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22 July 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 11:51am

Valery Gergiev: a politics of music

The Russian conductor strikes at the heart of a fundamental question of musical criticism.

By James Chater

Valery Gergiev returned to the BBC Proms this week in a typically formidable performance featuring Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Ustvolskaya, and Strauss. Alongside the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, Gergiev expertly navigated the stylistically diverse program; from the sinuous Bolero by Ravel, to the emotionally desolate Third Symphony by Ustvolskaya.

Gergiev’s career has been thoroughly international, having held major posts in St Petersburg, London, and now, Munich. But it has been in his native Russia where he has received the greatest acclaim – particularly at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where he has been principal conductor since 1988 – and his celebrity has blossomed as a result.

Gergiev frequently appears in “top ten” lists of the highest-paid, or most popular, celebrities in Russia, amongst the likes of Maria Sharapova and Grigory Leps. But while the conductor’s popularity has only grown with age in Russia, in the West, his reputation is chequered by his political associations – especially his close friendship with Putin.

Gergiev has long been an ally of the Russian President, and has featured prominently in one of Putin’s strangest techniques of diplomatic propaganda: staging concerts in locations of political, and even military, sensitivity.

In 2008, Gergiev led a concert near the ruins of the South Ossetian parliament building. He, and the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, performed Shostakovich’s Seventh “Leningrad” Symphony, itself a work of extreme political origin. Shostakovich dedicated the work to the besieged city, and it has now become synonymous with Soviet resistance to Nazism and totalitarianism. It is still often performed at the cemetery in the city.

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In 2012, he endorsed Putin on Russian television, praising him for his leadership qualities and for the international standing of Russia under his premiership: “When I’d present my passport, in 1999, on, say, the American border, I felt that people might not…reckon with me. ‘Oh, Russia…?’ And tossed to the side. Since then, that hasn’t happened. One needs to be able to hold oneself…presidentially…so that people reckon with the country. I don’t know if it’s fear? Respect? Reckoning.”

 And just a few months ago, Gergiev led the same orchestra in a concert in the ancient ruins of Palmyra, Syria – from where the Russian army had recently driven Islamic State militants. The concert, which featured an address by Putin via live stream from Moscow, was televised across Russia. Servicemen and confused, war-torn, Syrians were in attendance.

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In the West, however, his alliance with Putin has attracted controversy. In 2013 Queer Nation, an LGBT activist group, interrupted Gergiev’s performances at the Met Opera, New York, in response to his support of Russia’s infamous propaganda law on homosexuality.

Later that year, before a London Symphony Orchestra concert, Peter Tatchell took to the Barbican stage delivering a short statement condemning the conductor’s social and political sympathies.

“Valery Gergiev is a friend, ally and supporter of the Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin, whose regime is arresting peaceful protestors and opposition leaders. Gergiev defends the new homophobic law that persecutes gay Russians. He sided with Putin against Pussy Riot. I ask you to oppose tyranny and show your support for the Russian people.”

Yet despite the often political nature of his work, getting Gergiev to talk frankly about politics might just be the holy grail of classical music journalism. He is second-to-none when it comes to dodging politically motivated questions – something an interview with the New York Times last year demonstrates perfectly.

Quizzed on the gay propaganda law, he responded: “My task is to help gifted people. It does not matter if they are black or white, gay or not gay. The important thing is that you cannot put a totally uninteresting artistic creation in front of the public.”

Pressed for comment on the weakened ruble and falling oil prices, he replied: “I think headlines are only part of the news from Russia. My news is that the theaters and concert halls are full, and full or young people.”

And on a rumoured invitation to lead a concert in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city, Donetsk: “I don’t even know who invited me. I read it in the paper. But Sergei Prokofiev was born near Donetsk. Above all, I am interested in doing something for the people who gave us Prokofiev.”

The surgical clarity with which Gergiev divorces music and politics strikes at the heart of an old-age debate in music criticism. It is debate that, on the one hand, view music as an art-form deeply connected with social and political phenomena; and another, which views it as transcendent of such things.

Gergiev, who holds the latter view, probably looks past the negative moral and social implications of performing Western ‘art’ music in the ruins of an ancient Syrian city because, for him, they are unrelated. The politics of the location get lost in the music which is redemptive, a form of absolute escapism.

However, for those who don’t subscribe to such a pure and idealistic conception of music, Gergiev does rather seem like he’s having his cake and eating it.

For those on the other side of the debate, Gergiev can invoke anger, as Tatchell and Queer Nation have demonstrated; but he can also instill disquiet. Alex Ross, reviewing a Gergiev performance of Shostakovich for the New Yorker in 2013, wrote: “How should we react when the composer’s music is led by a conductor who has entered his own pact with authority, who has even spoken approvingly of the politics of fear?” He concludes that, “the historical ironies surrounding Gergiev are becoming uncomfortably intense.”

And whilst I agree with the some of the criticisms filed against Gergiev, watching one of his concerts is a bizarrely intriguing internal experience. Whilst listening, your own motivations, Gergiev’s motivations, and what you presume to be the composer’s motivations, invisibly collide in a strange interplay that is impossible to resolve. That is the beauty – but equally the frustration – of the politics in music.