Friday, October 30, 2009

A Very Russian Maestro: You Cannot Start Without Me

Valery Gergiev is classical music’s road warrior. Currently the Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) as well as the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev is constantly on tour. As a result, he has become a powerhouse in the classical music world but has had little time for his own family. Such is the portrait of the quintessentially Russian conductor that emerges in Allan Miller’s You Cannot Start Without Me—Valery Gergiev—Maestro (trailer here), which opens this coming Monday at Symphony Space, the performing arts center on Manhattan’s Upper Westside.

The driven Gergiev never minces words telling his orchestras exactly what he wants to hear. With his authoritarian bearing and the Devil’s own comb-over, Gergiev often comes across as the dread terror of classical music. However, there is probably no conductor better attuned to the work of the great Russian composers. Throughout Start we hear as he leads various orchestras through rehearsals and performances of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, and Stravinsky, always eliciting the perfect tonal colors from his musicians.

As leader of the Mariinsky, Gergiev has not lacked for ambition, mounting large-scale productions of demanding works, like Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He has proved a decisive leader, quickly rebuilding the Mariinsky’s fire damaged smaller concert hall, becoming a local political player in the process. However, his Russianness extends to an unsettlingly high regard for his “friend” Vladimir Putin. When explaining his admiration, Gergiev uses arguments that sound somewhat like the old “made the trains run on-time” justifications for dictators past.

Miller captures candid scenes of Gergiev and his business manager, constantly booking gigs and making deals. Indeed, it is quite interesting to peak behind the scenes of the rarified world of elite classical music. However, The Maestro is not exactly prone to self-examination, so Start never penetrates too deeply beneath his public persona. While one might wish Miller had pushed Gergiev a bit more during his interviews (particularly regarding his political allegiances), there is no denying his eloquence when discussing music.

While for obvious time constraint reasons Start could not include entire uncut performances, the many excerpts we do hear sound great. Gergiev the perfectionist clearly inspires his musicians, including guest artists like Renée Fleming, heard performing in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Mariinsky.

Start is a colorful, lively, and very Russo-centric portrait of the vigorous Maestro. Co-produced by WNET (New York’s PBS affiliate) and the White Nights Foundation of America (an organization dedicated to supporting the Mariinsky’s international programs), it should fascinate both classical music enthusiasts and Russia-watchers alike. It opens Monday (11/2) at Symphony Space.

(Photo credit: Matt Stuart Burns/A presentation of Thirteen in Association with White Nights Foundation of America and