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Valery Gergiyev: Sometimes people think they are holding a magic wand

Artistic and general director of the State Academic Mariinsky Theater in TASS special project Top Officials
Andrey Vandenko 
Andrey Vandenko

Andrey Vandenko was born on November 8, 1959 in Lugansk, Ukrainian SSR. In 1982, he graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev with a degree in journalism. Since 1989, he has been living and working in Moscow. For over 20 years, he has built his career as a journalist specializing in interviews. His work is published predominantly in Russia’s leading mass media outlets, and he is the recipient of numerous professional awards.

Part 1
About tight timetables, sound mind, rivalry with Moscow’s Bolshoi and Viktor Chernomyrdin’s millions

In TASS special project Top Officials, artistic and general director of the State Academic Mariinsky Theater Valery Gergiyev speaks about rivalry with Bolshoi Theater, his love for football and attitude towards Crimea and Ukraine.


 I’ve taken a look at your timetable…

— My lifetime’s timetable? It has remained practically unchanged over the past 35 years. Possibly, it’s still tighter now. I spend much time on the road, touring cities and countries.

 That’s my point. Don’t you ever feel like making a stop and looking back?

— I work with several music companies – in St. Petersburg, London, Munich and some other places. Mine is a conductor’s job. I have large orchestras to guide. That’s an excellent way of changing activities. And of taking an outsider’s look at what you are doing.

The audience that has gathered to hear a famous orchestra under a famous conductor is entitled to getting the maximum pleasure

 When you wake up in the suite of yet another hotel, do you recall at once where you went to sleep the day before?

— I do hope that I am still of sound mind and disposing memory… If you wish I can recall in the proper order the cities and countries I toured over the past few months. Mind you, the list is going to be a long one: Russia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Britain, Germany, Monaco, Japan, Sweden, China, Italy and Switzerland… In the middle of September, Rotterdam hosted my 20th jubilee festival, this time devoted to Sergey Rakhmaninov. More than 12,000 listeners visited my concerts… Wherever we may be playing we perform at 100-percent capacity. That’s a must. The audience that has gathered to hear a famous orchestra under a famous conductor is entitled to getting the maximum pleasure. For that we must always move forward.

Even the 1990s were fruitful and successful for us. Instinctively I tried to turn the theater into an equivalent of the Vatican, a miniature state with its own Constitution in order to be immune from external risks. We do remember the no easy time the country was living through and the turmoil in the economy, and not only in the economy.

 Does that mean you proclaimed yourself the Mariinsky Theater’s Pope?

— That’s a figure of speech. Of course, I could not build a fortress wall around the theater. The square is open all around. The theater has twelve entrances. You can use any of them top get in… It was my strong wish the theater had a chance to live by its own rules, and I demanded obedience to the internal, corporate rules. Whenever some abused the code of conduct or fell out of step, I instantly froze relations with that person. I needed close associates whom I would be able to rely on. Some tried to use the Mariinsky Theater as a springboard, to perform on its stage several times for the sole purpose of clinching a second-rate contract in Dusseldorf, Vienna or London. I never used force to keep people, but I severed all further contacts with them. All of my thoughts were not about defectors, but about those who preferred to stay, about preserving the company, about survival. We managed. The 2000s were a little bit easier. Now I’ve had to confront new challenges. But I am certain that we will cope with them with honor and dignity.

 What makes you so dead certain?

— That’s what I am telling you. We gained much strength in the previous hectic years. Apparently, I am not bad as a crisis manager. We wouldn’t have been worth a dime, had we allowed external factors to upset the theater’s work.

True, it is far easier not to give concerts in dozens of cities across Russia every year, not to roam the world, to take my time at the country home near Leningrad, to rehearse, mediate, reflect on the future of civilization and spend time with my kids…

Today's Mariinsky Theater is deservedly considered as a legal successor of the Kirov Theater and its traditions

 You called the city Leningrad. Was it a slip of the tongue?

— The city’s name is part of my life. I graduated from the Leningrad Conservatoire, as a student I went to recitals to the Leningrad Philharmonic Society’s hall, and my job was at the Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theater named after Kirov… I believe that somewhere deep inside Leningrad there always remained St. Petersburg, just as in today’s St. Petersburg there still remains a great deal of Leningrad. I am not in the position to judge if it is good or bad. It depends on the angle you are looking from. In the autumn of 1962 the great Stravinsky arrived in his native city after spending half a century away from home. Asked what was it he liked about Leningrad the most, Stravinsky was remarkably brief and meaningful: “St. Petersburg.” That city has no reason to be ashamed of any period of its history. Today's Mariinsky Theater is deservedly considered as a legal successor of the Kirov Theater and its traditions. Suffice it to recall that in the Soviet era the term Kirov Ballet was a synonym of perfection.

 Yet it never rose above Bolshoi.

— Either theater invariably retained its unique, incomparable style. When Galina Ulanova left for Bolshoi, her decision was just another fact in the great ballerina’s biography, but it by no means caused the St. Petersburg’s school of ballet to collapse. Later, many other performers repeatedly changed theaters. Svetlana Zakharova moved to Moscow to be instantly engaged in lead roles. Ulyana Lopatkina and Diana Vishneva preferred to stay and I don’t think they’ve lost anything. Naturally, rivalry between these two schools is a reality. It’s a fact of history, but there is no point in making a fuss about that. The leading opera and ballet performers from the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters always appeared on each other’s stages and no one has ever regarded that as an act of treason. One may recall Fyodor Shalyapin, who during one week managed to sing consecutively in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In the meantime, there was nothing like today’s high-speed Sapsan express trains connecting the two cities. Only ordinary rail services.

 And much earlier, in the Russian Empire, the royal companies were doing pretty well.

— That is true. But twenty years ago both Bolshoi and Mariinsky companies were on the brink of survival. As soon as the opportunity offered itself, I contacted Russia’s Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in person. I was asking him to support the two giant theaters to save Russian opera and ballet. The situation was critical. I am not exaggerating it. It does Chernomyrdin credit that he turned an attentive ear to us and realized what measures should be taken first thing.

Chernomyrdin replied in his own unique way: “Where do you think I should go to look for the ten million?”

I went to the white marble building of the Russian government overlooking the Moskva River together with Irina Arkhipova, the renowned mezzo-soprano, holder of People’s Artist of the USSR and Hero of Socialist Labour titles and no end of awards, represented the Moscow Bolshoi, and yours truly (in those days a relative young artistic director) the Mariinsky Theater. At first Chernomyrdin was talking exclusively to Arkhipova. Both were born in the South Urals. First they discussed their native places. Then Arkhipova gently steered the conversation to the Glinka contest of vocalists, which was in dire need for fifteen thousand dollars. Chernomyrdin, who got little bit sentimental after recalling his birthplace and younger days, easily agreed: “No problem. Surely, you’ll have the money,” and instantly issued instructions to his aides. Arkhipova, beside herself with joy, was already saying good-buy. The meeting with Chernomyrdin preceded a session of the Cabinet. During the fifteen minutes I had spent in Chernomyrdin’s office I did not say a word. Perfectly aware that we will be asked to bow out the next minute I dared violate the protocol and addressed Chernomyrdin with something like this: “Let me introduce myself. I am from the Mariinsky theater.” Chernomyrdin looked surprised: “Are you? I’d thought you are together with Irina… I reckon you must be having the same sort of problems?” I had to object: “No, my problems are worth much more than the fifteen thousand for the vocal context. Ten million this year are a matter of life and death…” A moment of dead silence followed. Then I went on: “It’s too bad we are so pressed for time, but we’ve got to remember that it was neither me nor you, Sir, who built the Mariinsky and Bolshoi theaters, and it is not us who are destined close them. Unless resolute steps are taken to rescue the national cultural shrines, far more efforts and funds will have to be spent some day to revive them.” Chernomyrdin replied in his own unique way: “Where do you think I should go to look for the ten million?” Then I dared drop a remark that did not sound politically correct at all: “The war in Grozny is probably devouring much more every single day. Or every single hour.” Let me remind you that our meeting was taking place at the beginning of 1995, when the first Chechen war was in its acute phase. Chernomyrdin surely did not like what I was telling him. He looked somewhat strained. Yet, he managed to keep his emotions at bay and asked: “Is something wrong with the buildings? Some repairs needed?”

“Repairs, yes,” I replied. “But the main problem is somewhat different. We may be doing a little bit better, but the state of affairs at the Bolshoi couldn’t be worse. Problems are many – from the organization of tours and ticket sales, the latter being in the hands of organized crime, to repertoire and the condition of performing companies. The great veterans are retiring on pension while talented youth prefer to leave for the West, where they get paid properly.

 What did Chernomyrdin say?

— The dialogue turned very emotional, to say the least.

 On both sides?

— It so happened… But at the key moment I uttered a phrase that turned the tide. I asked. “When did you go to the Mariinsky Theater last time?” Chernomyrdin, who at once got less formal, only smiled: “What kind of theaters are you talking about, man? So many chores around to attend! Do you think I have a spare minute to go out? I am a gas worker by profession. Toiling away is my hobby. Do you know the way our industry is run? You appoint a manager. The guy proves worthless. What do you do? Kick him out and appoint another one… No time to wait. But you’ve persuaded me. Next time I am in St. Petersburg, I promise to drop in. Now, go ahead. I am listening.” We returned to the table and spent another 40 minutes talking business. Chernomyrdin’s aides were taken to tasks for poorly briefing their boss before the meeting. I told him about meager salaries our top stars and musicians were being paid, the frozen waiting list for new housing and the appalling condition of technical infrastructures…

 Did Chernomyrdin come to your theater in the end?

— Honestly? We met several times at the Moscow Bolshoi, at various gala meetings and shows on the occasion of important dates. Also, we met several times in St. Petersburg, and also in Kiev, where he served as Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine. I was even invited to his dacha-type home in the countryside and introduced to his wife… Over years our relations became friendly, I would even say, cordial.

Chernomyrdin kept the promise he gave me in 1995 to allocate $10 million to support the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters

 And still, you did not answer my question.

— I presume that Chernomyrdin has not seen a single stage production at our theater, but he kept the promise he gave me in 1995 to allocate $10 million to support the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters. In those days it was an impressive financial infusion, indeed! As a result at that critical point we managed to retain our wonderful young talents – Netrebko, Borodina, Galuzin and Putilin, who made the opera company a whole lot stronger. Noticing talented vocalists at the right time is one of my strengths, believe me. The state of affairs in the ballet company was about the same.

In a word, Chernomyrdin’s personal intervention and his firmness played a positive role in the history of Russia’s modern musical theatre. At least, I will always remember that.

 You’ve always managed to find supporters and sponsors…

— Please, don’t think it’s so simple and easy for me. I believe it is important to explain at any cost to the two government ministries concerned – the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture why music lessons should be restored to the standard curriculum of secondary schools. Or possibly the ministries will have to be forced to do so under the pressure of public opinion. So far all of my attempts have failed...

What’s the point of ruining what was well established and worked perfectly well? We all attended singing classes in school. Each school had a choir. What was so wrong about that, may I ask? Breaking something apart and then putting the pieces together again seems to be our favorite pastime… We have now managed to create Russia’s grand national children’s choir. The boys and girls there are really wonderful, but that’s a drop in the ocean. It is surely not enough!

About home, father, dancing, football and office with secretaries in antechamber

About earnings, the Forbes list, White Nights, friendship, Putin, Gref and Tchaikovsky

About letters of support, Kekhman, Medinsky, Bashmet and persons of Caucasian nationality

On President Poroshenko’s present, Dmitry Khvorostovsky’s health, and a request from the Grand Duke of Luxembourg

On ‘colored aural sense’, the Champions League, the look from under the eyebrows, and occupational illnesses


Part 2
About home, father, dancing, football and office with secretaries in antechamber


 Now let’s travel back in time to your younger years. You were born in Moscow, graduated from school in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz, and spent you adult life in St. Petersburg. Where is your real ancestral home?

— My dad went to war in June 1941. He was a cadet then. And he fought his last battle in Germany in 1945 as a Red Army major. He became a career officer. The whole family — my mother and sisters — followed him from garrison to garrison wherever he went. For a couple of years we lived in Moldova. I still have some vague memories of the town of Beltsy… The place-of-birth line in my passport says Moscow, that’s true, but I lived in the city only when I was a little boy. To my recollection, our apartment was somewhere near the Dobryninskaya metro station. I can barely recall anything about that period of my life. My father’s career was quite successful. He graduated from a higher military academy and was appointed to command a regiment. A general’s position was going to be his next step. It was a great surprise when in 1958 he made a decision to retire. I never asked him why, but now I believe that he did that for the sake of the family. When the war began my dad was already a career military. He got back home nine years later only to have a wedding and at once take his newly-wed wife to some remote army garrison. It’s easy to guess that at a certain point a person gets tired of this vagabond life and rooms in officers’ hostels where you can never feel at home…

When we moved to Vladikavkaz, my father spent much of his spare time with me. Regrettably he died too early. I was fourteen then. Words cannot tell how I loved him. There are so many things that I had no time to ask him and to learn from him… During the war years my dad suffered grave injuries. During the last year of his life he was very unwell, yet his death was like a bolt from the blue. It was stunned. 

… Of course my native land is Ossetia. The first time I got there I was five, and that decided a lot. Traditions, history and folk culture are to be absorbed when one is still young. Then it may be too late. Everything is important in that respect – the knowledge of one’s mother tongue, respect for the elderly people, the skill of behaving oneself in a company and in the company of older people. We often made family outings and picnicked in the countryside. Even on weekdays. My parents, my dad’s friends and mom’s brothers. We had a stylish light-green Pobeda sedan. After a fifteen-minute ride we wound ourselves in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, where everything was different. Deep canyons, fast and mighty mountain rivers where we loved to swim. An excellent way to keep oneself in good shape. An equivalent of a shot of adrenaline.

I would love to settle down in South Ossetia, but I cannot take the Mariinsky Theater with me. It’s my old-time dream to build a good concert hall in Vladikavkaz some day. We have such a project on our agenda.

 Who do you owe your fondness for music to?

— The culprits are to be looked for within the family. I hear people say my dad was a good dancer.

 And you?

— I tried before, when I was younger… I prefer to use my strengths, so I participate in ballet productions in the capacity of conductor. That’s my best link with dancing. The Rite of Spring, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, Firebird, The Little Humpbacked Horse, Petrushka, Les Noces, Anna Karenina, all of Tchaikovsky’s ballets… The list is far from being complete.

Since we touched upon what can wake one’s interest in music, I must say that my mother’s role is indisputable. While I was a little boy, football was my sole obsession. An unbeatable one. I could spend days on end in the yard kicking the ball or a tin can. No time for music. Yet my mother managed to achieve the desired result without scolding, punishment or scandals. I am immeasurably grateful to her, because now I feel myself a happy man and a professional in one’s own right. My mother whom I adore is still in good shape. Hers was a no easy life. It’ll be enough to say that she grew up in a family that had twelve children and only four survived World War II.

While I was a little boy, football was my sole obsession. No time for music

Definitely I was incredibly fortunate to have good teachers. Zarema Lolayeva taught me to play the piano since I was seven, and Anatoly Briskin briefed me on the ABCs of conducting an orchestra when I was fifteen. I recall them with warmth not just for this interview.

I arrived in St. Petersburg when I was about to turn 19. I won’t break a great secret if a say that uncertainty made me feel scared. Briskin’s verdict was like the strike of a sword: “Leningrad Conservatoire.” My first intention was to apply for the piano department, although I had been preparing to be a conductor. In the end I found myself in the conductors’ department. 

I worked really hard from the very first days. I spent hours studying the scores of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner… The groundwork of what I am doing today was laid in my student years.  I liked to study at nighttime, when nobody and nothing could break my concentration, but sometimes I went to the Conservatoire early in the morning to get into a vacant room with a spare piano. Sometimes all classrooms were occupied as early as 06:00. I kept rehearsing till nine. Then regular classes began. My life went like this for years. All of my thoughts were about music, for I knew that everything else, such as career and money is a matter of time.

When I was still a student at the conservatoire I made a trip to Sverdlovsk, where I was invited to take the position of a second conductor at the local philharmonic society. I accepted and managed to squeeze shuttle trips to the Urals to do my job there into my tight schedule. I participated in the Soviet Union’s national contest of conductors in Moscow and then qualified for the international Herbert von Karajan contest in Berlin… Both were a great success. On the eve of the Moscow finals I had turned 23. I was one of the youngest participants, still in the Conservatoire, while my rivals were professional conductors from Tallinn, Kiev and Almaty… The contest was mercilessly tough in terms of competition. My favorite teacher, Ilya Musin, the founder of the Leningrad school of conducting, did his utmost trying to persuade me not to participate. He was doing so in very polite and considerate terms, his main argument being that in several years’ time I would be more experienced to compete as a worthy equal of my rivals. But the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Society agreed to recommend me and I dared take a risk. I hit the nail on the head.

It is very important to focus on the main things in life, without being distracted by matters of no importance. When I became the Mariinsky Theater’s artistic director, for a long time I had to share a room with my two aides. There was no space for an ante-chamber. I did not care. It was normal work. I received guests of the highest rank, such as Placido Domingo, Peter Ustinov, Yehudi Menuhin and many others. Business matters always came first, and personal comfort and other details second.

This is precisely what helped me preserve a good relationship with colleagues. Everybody was able to see that I spared no effort and kept working as hard as everybody else. Probably even harder. I did so always and everywhere. I perform outside the country 70-80 times every year. I gladly lead the festival in Rotterdam. For about ten years I have conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. There are wonderful companies in Vienna, Amsterdam and Berlin. From time to time I work with US musicians. Just recently I obtained the position of the chief conductor in Munich…

Proposals from the West are in abundance, but the Mariinsky Theater has always been number one and will remain so. It goes without saying.

We don’t trade in opera and ballet, as if they were commodities like oil or gas, but I believe that we have been very effective in working for the prestige of the country

We don’t trade in opera and ballet, as if they were commodities like oil or gas (may nobody feel offended; the Mariinsky Theater has many friends among oil and gas producers), but I believe that we have been very effective in working for the prestige of the country. Our orchestra has toured more than fifty regions across the nation – from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. It is common knowledge that Mariinsky Theater’s performers have long worked harder than their counterparts. We picked up this pace back in the 1990s and we never stop. Some no easy times are in store for us, so we will have to redouble our efforts.

Part 3
About earnings, the Forbes list, White Nights, friendship, Putin, Gref and Tchaikovsky


 Variety stage performers call this activity “chyos” (guest performances in a large number of towns to earn much money). 

— This is surely not about us. We do not seek as many concerts as possible and do not set any records. And, incidentally, we perform for money far from always and we give a lot of charity concerts for children and the youth. This is how this should be. Just imagine that a child may attend our concert in Kemerovo, Tomsk, Kazan or Magnitogorsk to listen to classical music live for the first time and in several decades take the helm of the Bolshoi Theater or compose splendid symphonies and become a successor to Shostakovich and Prokofiev. 

I have never tried to seek to leave Russia and it has never come to my mind to make a career abroad to the detriment of my work in the Motherland

Yes, I seek to perform as frequently as possible and I don’t see anything wrong about that. Let me repeat again, I have never tried to seek to leave Russia and it has never come to my mind to make a career abroad to the detriment of my work in the Motherland. Never! This disease stayed out of my way but struck many of my compatriots who had made a choice in favor of foreign countries, believing they could live only there! It is understandable that performers were paid little in our country some time ago but now the situation has changed and conditions have now been created in Russia for people to fully tap their creative potential! 

 As for you, maestro, you do this pretty well in all senses of the word. Forbes magazine has estimated that your total earnings equaled $16.5 million in 2013. In terms of income, you outpaced Russian pop singers Grigory Leps and Stas Mikhailov to capture the first place among the country’s richest musicians. 

— I have never set the goal of outpacing these persons and, honestly speaking, I don’t even have a clear idea whom you’re talking about. Indeed, I have been paid well for my work in the past few decades, especially in the West, but this figure is clearly overstated and there can be no talk about any sixteen million dollars. 

No normal actor or musician would think about earnings when coming onto the stage. This is ruled out. We are people of art while cold-blooded commercialism … it is from a different opera. Do you know, for example, that a greater part of my creative life is passing under the sign of Sergey Prokofiev? This is the genius who lived in the same epoch with us! As a nine-year-old boy, I was learning his simplest etudes, instinctively feeling that I was being introduced to something great, although I could not formulate this clearly at the time. Two decades later, in 1978, I directed an orchestra in the Kirov Theater for the first time and this was the War and Peace opera.  Since then, I have never parted with Sergey Prokofiev and played actually all of his compositions. In the now distant year 1991, we held the Prokofiev festival in the Mariinsky Theater… Next year will mark 125 years since the birth of Sergey Prokofiev. I want this date to be noticed and celebrated. At least, I’ll do all I can for that. You know, if some write that Gergiyev has not done anything useful in his life and has ruined everything possible in the world but has returned much of undeservedly forgotten pieces from Prokofiev’s creative heritage back to music, I will agree to such an exchange. 

This is the main thing but you say money … 

 The Mariinsky Theater in Petersburg has always been treated specially. Have you had amicable relations with the Smolny [the city administration]?  

— In the past twenty-seven years, I have been trying not to burden the city authorities with requests. After all, we [the Mariinsky Theater] are a federal cultural institution. But I remember well that in 1993 [then-Mayor of St. Petersburg] Anatoly Sobchak allocated a thousand rubles from the city’s budget to hold the Stars of the White Nights festival. Today this sum looks ludicrous but this was all what the Petersburg mayor was able to do to help us at the moment as he had no other resources. This is what the 1990s mean! We invited a dozen journalists and there were a couple of TV cameras. First, Anatoly Alexandrovich [Sobchak] made an opening speech and then I did … There were several bottles of Champaign and chocolates on the tables. Everything was very modest and we didn’t spend the city’s money on a cocktail reception. Musician colleagues accepted the offer to perform in Petersburg, without expecting any big earnings. We simply would have been unable to pay such money. No one could imagine at the time that the Stars of the White Nights would acquire such a dimension in two decades and join the top ten musical festivals in the world in the 2000s. Meanwhile, solely my friends whom I had been able to persuade personally came to the festival in Petersburg during its first years. Fortunately, there were a lot of such people. 

Friendship is a sacred thing. It cannot be traded, purchased or sold. I hope I know how to be friends

Friendship is a sacred thing. It cannot be traded, purchased or sold. I hope I know how to be friends. I remember that a couple of times in my childhood schoolteachers strongly reprimanded me and even summoned my parents to the school. It so seemed to my class teacher that I was giving hints and clues to my comrades out of vanity. She was so furious with me then! On my father’s insistence, I was transferred to another class. But I simply wanted to help my friends. My two friends were not very good at maths and I could not stay away when I saw them sitting and taking great pains over a math problem. All the hopes were linked with me and I could not but help them. In my understanding, this was the continuation of our friendship. This is because we played football together, walked in the streets together and sometimes we fought together against boys from a neighboring school. This also happened as we were just 11 years old. But we never left the battlefield without our comrades. At some point, I even took to wrestling to be physically fit. However, these are just a child’s recollections and any person can tell similar stories. 

 Yes, this is true. But hardly everyone can boast close friendship with [Sberbank Chief] German Gref and [ex-Finance Minister] Alexey Kudrin  

— Yes, I highly appreciate my relations with German and Alexey but you should bear in mind that our friendship dates back to the mid-1990s when no one would venture to predict that the young economists would swiftly join the country’s political establishment decades later. We got acquainted thanks to Sobchak who had the ability to gather bright and talented people around him. When I first met with Anatoly Alexandrovich [Sobchak] in the Mariinsky Theater, Vladimir Putin stood next to him. This was the beginning of 1992. Investors had come from France and the talk was about the plans to reconstruct the New Holland, an architectural monument at a short distance from the Mariinsky Theatre. The project was not implemented but I got acquainted with Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin]. 

I don’t want to show myself as a person included in the close circle of the statesman with whom the scenarios of saving the Fatherland are discussed

In 1999, when Vladimir Putin became the premier of the Russian government, he called me. I came to him to the Government House. By that time, he had been the premier for a month, not more. We talked for an hour and a half … But I don’t want to show myself as a person included in the close circle of the statesman with whom the scenarios of saving the Fatherland are discussed. Of course, not! 

Already then, in the late 1990s, I regularly performed on the world’s main musical scenes, conducted orchestras at major festivals, communicated with the powers that be in an informal atmosphere. During a month, I could visit New York, Paris, Tokyo and Berlin. Already twenty years ago, my concerts were attended by Henry Kissinger and World Bank Head James Wolfensohn while my friendship with Royal Philips Electronics President Cor Boonstra helped organize guest performances of the Mariinsky Theater in the Netherlands, France and, surprisingly, China. These expenses were a mere trifle for a large transnational corporation while our performance in Beijing was attended by then-President of China Jiang Zemin. 

But these are just some episodes. I wouldn’t scare you with the names of presidents but I only want to say that cultural ties are an unbelievable resource and I always tried to use it to the extend I could to strengthen friendly relations between other countries and Russia. 

 What did your request from Vladimir Putin in return? 

— I don’t like to strain anyone without any special need. I have a possibility to talk with the president of the country several times a year but I don’t bother him with trifles and I discuss issues that are referred to the competence of the head of state. 

 But you have been able to make him a participant of the latest Tchaikovsky competition, even if as a gala-concert spectator. 

— In 2007, when head of the competition’s organizing committee Mstislav Rostropovich died, I assumed these duties and tried to return the former prestige to this musical event. In 2011, Vladimir Putin who was then head of the Russian government attended the opening of the competition and in 2015 he attended its closing ceremony. But this is not my merit; this is respect for the status of the event. 

 I have noticed that your guest performances surprisingly coincide with the trips by the country’s president on many occasions. Let me cite the latest facts: Putin flew to Beijing on a visit to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two and you were already there, performing with the Russian-Chinese youth orchestra. Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] then came to Vladivostok to attend an economic forum and in the same evening you gave a gala-concert for the forum’s participants and guests.  

— Let me note that Chinese musicians performed in Moscow before that in honor of our Victory Day and now we have made a return visit. The forum in Primorye [the Russian Far East] was held for the first time and its organizers invited us. This is an honorable and responsible job for us. As you mentioned Vladivostok, I can say that the Primorye Opera and Ballet Theater that opened in October 2013 has good acoustics and a big hall that can accommodate up to 1,500 spectators. Externally, the building also looks modern. But still, everyone understands that a theater does no mean only walls. We have decided that instead of taking the new theatre under the patronage of the Mariinsky Theater, it will actually become our part, our Far Eastern scene while remaining in the ownership of the Primorye Territory. 

 You can’t fly too often over a distance of 10,000 km. 

We’ll cope with this. We performed in Primorye twice last year and twice this year. Further on, the number of performances will increase and these are not just words. We’ll stage plays from the Mariinsky repertoire there and our best tutors will work with the local opera and ballet troupes and the orchestra. But you’re right: this is not a short distance. I flew from Vladivostok to Moscow and farther to Europe while theater personnel were returning to Petersburg via Novosibirsk. There is no other way round.  

 Let me return to the president. The pay for friendship with him doesn’t seem excessive to you, does it? Take the recent heated discussion in Munich on whether it was worth signing a three million-euro contract with that Russian who defends Vladimir Putin in everything. 

— Do you think this is the first case when they tried to provoke me? But I understand well: if an artist begins sorting things out publicly, he immediately becomes doomed to a failure. I have the skills to dispute and I’m ready to defend my position at any level and before any audience but is it worthwhile wasting your energy and time? To my mind, this is not worthwhile. It is better to engage in something more useful. I’ll talk with great pleasure about great composers rather than about politics. 

 But Germans’ position could not but hurt you. 

— Listen, two weeks ago, I gave a big interview to Spiegel ahead of my new work in the capital of Bavaria, which began on September 17. I was again tormented by the same questions about politics. As a result, I said: “Gergiyev does not threaten Munich. I believe your people are more concerned about the problems related to refugees and terrorists from the Middle East.”

I didn’t engage in polemics with anyone, although they are actively drawing me into an exchange of blows

Incidentally, I previously cooperated with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra on many occasions as well and the contract was signed long before the act of Crimea’s reunification with Russia, which the West calls “annexation.” Politicians needed a pretext to make a fuss. Well, they found it. I didn’t engage in polemics with anyone, although they are actively drawing me into an exchange of blows and trying to make me discuss problems, to which I have no relation. This is tiresome and strainful. I don’t like to talk about what I don’t understand and what I’m not interested in. An attempt was once made in Munich again to disrupt my press conference by asking me completely irrelevant questions. In modern language, this seems to be called trolling. I explained clearly within a couple of minutes that it was not for this that I made visits to Germany. The German journalists for some reason were unsatisfied with my answer. 

We had large performances in New York late in January. There were pickets with Ukrainian flags and placards in front of the Metropolitan Opera. I calmly passed them by. These demonstrations are exactly intended to draw attention. Last autumn, a provocation was made in the concert hall during my performance in Carnegie Hall. As I was climbing to the scene from the orchestra pit, some persons in the stalls started to shout ugly words. The public reacted with the angry roar, demanding that hooligans be brought out. This is what was done. Anna Netrebko was strongly upset and felt uneasy. I tried to calm her down and told her to take it easy. Such tricks have not had any effect on me for a long time now.

Part 4
About letters of support, Kekhman, Medinsky, Bashmet and persons of Caucasian nationality


 But anyway it is obvious that the West has not forgiven you after you signed a letter in support of Vladimir Putin on Crimea and Ukraine. 

— Let me say for the beginning that I didn’t sign anything. 

— Really? 

— Really! In March 2014, [Culture Minister] Vladimir Medinsky called me: “Valery Abisalovich, what is your opinion about the events in Crimea?” he asked. I answered: “It is necessary to save people.” The minister asked:  “Will you sign a letter to Putin?” I said: “Send me the text, I must read it.” And that was all. They didn’t send me anything but several hours later I learnt from the press that I was almost the first person to sign the letter. 

All these collective letters are absolutely for nothing. This is what we inherited from the Soviet past

You know, to my mind, all these collective letters are absolutely for nothing. This is what we inherited from the Soviet past. Vladimir Putin has a clear and deeply penetrating logic when he talks about Crimea, the situation in Ukraine and not only about that. The president can explain everything and convince persons in everything. It is good for Russia that it has a strong leader! And he surely doesn’t need protection from the cultural public, especially in this form of public calls. To my mind, such messages do not strengthen the common position and, on the contrary, knock out the platform from under the feet of each of us. This is an ill service. I’m a citizen and not a signatory. We are able ourselves to say all we consider necessary and in any audience, let me repeat. I spoke in the US Congress Library before US senators, the military and experts… I am acquainted personally with many of them. The same happens in Canada, South America, Japan… 

 Did you tell Medinsky your position on the letter? 

— You shouldn’t think that my communication with the president, ministers and oligarchs is the only thing I do.  They have their own life and I have my own life. Sometimes, we find ourselves to be present at some or other place but then we depart for our orbits. This is how this should be in my view. 

To end the theme of officials, I can say that they are also different. Some like to demonstrate their power to people around them and humiliate them. I’m not talking about Medinsky in this case. I’m looking back at past experience. Of course, conflicts occurred. When I was forced by circumstances, I pressed further without any excessive hesitation. This happened in cases when I saw that the interests of the Mariinsky Theater were infringed upon and I immediately put the question point-blank. I remember that shortly after I was appointed the theater’ artistic director, I came into collision with the Leningrad City Committee of the CPSU when party functionaries wanted to take away a residential building built for our troupe and give it to servicemen who had fought in Afghanistan. I did not seek new housing myself but I “fought” for the interests of my colleagues.  This was the issue of housing provision for 130 families! As a result, we managed to keep the residential building for the theater with the help of Yuri Solovyov who headed the Leningrad regional committee of the CPSU. We never demand exclusive relations but we want our interests to be taken into account. 

 By the way, what do you think about the appointment of Vladimir Kekhman, towards whom Minister Medinsky is well disposed, as director of the Novosibirsk opera? 

I have a very negative attitude to this person. And the point is not only that I have no respect for people who borrow money and then do not return it. Kekhman crossed the red line when he started to talk about Herman Gref’s anti-Semitism. I won’t shake his hand, when I meet him. This is for sure. 

 Were you offended because of Kekhman’s verbal attack on German Oskarovich [Gref]? 

— In this case, my friendship with Herman has nothing to do with this. How is it possible to tolerate such pronouncements about the person who is no match for Kekhman by his qualities? There have not been and there are not any anti-Semites among my closest friends. Likewise, there are no nationalists or chauvinists among them. Besides, let us not forget: it is not Sberbank that owes money to Kekhman: it is quite the opposite. In a word, I have very serious divergences with the person whose name I even don’t want to mention any extra time. 

 Did you ever hold wrong opinions about people, Valery Abisalovich? 

— Undoubtedly. But I never built relations based on hatred. I was taught to love people. 

 Nevertheless, you were once taken to a police station. Yuri Bashmet told this story.  

— Ah, you’re talking about that. This was a really funny story. I went into Yura’s a car after a concert and we drove to the suburb to our common friends. Bashmet drives very fast and the car didn’t suggest another scenario. This was Mercedes SUV. We were stopped by traffic police but Yura, unfortunately, had left behind his driving license together with all documents. This made police cautious and they told us to open the car trunk for inspection when they saw a huge pile of splendid flowers as we were returning from the concert. Bashmet started to explain that Gergieyv, a renowned orchestra conductor, was in the car. In turn, I tried to enter the dialog and say that next to me was a renowned violist. The traffic police were not convinced by our commentaries and they could not decide for long whether we were carjackers or the sellers of flowers from the Rizhsky marketplace. But they had no doubts that both of us were persons of Caucasian nationality. Finally, the senior police officer addressed me: “You guy, you don’t stand behind my back. I don’t like that very much.” Then they took us to the police station’s pre-charge detention place, the so-called cage box or how it is called? 

 The monkey-cage. 

— Yes, something like that. We spent several hours there. Unfortunately, the battery of my mobile phone went down and I had to request a phone from women of easy virtue who sat in the next cage. Somehow I managed to call [actor Sergey] Shakurov whose telephone number Bashmet remembered. Sergey immediately rushed to the police station. The police recognized him immediately. Apparently, the profession of an actor is more popular in their circles than the profession of an orchestra conductor. 

But normally people recognize me. I remember that in 1997 I was sitting in London’s Waldorf hotel, having breakfast. A youthful, nice-looking and energetic man came up to me and said: “Andrey Kostin, Vnesheconombank. I’m glad to see you, maestro!” This started our acquaintance, which grew into friendship…

Crowned heads, presidents, prime ministers and other VIP persons frequently attend our concerts. Etiquette rules require meeting with them after the performance and talk. This helps establish some human contact. Another thing is that I have never sought to become closer to celebrities just for the sake of collecting acquaintances. I had enough intellect to understand that this was not making us equals. Manners have become considerably simpler today. A person may come up to me before the performance, after it or in the entr’acte and ask for a selfie. No shyness! A person makes a selfie and goes away to look for another celebrity to take a photograph with…

I have never sought to become closer to celebrities just for the sake of collecting acquaintances

I try to put myself in the place of these people but nothing comes out of that. Absolutely nothing! I remember that Richter, Rostropovich and Temirkanov came to perform to Vladikavkaz during my childhood. Of course, I attended the concerts of these celebrities from the capital but it never came to my mind to break into the dressing room of Mstislav Leopoldovich [Rostropovich] or Sviatoslav Teofilovich [Richter] to ask for an autograph… 

 Probably, any provincial boy would be shy in your place, especially in those distant years. 

— But subsequently, when I grew up, nothing changed principally! There was a funny episode with Emil Gilels. In the early 1970s, we traveled in the same railway car to Berlin. Emil Grigoryevich [Gilels] was travelling for guest performances while I was going to the Herbert von Karajan competition. We spent more than twenty-four hours in the travel but I didn’t venture to approach one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. In Brest, we both went to a telephone booth. There were no mobile phones at that time and 15-kopek coins were used to make an inter-urban call. I stood at a respectful distance, looking at Emil Grigoryevich. When he finished his telephone conversation and headed in kingly gait for the train as if on the scene of the Big Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, I went into the booth and discovered that Gilels had left behind two coins. I rushed outside and ran after Gilels, calling him by his name. He looked back in a surprise and I extended my hand, giving the two coins to him. Gilels thanked me and went further along the railway platform. I didn’t dare to talk to him. 

 And you had long-standing and friendly relations with [Maya] Plisetskaya and [Rodion] Shchedrin. I know that you met with Maya Mikhailovna [Plisetskaya] shortly before her death. 

— Yes, her departure from life was a severe blow to me. This happened on my birthday. They called from Munich in the morning of May 2 and congratulated me but in the evening she passed away… Our acquaintance was over thirty years old but close friendship started in the last decade. In mid-April, we communicated splendidly in Moscow and then spent several remarkable days in Petersburg. Nothing foreboded the tragic outcome. Nothing! Maya Mikhailovna [Plisetskaya] was preparing to celebrate her 90th birthday in November and was making plans… 

I decided to leave the London Symphonic Orchestra and head the Munich Philharmonics mainly because Shchedrin and Plisetskaya were living in the capital of Bavaria. And this was also due to the understanding that the German musical culture is a site where I have not expressed myself to the end. I always went to Munich in anticipation of communication with Maya Mikhailovna [Plisetskaya] and Rodion Konstantinovich [Shchedrin]. They always were a single whole...

Part 5
On President Poroshenko’s present, Dmitry Khvorostovsky’s health, and a request from the Grand Duke of Luxembourg


By the way is Tsiskaridze your protégé? 

— Nikolay has already shown better performance at the post of President of the Agrippina Vaganova Russian Ballet Academy than his predecessors did. I had just one small request to him and it was to stay away from any interviews and detailed comments. Words will be plucked out of context and distorted in the final run. And we’re not sorting out relations in a kitchen. There’s no littering the great art with petty passions. 

There’s no littering the great art with petty passions

[…] Quite surely, Tsiskaridze’s candidacy was coordinated with me and I supported him. The future of the Mariinsky ballet troupe is contingent to a big degree on how efficiently and successfully Nikolay will be working and that’s why I could say I have a vested interest in him. And if seriously, I’ve always held support for young talents as a priority task. That’s why I pay so much attention to the Tchaikovsky Competition. I had to work really hard there this year.

 Don’t you feel dismayed by the fact the first prize wasn’t awarded again to violinists at this competition, the same way as in 2011?

— Such intervals do occur. You can’t get away from them. I thought my main duty as president of the contest jury was to invite authoritative, professional and maximally unbiased members of the jury and I think I coped with the task. 

The problem with young violinists is probably more acute than with young pianists and this tendency is present all over the world. I don’t rule out some of the outstanding performers of the past several decades don’t want to teach, to bring up pupils, or to grow replacements for themselves Well, it’s definitely up to them to decide. There’s no tragedy in it. We’ll wait and see.

 But the audiences were enchanted by the French pianist Lucas Debargue who ended up with the 4th prize.

— He might have ended up even with the sixth result because the level of competition was so tough. Several high-rate pianists who will surely make good careers did not get through to the finals and the winners are giving concerts around the world already now. In Stockholm, Mikkeli, Rotterdam, Edinburgh, Rimini, Tokyo… The very same Lucas performed with the Mariinsky Theater orchestra in Merano, Italy, on September 8 while the cellist Alexander Ramm, who got the second prize, played with us on the previous day in Milan. And Daniil Kharitonov was with us on September 6. And that’s just the beginning. These guys have gotten into orbit now and let them revolve there and accumulate experience.

Yes, the competition turned out to have a long distance. Practically no one managed to get to the finish line flawlessly. Actually, the only one was the Mongolian vocalist Ganbaatar Ariunbaatar. I used my right and awarded the Grand Prix in the amount of 100,000 to him. I don’t have a bit of doubts as regards his potential. Operatic baritones always enjoy high demand, especially if they are like him — tall, well-built, with good voices, a natural ability to act and a genuine charisma.

 It sounds as if you were talking about Dmitry Khvorostovsky.

— These two singers really have something in common but Ganbaatar has a long way to go yet before he catches up with Dima (the shorter, informal version of the male name Dmitry — TASS). Unfortunately, Khvorostovsky is ill now but he will do everything in his power to weed the disease out. We became friends quite some time ago and I know his Siberian character. He won’t give up. Dmitry has already said he plans to appear at the Metropolitan Opera at the end of September. I don’t rule out I’ll happen to be in New York at the time, too. I’ll do my best to attend the performance and to speak to him in a relaxed atmosphere so that we could discuss a lot of things.

 Do you discuss politics with him? 

— Not in the first place, of course, but yes we do. Our views on Ukraine mostly coincide. There can be no justification to the fratricidal war there. 

 Do you still remain a People’s Artist of the neighboring country or have you been stripped of he title and declared a foe of the Ukrainian people, like many fellow-performers here in Russia?

— My attitude to the people of Ukraine doesn’t depend on the presence or absence of whatever personal regalia there. Cultural ties can and must do what even politicians are sometimes unable to do. We’ve more than once toured Ukraine after its declaration of independence and have always had warm reception there. We brought Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina to Kiev starring Olga Borodina and Vladimir Galuzin three years ago. I was disappointed by the full disappearance of Russian titles from the repertoire of the Opera Theater. What fault was there in the works by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky or Shostakovich? They are staged in Convent Garden, Metropolitan, and La Scala. Does Kiev find them to be insufficiently good? It’s a very unpleasant revelation. I was trying to organize a festival titled Kievan Rus in Ukraine in the middle of the zero years. I met with Viktor Yushchenko who told me he liked the idea very much and he guaranteed support of every description. Alas, the festival was held only once. And we took Bryn Terfel, an outstanding British operatic singer, along with us to Kiev. He is not used to being treated this way.

Cultural ties can and must do what even politicians are sometimes unable to do

 Once you marked your birthday in Kiev and one of the presents you got there was your portrait made of chocolate.

— Oh yeah, I remember this. I even joked then saying: “I’ll be eaten up at last, you know.”

 And do you know the portrait was made at a factory of the Roshen company belonging to Petro Poroshenko?

— I don’t have any special fancy for candies, you know. I don’t have anything in common with Petro Alekseyevich in this sense.

 You’re answering like a true diplomat. It’s only logical therefore you’re the Honorary Consul of Luxembourg in St. Petersburg. Does it give you preferences of any kind? 

— In theory, I can put the red diplomatic number-plates on my car but I never even thought of procuring them. It wasn’t for this that I agreed to do the job, right? The Grand Duke asked me for it. I know him for more than twenty years and I couldn’t say ‘no’. This title is a duty, not a privilege for me. Because I got used to treating everything this way.

Part 6
On ‘colored aural sense’, the Champions League, the look from under the eyebrows, and occupational illnesses


 I’ve noticed you often conduct the orchestra from memory and don’t have the score in front of you on the desk.

— When you know a piece well enough, you feel like relieving yourself even of the need to turn pages. But you can’t learn absolutely everything by heart, since symphonies sometimes consist of hundreds of thousands of notes.  I don’t actually set for myself a task to learn just absolutely anything by heart. Quality conducting is much more important. A score placed in front of the conductor on the desk helps the orchestra feel unrestrained and confident. And is there any sense in whipping up nervousness? Their work is hard enough without it.

 Is ‘colored oral sense’ a myth?

— There exists a notion of synesthesia. It implies a merging of eyesight and hearing in a single entity. I can’t say I can see music in color. There’s another thing. I pay huge attention to the coloration of each instrument in the orchestra. The conductor’s task is to put everything together. The clarity of rhythm and musical language has paramount importance but you must feel the limit beyond which music dries up. Then the soul abandons it.

 But doesn’t it happen all the same if one gives two hundred concerts a year?

— Our opera and ballet performers know that they have to work really hard and to show stable and high quality if they seek to make names for themselves. That’s the keystone. If acclaim is growing, then royalty fees will be growing, too. These are interlinked processes.

It looks like I don’t have to prove anything to anyone but I’ll lose self-respect if I ever stop doing it. Quite recently I played a piece by Jorg Widmann – a difficult piece – with a youth orchestra. We performed it twice, in St Petersburg and in Berlin.

 And in between you managed to catch a football game.

— That was a happy coincidence. I am as much a fan as before. And I’m a long-time devout fan of FC Zenit. I remember our guys defeat Bavaria 4-0. I went to see several more home games in St Pete but, alas, I get to the stadium far less frequently than I’d love to. I have a huge shortage of spare time. But in June I had a lucky coincidence. My concert in Berlin fell on the next day after the Champions League final. Understandably, I just couldn’t miss a chance to see a game between Barcelona and Juventus live at the stadium. Give to the conductor the things that are the conductor’s and to football the things that are football’s.

 By the way, do people in your profession have occupational illnesses?

— I’d rather say hazardous habits. You can come across overblown self-esteem or self-confidence. Some people get a feeling the baton in their hands is a magic wand. But we are servants, not gods. The servants of composers, orchestras and audiences. You know, it’s not a shameful thing to be a servant of Tchaikovsky or Mozart.

It’s not a shameful thing to be a servant of Tchaikovsky or Mozart

 Why are there so few women among the leading conductors?

— I think the situation may change over time, but today this is really so. Male chauvinism is not to blame. It so happened historically that the position of the head of a large musical collective is associated with men.

 But in real life womankind knows how to manipulate us skillfully, how to turn us round its little finger.

— Do you mean to say all men are jellyfishes to one extent or another? Well, I don’t know. Each case is different. I can only say a symphony orchestra is a very particular organism and managing it is not at all a simple thing to do. 

 Do you have to shout at the top of your voice often?

— I may say a couple of tough words sometimes. Tough, not rude.

 Plus your branded glance from under the eyebrows.

— It delivers a wakeup call, you know. We work hard all the time. I don’t want to goad people but sometimes I merely have to. For instance, the strings – the violinists or cellists – are rarely replaced during concerts. The same musicians begin a concert and finish it. But if you take the winds, there are the fans of rotations there. They play a piece and give place to a junior colleague. No doubt, it’s not easy to breathe into a trumpet for two hours on end, but it’s also inadmissible to break discipline. To prevent such circumstances, a conductor is needed. That’s part of his duties.

Even the jokes told by orchestra musicians are specific. The string players point at the drummers and say: “They keep thumping at others’ skins throughout their life and then complain of fatigue.” In reality, there are no second-rate instruments in the orchestra. Each one is important. There can be no sore spots in a top-class orchestra. The worst things happen when a singer doesn’t feel well enough or when the degree of his training leaves much to be desired. Such accidents did happen. And they always give food for thought on whether he should be invited to productions in the future.

Сonducting is a difficult business and especially in the first seventy years
Interviewed by Andrei Vandenko

Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. In 1982, Andrei Vandenko graduated from the Kiev National University of Taras Shevchenko specializing in journalism. Since 1989, he lives and works in Moscow. Vandenko has more than 20 years of experience in the interview genre. He was published in the major part of top Russian media outlets and is a winner of professional awards.