev have offered profoundly effecting views on the great body of Western music. Over the last 150 years this richness as been essential to music. Gergiev is a great musician continuing this legacy.
Where the article shines is when it too briefly discusses his musicianship, the particular on-the-edge wildness that he strives for. He’s sort of the anti-Brahms, or anti the cliche of how we see Brahms. He’s trying to restore the sense of excitement and danger in the music to which it belongs, which is frequently Russian music. He has been doing this as well with his ongoing Mahler cycle, of which the most recent release is the Second Symphony. My personal experiences with Gergiev are that his performances are surprising, explosive, seeking a fervid rapture. He is a natural in the Russian repertoire – his recordings of Scheherezade and Stravinsky are superb – and he also has what seems to me a particular affinity for Berlioz, a composer who embodies Romanticism, willfulness and a sense of surprise. Gergiev’s Mahler continues to be fascinating – the performance of the Second is almost breathlessly brisk, but never feels rushed. Although it’s shorter, it seems faster than Klemperer’s famously fast recording. But that conductor has a view of Mahler that, though personal, is not so far off the beaten track. Gergiev gives us a sense that he is discovering the composer and dazzled by what he sees. He may not yet be steeped as long and deep in this music, but he’s no dilettante. What is refreshing is that the conductor is finding things that work, that are important, in the music, things that have perhaps been overlooked in the past. The performance flows and thrills, the music is presented with a marvelous transparency. While the flat acoustic of the hall slightly mars the previous recordings in this series, it clarifies this vast score here. His Second is not the personal, apocalyptic narrative we can hear with Bernstein or Rattle, for example, it’s more like a tour of another world from a knowledgeable native who cherishes the high and low points, the mundane and the eccentric. Which is what Gergiev is always offering us.