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March 2, 2010

Valery Gergiev, White Nights Foundation of America at Russian Embassy

Around here, talk of a mega-multi-tasking musician usually means Placido Domingo, tenor, conductor and general director of Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera (from what I hear, he's doing fine after recent surgery in New York). But there's another wildly over-extended gentleman on the classical scene -- Valery Gergiev, the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, principal conductor of the London Symphony and a whole lot more.

In typical fashion, he has been everywhere lately. Last Friday, he kicked off the Mariinsky Opera's annual Kennedy Center visit, then dashed to Vancouver to conduct part of Sunday's closing ceremonies, then back to Washington for a reception at the Russian Embassy Monday night with the White Nights Foundation of America (a support arm of the Mariinsky's famed summer festival), then to New York to continue rehearsals Tuesday morning at the Metropolitan Opera for a new production of Shostakovich's "The Nose" that opens Friday. For Gergiev, this isn't really that busy a stretch; after all, everything's on the same continent. 

Part of Monday's reception at the embassy (which could be mistaken, inside, for a Las Vegas hotel, ca. 1970s) was devoted to a showing of "You Cannot Start Without Me," a documentary directed by Allan Miller about the conductor's life and labors; it's out on DVD from BelAir Classics. It was interesting to be there watching the film while the subject was sitting in the front row.

It's a pretty reverential product, as you would imagine, but it packs in a good deal of substantive information on Gergiev's musical philosophy (the rehearsal footage, including a lot of "Rite of Spring" with the London Symphony, is quite revealing). There's also a terrific sense of just how adept a multi-tasker he can be -- the best scene has to be the one

shot in his Mariinsky office, when Gergiev keeps one eye and ear on a ballet staffer who has come in to complain about something, the other eye and ear on a TV set showing a soccer match.

After the embassy showing, Gergiev seemed almost sheepish in brief remarks to the audience. "It was a very long film," he said, "so I shouldn't talk at all." He did, however, remember to put in a plug for this weekend's performances of Prokofiev's "War and Peace" at the Kennedy Center, in the grandly scaled (what else?) Mariinsky production that he introduced to the Met with electric results several years ago. "I'm sure it will be very exciting for people," he said.  

I would have thought Gergiev could then make an escape and get some rest, but he stayed to mingle with the guests at a nosh. (I'm not sure everyone appreciated that. While I was talking to Gergiev near one of the buffet tables, the conductor was nudged out of the way by a man hurriedly scavenging for food. Gergiev took it in stride, even said "Oh, I'm sorry," and moved aside. I would have clobbered the guy.)

The Gergiev phenomenon remains one of the most fascinating stories in the music world. He routinely defies the odds, delivering many a notable performance even when severely pressed for time. And, as "You Cannot Start Without Me" underlines, he has a genuine, infectious commitment to the art of music and to the Mariinsky, which has thrived greatly since he took the helm. He calls the company "family," and that connectiveness sure does comes across vividly whenever the Mariinsky is in town.

Those visits have generated some of the most memorable musical experiences I've had in the past 10 years, which is why I'm so looking forward to the remaining events this week.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:53 AM | | Comments (3)


Dear Tim,

What a good news to read that Plácido Domingo is doing fine after his surgery. Following his career for over 35 years he became so important for me that I really was concerned about him because of the lack of information. Let's hope he will be back on his feet again soon.


I was glad to see your mention of Placido Domingo. I've been feeling great anxiety over the fact that there's been no word of his condition for over a week. I know that I speak for millions of people all over the world who admire this great artist and humanitarian. We send our loving wishes to him for a smooth recovery.

Carol Hope

Funny how an entry about Gergiev produced two comments about Domingo (I wouldn't worry about him -- at this rate, he could only be knocked off this planet by a meteor)... Of course, we are talking about two of the hardest-working men in show business!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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