The Kennedy Center

Valery Gergiev


Valery Gergiev spends about 250 days a year with the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet. He has been Principal Guest Conductor with the Metropolitan Opera since 1997, Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (one of his first openings in the West), and has worked with most of the world’s leading orchestras. He works increasingly with the Wiener Philharmoniker and has set up numerous festivals, including Peace to the Caucasus, the Mikkeli in Finland, The Red Sea in Eilat, The Kirov-Philharmonia in London, The Rotterdam Philharmonic-Gergiev Festival, and The White Nights in St. Petersburg. 1999 marked his 10th anniversary as an exclusive Philips artist with an extensive production of 30 albums. Despite this phenomenal level of activity, each performance and recording is packed with Valery Gergiev’s dynamism and invention.

Maestro Gergiev was born to Ossetian parents in Moscow in 1953 and raised in the Caucasus. He studied music, first training as a pianist, at the Leningrad Conservatory under Ilya Musin. At the age of 23 he was given his first passport to go to Berlin for the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Competition, and two years later took up a conducting post at the Kirov – his family. He was elected Artistic Director of the opera company in 1988 at the age of 35, and in 1996 the Russian government gave him complete control over the orchestra, opera and ballet. His “mission” has been to make the Mariinsky companies the best in the world. Almost unknown in the West 10 years ago, he is considered today as one of the leading conductors, in demand in virtually all the world’s best orchestras and opera companies. His main motivation always remains the same: to make people proud in St Petersburg and at the Mariinsky (he sees their paths as inextricably intertwined).

Maestro Gergiev’s many artistic achievements have earned him numerous titles and awards, among them the title of People’s Artist of Russia (1996) and the State Prize of Russia (1994, 1999). He was awarded the Golden Mask theatrical prize (Conductor of the Year) 1996 through 2000, and the Dmitry Shostakovich Prize and the Golden Soffit prize for best conducting in 1997 and 1998. At the beginning of 2000, he received the highest government award of the Republic of Armenia, the Mesrop Mashtots Order. In 2001 Maestro Gergiev received the highest government award of Italy, “Grand Ufficiale al Merito”. Valery Gergiev got a State Award in literature and arts on January 31th, 2002 from the President Putin.

At the Mariinsky, Maestro Gergiev has brought on a number of world-class singers such as Galina Gorchakova and Olga Borodina. But his greatest musical achievement has been to expand and rejuvenate the repertory, particularly that of the Russian composers, making his mark as no other late twentieth-century conductor has done. He is devoted to Prokofiev, who he feels has “been neglected”. In the 1999 White Nights Festival, Gergiev staged a new production of Semyon Kotko, an opera that Stalin had considered ideologically dubious and therefore was rarely performed. Maestro Gergiev wanted to demonstrate that the music could override the political content, and underlined that such works are part of Russian history. The audience agreed. Important operas by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich are now in the repertory, and Stravinsky’s ballets are being added. And now that Maestro Gergiev has rebuilt the orchestra and re-established its reputation, he has begun to introduce previously neglected Western works. One of his biggest achievements was the 1997 staging of Parsifal, performed in Russia for the first time in 80 years. In the year 2000, at the Mariinsky, Maestro Gergiev began a new production of Wagner’s Ring – the first time it has been performed by a Russian company. His debut at the Metropolitan Opera was with a new production of Otello with Placido Domingo, and he has returned since with productions of The Queen of Spades, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina.

In the 1998–99 season Maestro Gergiev and his company celebrated several anniversaries: 20 years since he joined the Mariinsky, 10 years since becoming music director, 10 years since his first recording with Philips. The Philips-Mariinsky edition has acted like a mirror on the company – almost all the major projects have been recorded in either audio and/or video format. No less significant is the first recording of the original, St. Petersburg version of Verdi’s La forza del destino. The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet were early fruits of this collaboration. The release of The Nutcracker and Firebird (coupled with Scriabin’s Prometheus) in 1998 reflects Maestro Gergiev’s new responsibility for the Mariinsky Ballet.

He served as musical director and conductor of recent Mariinsky productions: Das Rheingold, War and Peace, Don Giovanni, Salome and the ballet The Nutcracker. His strengths as a man of the theatre are evident in these recordings but his orchestral work is no less important. He has recorded works by Borodin, Glinka, Khachaturian, Liadov, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, mainly with the Mariinsky forces and some with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. 1999 saw the release of Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 5 recorded live at the 1998 Salzburg Festival with Maestro Gergiev conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. “Gergiev touched, as he often does, on something deeper. Other conductors of his generation have made their names with self consciously individual interpretations; Gergiev produces a spontaneous rush of emotion, a communal celebration of sound. He can form an idea of the music’s emotional texture and bring it viscerally to life” (The New Yorker).

February 2003
Valery Gergiev