Profile: Valery Gergiev, Artistic and General Director

Valery Gergiev is one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. Bernhard Kerres talked leadership with the Maestro in St Petersburg.

Valery Gergiev is one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. Bernhard Kerres talked leadership with the Maestro in St Petersburg.

Valery Gergiev

Bernhard Kerres: What are the characteristics of a great leader and what makes a great conductor?

Valery Gergiev: Standing in front of an orchestra and pretending you will use everybody’s time very well is both tempting but also very dangerous. To start by speaking to the orchestra is also very tempting, but even more dangerous because the orchestra normally loses interest quickly if the conductor speaks — and especially if the conductor speaks too much. So born leaders or very, very effective leaders and conductors, will not start just talking and talking and talking. This practically kills all the promise and interest your appearance brings. The true conductor, as well as the true leader, always understands that he has to make everyone feel very involved, not because he talks too much, but because he will do something unusual, exciting, very serious or very light, very funny. But do something without talking too much.

BK: So this means that when you come to a new orchestra you start a rehearsal by immediately playing music?

Oh yes, I will not talk too much. I remember very well when I conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, 15 years ago, I focused on just how to make the orchestra feel we are making music. Of course, they make music and obviously I am trying to make music, but how we can make music together is the priority.
When I am in front of young musicians it is also better to let them feel comfortable, let them feel they are already a good group. Because if you start like a nasty teacher — stopping them and using your stick to lecture them all the time — that is bad leadership. And to demand something to demonstrate how you know everything about classical musical, and how little they know, that again is bad leadership. So even if the young orchestra is not the Vienna Philharmonic you have to bring the atmosphere of trust and respect, which will make them feel like good colleagues.

You should not work with orchestras who you cannot respect; you simply should not do it. Young orchestras are especially vulnerable because they know they are not at the end of their professional upbringing. They know a famous conductor can come and make it interesting for them. But they also know that some famous people can be a little bit arrogant, a little bit too high flying. Then they have a natural reaction to protect themselves. There is like a wall between them, between this famous person and the young musician. So you have to make sure that you treat them like colleagues. Then there is a chance they will respect you, and they will agree that you are the man to trust, you are the man to listen to.

So that is more or less what my professional activities for the last 20, 25 years have taught me; to bring both a very serious approach but also a very natural one. The natural approach comes by simply making music.

Even in today’s rehearsal with my orchestra [rehearsing Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream], I never stopped in Act 1. I hardly stopped in Act 2, maybe once. There were some difficult moments because the children’s chorus is very far away and they don’t hear the orchestra. So it was sometimes impossible to get things quickly. I even asked the children to stay until the end of the rehearsal.

Then we went through it again just to make sure. But you cannot raise your voice with children; you can only ask them — okay, let’s do it. Then I told them that they did very well. I told them that they know this music better than we do, because you sing it so well. We just have to correct something with the orchestra. It was 11pm and these are small children.

Your experience and brain tell you how to keep even very difficult, sometimes exhausting rehearsals like this, focused and people in a mood so they feel, well, it’s nearly midnight but we should somehow focus on what we are doing. It is nothing to do with how well you conduct. It is a lot to do with how well you understand how to work with people — that is leadership. It is not even musicianship, it is leadership.

And musicianship, of course, comes immediately when you start playing so you cannot really demand, you cannot tell people, look, I am a great leader and that is why you have to play like that. You have to be a musician. But on many occasions you make decisions; you just have to be a leader. And I had many, many situations when my leadership qualities were tested.

BK: Like what?

VG: Well, I was in Edinburgh for the festival and I got a call maybe at five o'clock in the morning. The call came from a friend in America who was watching CNN which was reporting that Gorbachev had been arrested and there was a coup in Moscow. My friend told me not to fly back. He was afraid that more famous people would be arrested and that they could arrest me. He was afraid that something could happen to me. I was not a party member. So I immediately switched on CNN and I saw the whole thing. Then I thought, well, I have to make sure that when my orchestra and chorus and everyone comes down for breakfast they will not be scared that something terrible happened in Russia because their families are there. I was there myself from seven o’clock onwards and practically meeting everyone to tell them basically, look, there are certain things back in Russia which we have to watch and we have to talk about. The scenario is a little bit difficult to explain and I feel, I am sure, things will be sorted out very soon so we just should not panic. I was trying to be extremely calm, extremely considerate.

BK: So what you were just saying was an example that you take the leadership of your orchestra much further than simply conducting; you actually care for the people a lot?

VG: Well, I am general director of the Mariinsky. The Mariinsky is an exceptional story because it is a very big and busy institution. You can do a lot here. It is a big opera company, a big ballet company, a big orchestra, a big chorus, a big repertoire, big venues. We already run two venues. There will be another big opera house. We feel like a big family but we also feel that the opportunities are so huge. To lead these people in a very balanced way is not easy. And many things need to be improved.

Tomorrow there will be a lot of people who are coming for a production of Britten, which is not such a well-known repertoire in Russia. But I want to make sure that over the next few years every major university, every school, will have a tremendous interest in such productions. It will be a big task, but one which I am very happy to work on.

BK: Before you started today’s rehearsal of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, what did you expect from your orchestra?

VG: Attention, they have to be attentive. They are good players and they can react very quickly. We just do not talk too much. And then sometimes I tell them to use more vibrato or to make the balance of the voices different. The colour can be more brilliant or it can be lighter, but they react very quickly. I expect them to be focused, that is most important then we can do many things quickly. Just two days ago this orchestra was still in America. That is amazing. As an opera orchestra we work hard, we are travelling a lot with trips to Japan, to Australia, to America, but then they come back and they play immediately, operas or concerts. So it is not easy.
It is quite a big physical task as well. It is my leadership role to make it easier for people when possible. The task is very clear. I cannot put on more and more pressure. Everything is well rehearsed and well promoted. Still there are many things for me to worry about. But I enjoy it; basically it’s a great place to work with these people; it is a great city, it is beautiful, the people are great. I am basically very happy that things are going the way they are going here in St Petersburg for so many young singers, dancers and musicians.

BK: What should an orchestra expect from their conductor at the beginning of a rehearsal?

VG: Well, when relationships are so deep, and when we have worked together over so many years like I have done with the Mariinsky, maybe the orchestra members do not have special expectations every day. They know when it comes to the performance, obviously I will give my best and I expect them to give of their best, too. But it does not generate excitement every time. Sometimes I want them simply to go through the music, sometimes I want them to feel relaxed, but relaxation still comes with a serious attitude. Relaxation which kills concentration is not acceptable, and they know that. The expectation that what we do should bring good results is always there. They know that the first rehearsals are there to give them a chance to read the music. People discuss fingering; people discuss breathing. We discuss if I should conduct in two or in four. First rehearsals are just purely organisational.

BK: So you actually discuss organisational things with the orchestra and you’re happy to take their opinion?

VG: Yes. For example, if they ask me to go through a phrase again because they either want to play better or find a better balance between themselves I certainly will do it. But they are very well trained so normally they sort it out very quickly. But, I repeat, by far the most important question of leadership is to create a human atmosphere, which makes the institution a good place to be. People cannot really work when there is too much negative feelings around or bad relationships. Either they feel tense, they feel disinterested, they feel threatened, or they feel not respected. This is dangerous. Even if something does not work immediately, because the music is sometimes difficult to play or sing, you have to keep the atmosphere positive. I think the Mariinsky is a very hard working institution and people still don’t complain — oh, it’s such a hard work, it’s terrible. Somehow they don’t complain ever. They enjoy being part of it.

BK: During performances there’s no room to discuss things.

VG: No, you just have to use your eyes. Almost all your leadership is in your ability to inspire. Of course, you help with your gestures, you help with your eyes. People are not deaf so they feel. They themselves understand after two minutes if the performance started really well, or not so well. So if it starts not so well some people are disappointed, some people are disinterested. They lose interest because immediately it starts to go down and people say, well, why should I sit on the edge of the chair, because it just does not go so well. One has to make an effort.

BK: So leadership actually changes during the whole process from the beginning of the first rehearsal where you establish trust, to rehearsals where you are able to discuss certain things, to the performance where inspiration becomes most important?

VG: I think every hour of rehearsing is opening up a lot of opportunities. But the risk is that this one hour of your time with a big group of musicians is not enough. Everybody needs to understand how valuable this hour of rehearsing is.

On the other hand if you are given 12 hours then you have to be even better prepared for working as a big group because they might lose interest after three hours. They play it, they think, okay, it’s clear, this and this and this, more or less clear, but the conductor continues to torture them. So after three, four, six hours, the interest can go down. It can go down dramatically so one has to know how to use the time with a great orchestras. It is a great and very sensitive issue. Not to rehearse enough, not to use all your time is dangerous because if something goes wrong the musicians will say that he did not even rehearse properly. But if you rehearse all the time and it does not go well, they will say he was torturing us, we did so many repeats and we lost interest. So rehearsing too much or rehearsing not enough can both be wrong.

BK: It’s a delicate balancing act between over-rehearsing and therefore making it boring for the musicians, and on the other hand not rehearsing enough so that difficult parts are not worked on.

VG: It would be much better to first play a little music everyone understands and knows. Everybody starts building up trust and understanding. Then move onto more difficult things. And then at some point rehearse a different part of the programme — the piano concerto instead of the symphony, for example. You can tell the orchestra that you will come back to the symphony on the next day. But again, you start with a different movement. It is dangerous when you play the same thing over and over again and you do not explain why you repeat it. People start to ask, why are we doing all this without any special reason? It is dangerous to over rehearse or to rehearse without a very clear goal.

Again, a remark can be dangerous because if you say, oh, second violinist, you didn’t play this very well then you upset people. So again, maybe the best is to say second violinist, I thought it was great but one or two spots we still have to look at so that you can play even better. And maybe it was not great but you say something nice. Orchestras find it comforting. Orchestras are pleased if they get the feeling that the conductor understands he has a group of very, very good musicians in front of him but he just wants to ask about a specific detail.

But I don’t believe any conductor made a great career by only complimenting an orchestra because then again you will look ridiculous. If certain things do not work well and you say, “oh, it’s fantastic”, they simply will not believe you and therefore you cannot build up trust.

BK: So what do you do when some things go wrong?

VG: I don’t pretend that the cheap compliments will help. The orchestra will feel that the conductor does not really know what we are really capable of. So they play ok because the conductor is already happy anyway.

BK: So do you ever tell an orchestra, you’re not happy with a part of a symphony or something?

VG: I do. You can always say, look, you are my colleagues and you see it is not perfect yet. There are very difficult passages. We should look at them tomorrow. Everyone understands that you are slightly worried but you trust that they, your colleagues, also know it.

BK: After a performance is feedback for you important? Where do you get your feedback from after a performance?

VG: Sometimes from colleagues and musicians, sometimes from friends.

BK: Colleagues and musicians in the orchestra or in the audience?

VG: If they come and talk to me I am very happy. If there was a difficult, big solo and the soloist did very well, then I am very pleased to see him being happy. And of course, I acknowledge it and normally after a good solo I will ask the soloist to take a bow. Sometimes I even call them forward and put them next to me so the public can see the musician in front of me.

BK: When we spoke you said your role at Mariinsky as their music director is also much like being a teacher. How do you see that?

VG: We have many young people at the Mariinsky. You should take time to work with the younger musicians on their solos. You find time to show them how to shape it, how to phrase, how to find the right space. You become a teacher — or just a colleague with a little more experience. For example, I have conducted the music of Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, for 25, 30 years. Even if I am working with the Vienna Philharmonic I find it interesting to tell the musicians, who are very experienced musicians, about the right atmosphere, the right energy, or the right character. If I feel that an orchestra, a musician is interested, I am motivated to share my experience. In London we do a lot of work on many programmes and we sometimes go into very detailed discussions; very, very detailed.

BK: With the orchestra members?

VG: Yes. During the rehearsal, in the intermission, in the bar after the concert. We enjoy it also at Mariinsky. The majority of soloists are very young. My last point on leadership — we know leadership can be a big problem because when the leadership is right people don’t even notice it sometimes, but when the leadership is wrong the war starts, the economy collapses, things are shown in a terribly, terribly negative light all over the world, especially if politicians do something wrong. So many people can suffer so that is why leadership is important. The quiet and positive, brilliant leadership can be so easy, people do not even notice that there is a problem because there is no apparent problem. No one talks, but that sometimes means there is great leadership. When the problem starts and the whole world is shaking most probably it has something to do with the wrong leadership.

A great leader himself does not talk much about his great leadership. He just does something, I believe. As a good example, the former Barcelona football club manager, Pep Guardiola, [now at Bayern Munich] seems an easy-going and relaxed gentleman. He had definitely the best team of our time and they performed incredibly well. Guardiola does not make arrogant statements; he does not pretend to be everywhere; he is not to be found on society pages; he does not have a TV show. He is low key yet really successful. That is a good example of leadership I would say.

BK: I don’t know any opera house where so many wonderful world stars and singers came from as from the Mariinsky.

VG: And again, they did it without too much noise. It was here where they have trained. We gave them a chance or many chances to go on stage and perform, to learn different languages and so on. For us it is normal and natural and it is basically our duty, we think. But no one told me you have to start with an orchestra, you have to start the academy for young singers. I just felt it was time to do it.

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