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Valery Gergiev is a natural leader. Recognized as one of the leading musicians in the world, the Russian conductor has trained and developed young musicians into international stars, despite his sometimes harsh technique.
Next week, Gergiev brings the orchestra, soloists and choir of the Mariinsky Opera House back from St. Petersburg to Eilat for the Red Sea International Music Festival. The Festival, which is set to begin next Thursday and continue through December 25 in Eilat, was initially inaugurated by Gergiev in 1996. Despite early success, the security situation in Israel since 2000 has led to the festival's suspension in recent years. However, in the interim period Gergiev still found a way to conduct several times in Israel, mostly opera productions at the New Israeli Opera and at the Roman Amphitheater in Caesarea, but also symphony programs at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv. Yet the conductor says, that for him concerts in the Red Sea area are especially important, since he hopes that they can contribute to peace.
Gergiev, who today is regarded one of the world's leading conductors, was born in Moscow in 1953 to Ossetian parents and raised in their native Caucasus. He studied music in the Leningrad Conservatory under the famous teacher Ilya Musin. Having trained as a pianist at first, at the age of 23 he was given his first passport to go to Berlin, where he won the Karajan Conducting Competition, as well as the approval of the maestro, who wanted him to become his assistant in Berlin. Under the Soviet regime, however, it was simply impossible to leave, and Gergiev took up the post of the Assistant Conductor at the Kirov Theater (now known as the Mariinsky Theater). He quickly moved up the ranks, being named Artistic Director of the Kirov Opera in 1988, elected by the artists, and in 1996 he was promoted to artistic and general directorship of the entire theater.
Despite a tough road, Gergiev is credited with helping the venerable theater survive the collapse of the Soviet Union just as the opening-up of borders was making the West a magnet for Russian performers.
"My greatest achievement at the Mariinsky has been leadership, building confidence in people that it's worthwhile to stay in their own country, keeping it together and giving it confidence. The role has not always been easy, not always been nice in the way I had to deal with people. But I had to give them confidence, not just in the Kirov but in the country."
Over the course of his many years at Kirov, Gergiev nurtured many young singers who went to find success at an international level. He continues to concentrate on developing young talent, launching the Mariinsky Academy for Young Singers, a Kirov youth orchestra, and the Valery Gergiev Music Academy in his home town in Ossetia.
"I want to find and train young artists, because when I was a young man, I remember how I wanted to help. So many young people disappear before they fulfill even 10 percent of their potential."
Another achievement of Gergiev has been to introduce new Russian and European music to the theater's performances. Operas by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev, and ballets by Stravinsky are just some of the works he has brought to Kirov, as well as reviving neglected Western works, such as Wagner's Parsifal and The Ring cycle.
Gergiev's hard work has been rewarded by invitations to major international stages, as well as the interest of notable soloists from around the world performing with Mariinsky.
Giergiev's achievements have been far from easy to achieve, both for himself, as well as the musicians he looks after. Driven by a seemingly limitless desire to succeed, and a persistent work ethic, he demands complete power. Quite often, the fiery conductor has been dubbed a dictator. Gergiev admits he pushes his artists hard but is unrepentant. "I don't really insult people, I don't throw them out of the building. I'd prefer to see the production and the company being strong and successful and not to read in a newspaper how kind I am." he says. "You cannot vote for the right tempo."
In 1997, when this author attended the Red Sea Festival in Eilat, the Mariinsky musicians performed straight after a six-hour Wagner opera performance in St. Petersburg. During the intermission, I was surprised on a visit backstage that some of musicians were sleeping. When questioned whether the schedule might be a bit overwhelming for the musicians, Gergiev responded, "this is a win-or-die situation. Either we work hard or we earn 10 dollars per month and stay in a dusty and drowsy provincial company."
These days, Gergiev shows no signs of showing fatigue. He has appeared with the most major opera companies and orchestras; he is the Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, was the Principal Guest Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, he works extensively with the Vienna Philharmonic and was lately appointed the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.
The hard work seems to have brought its rewards.
Gergiev conducts the Orchestra of the Marinski Opera House of St. Petersburg in Mahler's 2nd Symphony with 250 people on stage (soloists, chorus and orchestra). Thursday at 9 p.m., Red Sea Festival Hangar HaPis, Eilat Port. Info: (03) 604-5000.