Britain needs a go-getter like Valery Gergiev

11.19.10
International Tchaikovsky Competition
The Times (UK)

By Richard Morrison

At a time of utmost peril for serious culture, the conductor shows how it’s possible not just to survive but excel

Is there a more powerful operator in today’s arts world than Valery Gergiev? Spielberg commands bigger budgets, but isn’t a personal buddy of the man who rules the largest nation on the planet. Impresarios such as Cameron Mackintosh, Harvey Goldsmith and their American rivals entertain millions, but don’t control the world’s greatest performing organisation. The two Nicks — Serota and Hytner — seem like giants on the British scene, but they don’t pull many strings abroad.

Only Gergiev has it all. At 56 the Ossetian conductor has already turned the venerable Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg into the 21st-century’s most dynamic opera and ballet factory: nurturing a seemingly endless stream of brilliant singers and dancers. That’s the bedrock of his empire. But he’s also reshaping even the architecture of St Petersburg — a feat made possible by his close friendship with a former mayor of the city, one V. Putin. And his impact on musical life in London, New York and Tokyo is almost as potent. No wonder that Time magazine recently named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world today.

That influence will soon be enlarged, because Gergiev has now taken control of the world’s most famous music contest. The Tchaikovsky Competition was one of the crown jewels in Soviet cultural life, despite (or maybe because of) its farcical beginnings. It was started in 1958 to demonstrate Russian musical superiority at the height of the Cold War, but was promptly won by a pianist from Texas — 23-year-old Van Cliburn. Legend has it that the judges prudently checked with Khrushchev before giving an American the top gong. Either way, the Tchaikovsky (which was soon opened to violinists, cellists and singers as well as pianists) became the most coveted prize in classical music.

But then corruption set in, as even the Russians now admit. Teachers with protégés in the competition often sat on the jury. Shameless horse-trading went on behind the scenes. And, sadly, what happened in Moscow became the norm for music competitions round the world, with a few chaste exceptions. Superb musicians without high-placed champions didn’t stand a chance.

In 2008, however, dire finances forced the Tchaikovsky’s organisers to turn to the one Russian cultural figure with a record of conjuring triumph out of adversity — Gergiev. And now the price of Gergiev’s involvement is apparent. The corrupt juries are being swept away. A new management, partly imported (sweetest of ironies!) from the Van Cliburn Competition in the United States, is promising a contest that will be “lily-white”. And Gergiev has even managed to prise the 2011 event from Moscow’s fierce grip and give half of it to his beloved St Petersburg.

That’s hugely symbolic, because it underlines the gaps between moribund Moscow and vibrant St Petersburg. Moscow’s long-overdue rebuilding of the nearly derelict Great Hall of the Conservatoire has stalled to such an extent that this historic venue can’t be used for next June’s competition. Yet Gergiev has surged ahead with the expansion of his St Petersburg empire. In 2006 a dazzling 1,200-seat concert hall was built in record time inside the walls of the Mariinsky’s burnt-down costume store. Now a new 2,000-seat, glass-walled opera house is going up, directly opposite the famous old theatre, to allow the company to double its productions (and, of course, its income stream). While other arts organisations round the world stagger from the impact of the recession and reduced government funding, Gergiev’s ability to prise open state coffers and billionaire wallets seems undiminished.

Yet increasingly he commands not reverence but resentment. Perhaps that’s understandable. Classical music is no less bitchy than any other branch of showbiz. And many critics think that Gergiev, with his twitchy fingers in every pie, is a piper who calls too many tunes. Is that so bad, though, especially in these parlous times? Imagine if the British arts scene had a figurehead who had a direct line to the PM, who was on first-name terms with top industrialists and who ensured that his own prestige abroad translated into lucrative tours for hundreds of British performers.

But you can’t imagine it, can you? In Britain the arts world is pathologically wary of politicians and big business. Now it is suffering from its isolation. When Gergiev took over the Mariinsky, he saw that artistry wasn’t enough: to ensure survival he would personally have to find the cash as well. For too many of our arts luminaries, that penny still has to drop. They think that others should do the hard graft, drumming up dosh in City boardrooms and Whitehall corridors, while they inhabit the lofty realms of pure creativity. That’s never going to work. Top dogs want to talk to other top dogs, not the office poodle. Gergiev’s tireless wheeling and dealing in high places should be emulated, not satirised. At a time of utmost peril for serious culture, he shows how it’s possible not just to survive but excel.