Conductor Valery Gergiev is a maestro with a mission. For years now, from Austria to Japan and seemingly everywhere in between, he has been performing and promoting the music of the composers of his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, that impossibly northern, phantasmagorical, and artistic Russian city of pastel palaces and watery vistas. "There is no St. Petersburg without Europe," Gergiev says, "and no Europe without St. Petersburg."
Against a background of noisy activity, Gergiev explained this idea recently on the phone from another European capital, Vienna, where he was preparing to conduct a production of Sergei Prokofiev's opera The Gambler, a work conceived in St. Petersburg on the eve of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution that today can still be viewed as thoroughly avant-garde. Gergiev has championed the composer's bracing, acerbic, 20th-century stage classics across the globe, introducing them to audiences in some of the world's greatest theaters, where they were once virtually unknown.
Gergiev continues his campaign to promote St. Petersburg's rich musical history with his seven Perspectives concerts at Carnegie Hall. In particular, the conductor aims to show that "St. Petersburg composers were not provincial. Russian music has too long been considered as existing separately from the European mainstream. I disagree with the idea that the group of St. Petersburg composers known as the "Mighty Handful" — which included Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov — were only Russian nationalists. Of course they were nationalists, but they were much more than that. And later, Prokofiev and Stravinsky represent a balance between culture and barbarism, between Scythian and European impulses."
As Gergiev's Perspectives concerts will demonstrate, musical life in St. Petersburg was exceptionally lively in the second half of the 19th century. The Mariinsky Theater, for instance, was the site of the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden, which Gergiev and the Mariinsky performers (the orchestra is known in the U.S. as the Kirov Orchestra, after the name of the theater during the Soviet era) bring to Carnegie Hall on December 2. For Gergiev, the fairy-tale opera is "one of Rimsky's greatest achievements, showing us that he could do as much as Wagner in creating an entire world of sound." Other highlights with his home orchestra and singers include entire acts from Glinka's opera Ruslan and Ludmilla and Borodin's Prince Igor.
But Gergiev's Perspectives will include performances by orchestras other than his St. Petersburg musicians, including The MET Orchestra, which Gergiev leads in an all-Mussorgsky concert on May 18, joined by bass René Pape. The conductor also gives three concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic — on February 29 and March 1 and 2 — featuring Tchaikovsky's final two symphonies, his Fifth and Sixth.
In Gergiev's view, Tchaikovsky learned as much from European composers — especially Mozart, Bizet, and Delibes — as he did from indigenous models. And composers from Western Europe often returned home influenced by the novel sounds of St. Petersburg. Claude Debussy, for example, spent some months in Russia as a teenager and was profoundly influenced by his knowledge of the music of Mussorgsky; "the harmonies," Gergiev comments, "are shockingly similar."
One composer instrumental in exporting the St. Petersburg style to Europe was Igor Stravinsky. His music for the ballet Rite of Spring, which Gergiev performs with the Kirov Orchestra on December 1, represented both a beginning of a new musical language and the end of an era in St. Petersburg, which saw its influence dwindle when the new Soviet government moved the national capital to Moscow. Through his Perspectives, Gergiev will indubitably revive interest in the lively — and thoroughly cosmopolitan — music from the heyday of the city he now proudly calls home.
Harlow Robinson, Matthews Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern University, is author of Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and of the recently published Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood's Russians: Biography of an Image (UPNE).