Arts Fest Gives Maestro a Place in Russian Sun


It is 1:30 in the morning and the sky is bathed in the midnight sun’s dusky light.

Valery Gergiev, the high-energy maestro of the Maryinsky Theater, has walked out into the courtyard of the restaurant next door (“The maestro must get some air,” says a minion) after hosting a collection of friends at a post-concert dinner. It is the middle of the “Stars of the White Nights” arts festival, and the courtyard is a good spot for him to use his ever-present mobile phone to search for an emergency stand-in baritone for the next day’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades.”

Despite the hour and the frenetic pace of life in St. Petersburg every June during the festival, the indefatigable, stubble-bearded Gergiev is bubbling with new ideas. Looking around at the courtyard, he remarks offhandedly to a colleague: “Wouldn’t this be a nice place to hold a party?”


These are the days of excitement at the 142-year-old Maryinsky, still often called by its Soviet-era name, the Kirov, as it welcomes well-heeled music lovers from Western Europe and the United States on an annual pilgrimage to Peter the Great’s city on the Neva River for the four weeks when the sun doesn’t set, or just barely, on this far northern metropolis.

Symbol of Greatness

For St. Petersburgers, and for Russians as a whole, the festival has become a point of pride and a symbol of the greatness that they believe lies latent in their country--even if the nation has been shorn of its Soviet empire and has had to struggle through a traumatic decade of economic and political transformation.

“The festival is living proof that a human genius is capable of overcoming the unfriendly circumstances that make the majority of people in Russia lose heart,” said Mikhail Byalik, secretary of the Russian Union of Composers. “It demonstrates what opportunities are out there, provided one is proactive.”

Gergiev, 49, an ethnic Ossetian from the Caucasus region who, as a young music student, adopted St. Petersburg as home, jets to the Met in New York, Covent Garden in London and Salzburg in Austria, conducting some of the world’s greatest orchestras, spreading the gospel of Russian opera and introducing new audiences to Russian composers such as Prokofiev, Mussorgsky and Shostakovich.

He remains above all passionately loyal to the Maryinsky--where he is loved, if sometimes grumbled at, for his headstrong style and exhausting demands--and for the last 10 years has made “White Nights” a showcase for the 2,000 performers in the theater’s ballet corps, opera company, two orchestras and youth symphony.

This year’s festival, which runs until June 30, includes 31 major performances, a charity concert, an outdoor staging of “Boris Godunov” in the medieval Vyborg castle, and a summer solstice ball held at the former imperial palace of Peterhof.


Focus on Russians

The program has been designed to play to the Maryinsky’s strengths: its core Russian repertoire. Gergiev himself expects to conduct at least 20 times during the month, a staggering pace that one critic said proves that the troupe can adapt to anything--”even living in a permanent madhouse.”

Although the performances have drawn raves, Gergiev is modestly calling this a “preparedness year” in which his performers are marshaling their real efforts for next year’s gala 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg.

Highlights have included tenor Vladimir Galuzin’s anguished tour de force as the darkly obsessed Herman in “The Queen of Spades” and Alexei Ratmansky’s remake of the “Cinderella” ballet by Prokofiev with modern costumes, a bag-woman fairy godmother and astounding leaps by male principal dancer Andrei Merkuryev. The festival also revived a concert performance of the opera “The Story of a Real Man,” the first at the theater since 1948. (The opera was written by Prokofiev while he was under a political cloud, and for many years it was censored by Soviet authorities.)

When the festival was born in 1992, it consisted of only 14 performances and concerts.

Gergiev, who took over the Maryinsky opera in 1988 and was named artistic director of the theater in 1996, said the festival has grown year by year, even when Russia was in decline. “The situation was worsening, and at the same time we were becoming more and more confident, and we were getting more and more known,” he said.

“It has already become a tradition,” said Valentin A. Zakharov, tourism spokesman for St. Petersburg. He said the festival, which is centered on the Maryinsky but also includes performances at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, is a drawing card for thousands of tourists.

“In fact,” he said, “the festival has become one of the most successfully marketed tourist products in St. Petersburg.”

Leonid Gakkel, prominent art critic in the city, said he’s been won over by the festival. “All the halls and auditoriums are crammed, all the tickets are sold out, there are scores of people everywhere....The energy the festival imparts is immense.”

Besides the high-brow arts, tourists are drawn by a wealth of other attractions: late-night cabarets, jazz, art shows and simply the charm of staying up all night with the sun and watching the opening of the drawbridges on the romantic Neva.

Although many of the city’s salmon, blue, aquamarine and mustard buildings have fallen into neglect, with broken plaster and cracked facades, the classical lines of the 18th century architecture stretching along curved streets and riverboat-plied canals are beguiling, particularly in summer’s half-night.

With St. Petersburg laid out so perfectly and exactingly, it’s hard to conceive that thousands of serfs gave their lives hewing the city out of the frozen wilderness and draining its swamps three centuries ago to fulfill the iron will of the Europeanizing czar who wanted Russia to have an outlet to the sea and become a naval power.

“This is one of the most perfect cities in the world--and it is as though divine help made it possible,” Gergiev said.

Others speak in the same awed tones of Gergiev himself.

“Just like Peter the Great reared Russia like a horse 300 years ago and introduced it in the community of civilized European countries, Gergiev--in a powerful burst--has managed to place the Maryinsky among the world’s most prominent and known theaters,” said Byalik, of the composers’ union.

Some artists are unhappy about how Gergiev manages the theater, Byalik acknowledged. “They accuse him of anything short of totalitarianism.... Indeed, there is a grain of truth in the charges--the policies are almost despotic, and competition is harsh.” And in his rush to get things done, even Gergiev’s friends admit, some details get overlooked.

But the criticisms largely give way to admiration for the way Gergiev stays on top of his enormous creative and management challenges. He is traveling, organizing festivals, conducting most nights and running a huge organization, all at the same time.

“A director like Maestro Gergiev is a phenomenon,” art critic Gakkel said. “People of such willpower, such grand scale, with such readiness to get things done without waiting for somebody else to do it, and with such desire to go beyond the limit of their own capabilities, are a huge rarity in today’s Russia.”

Gergiev’s achievement, Gakkel said, is that the Maryinsky--unlike many other Russian artistic institutions--is now well beyond simply fighting for its survival.

“It does not have to survive anymore--it can afford the luxury of creating,” Gakkel said.

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of the Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.