PARIS, June 5 — Russia has two tsars, one in the Kremlin and the other who sits equally imperiously on the throne of the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg as the country’s biggest classical music star.
The globetrotting conductor Valery Gergiev is, as it happens, a great admirer of his opposite number, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Without him, Russia might have shared “the fate of Syria”, he told AFP.
“Twenty years ago Russia was at a low ebb and I am not saying that Putin, on his own, has given it back its international importance, but I’m afraid that’s the case,” he added.
Gergiev — who sees Putin five or six times a year — has been fiercely loyal to the Russian leader, supporting his annexation of Crimea, giving Pussy Riot short shift and flying to Syria for a concert in the ruins of Palmyra.
He has also performed in the breakaway republic of South Ossetia — which is only recognised by Moscow.
And this month Gergiev will again be centre stage with Putin — who coasted to another electoral victory in March — as Russia hosts the World Cup finals.
The president’s huge popularity “is something the western world has difficulty understanding”, Gergiev said, but to him and many other Russian citizens the reason is clear — he has guaranteed stability and restored Russia’s pride.
The vast country, he argued, does not want to be plunged back into the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. “We certainly don’t want the fate of Syria, Iraq or Libya,” he said. “One thousand times no to that.”
World Cup concert
Gergiev will conduct a star-studded gala concert in Moscow’s Red Square with the cream of Russian talent and French-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna the night before the World Cup kicks off on June 14.
For his part, Putin has pumped 21.6 billion rubles ($700 million or RM2.78 million) into a new opera house at the Mariinsky and praised Gergiev as “one of the outstanding musicians of our time”, lavishing him with a Hero of Labour medal after reviving the Soviet honour.
Even those in the West who have attacked Gergiev for his “collusion with a tyrant”, do not deny his talent nor his drive.
“Gergiev is a great conductor,” said Peter Tatchell, the British rights activist who once gate-crashed an opening night in London to protest at Russian laws against “gay propaganda”.
Gergiev hit back that he is not homophobic, saying “in all my work I have upheld equal rights for all people”.
Hugely charismatic on the podium, even at 65 the conductor clocks up an average of 275 concerts a year.
“I took eight days off in January. If I get two weeks in August it will be great,” Gergiev told AFP during a stopover in Paris, where he will give three concerts in the autumn.
He said he draws strength from music and his passion from his roots in the Caucasus.
Having lost his father at the age of 14, he left his native North Ossetia at 18 for St Petersburg.
“My mother gave me the force to go that bit further,” he said.
But as well as winning him a global following, Gergiev’s hyperactivity has also drawn brickbats.
After eight years at the head of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Guardian accused him of spreading “his considerable talent far too thinly, so that routine and sometimes under-prepared performances have been far too frequent.” Similar criticism has followed him to Germany where he now leads the Munich Philharmonic.
“I have been hearing that criticism for 20 years and that has not stopped me leading great western orchestras,” he replied, batting it away as adroitly as he does attacks on his politics.
In a new book of interviews with the conductor published in France, Gergiev goes back over his early days at the Mariinsky, where he took over as artistic director in 1988 at the height of the glasnost era under Mikhail Gorbachev.
“Russia as you see it in the western media is not the Russia that I know... And it is the same with Putin,” he said. — AFP