by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 20, 1998
Three months ago, on a chartered Aeroflot flight from Russia to Israel, Valery Gergiev fell asleep. For an hour, he did nothing but doze. He did not answer queries from his colleagues at the Maryinsky Theatre of Opera and Ballet, in St. Petersburg, of which he is the director. He did not field cellular calls from places where he would be conducting over the next six months—London, New York, Rotterdam, Milan, Lisbon, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, and about twenty other cities. He did not answer nosy journalistic questions about rumors that he is going to take over one or more major American orchestras and opera houses. He did not gossip with friends in the orchestra or discuss with a delegation of brass players the possibility of using a bass trombone in a passage of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. No, Gergiev slept—or so it seemed. I was sitting next to him, and I cannot say for sure that his mind was completely disengaged. His foot wagged to some irregular Stravinskyan rhythm. For all I know, he was rehearsing “The Rite of Spring” in his head.
He had reason to be tired. Eight hours earlier, at midnight, he had been on the podium of the Maryinsky, presiding over the soft apocalypse of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” He had then worked in his office until 5 a.m.—he would be away from St. Petersburg for two months and had piles of paperwork to contend with—and by the time he got on the plane his eyes were glassy, his face ashen. Before falling asleep, he tried to read the autobiography of the late conductor Georg Solti. Inside the cover, a friend had written the inscription “May your life be as long and as rich as Sir Georg’s.” Under the circumstances, it looked like a warning. Those who are close to Gergiev worry constantly about his health. They know that his father died of a stroke at the age of forty-nine; Gergiev turns forty-five next month. He encourages these worries by finishing discussions of future projects with the clause “if I am alive.”
This man carries a disproportionate share of the music world on his shoulders. He is something of a national hero in Russia for having kept alive the Maryinsky Theatre after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under his leadership, the Maryinsky, which is known in the West by its Soviet name, the Kirov, has become one of the most celebrated—and recorded—opera companies in the world. He takes the Kirov on arduous tours and next week will bring it to the Metropolitan Opera for a festival of Russian opera. Last September, the Met appointed Gergiev its principal guest conductor, and the New York Philharmonic has made him a regular presence. But at the moment, slumped in his Aeroflot seat, the architect of all this excitement looked, as the Russians say, like a catastrophe.
The hour of sleep refreshed him, however. Gergiev woke up and resumed an articulate, rambling monologue. “We did quite a good ‘Parsifal,’ don’t you think?” he said to me, patting down his thinning jet-black hair and massaging the sides of his mouth. “Not bad, considering we had maybe a half hour of rehearsal. The brass, maybe, they are a little tired. But, I would say...” He looked out the window. “So! Israel! We are landing. Is bumpy. Molto agitato.” His jacket thrown over a shoulder, he emerged from the plane into the Israeli sun. A TV crew was waiting for him, and he quickly regained his maestro-like bearing. One can learn much from Gergiev about the relationship of posture to power: he is not a tall man, but he always appears to be looking down. He expands his chest and hunches his shoulders and tilts up the back of his head while leaning it to one side. With his Jack Nicholson eyebrows and several days’ growth of beard, he can put on a fearsome face when fearsomeness is required. At the airport, Israeli officials wasted his time with silly questions. “Did anyone give you any packages?” he was asked. He tilted his head, stared down, took a long pause, and answered, in a forceful legato, “No.” The inspector’s shoulders sagged. Gergiev bounded into a waiting car.
The first thing to be said about Gergiev is that he has incredible stamina. The Kirov orchestra, chorus, and soloists, having finished “Parsifal” at midnight and flown to Israel in the morning, took buses from the desert airport to the southern resort of Eilat and performed Tchaikovsky’s opera “Mazeppa” that night. Still, Gergiev managed to achieve in that performance the same balance of beauty and power that he usually obtains from
his company. Even with his musicians in a daze, he built up Tchaikovsky’s layers of frenzy and despair. Superficially, the noise matched what is thought to be a characteristic mode of Russian music-making: the over-the-barricades manner of, say, Vladimir Horowitz. But Gergiev touched, as he often does, on something deeper. He created a unifying aura, a raptness of mood. Other conductors of his generation have made their names with self-consciously individual interpretations; Gergiev produces a spontaneous rush of emotion, a communal celebration of sound.
I was with Gergiev, off and on, for a month and a half, and this trip to Israel was the most impressive feat I witnessed. It was a demonstration of what has made him perhaps the most charismatic conductor of his generation. At a time when maestros seem mass-produced, he stands out as an old-fashioned, larger-than-life character, like the conductors in black-and-white newsreels and on scratchy old records. He has great charm and also a ferocity that makes people jump. He is an immensely skilled heir to a great Russian musical tradition: he cherishes what he loves in that tradition while killing its clichés. He comes from another place—geographically, culturally, psychologically. But what place is it? Gergiev is a man both of the world and out of it.
The trouble is that his Flying Dutchman life style comes naturally to very few others. His bad habits—running late, improvising solutions at the last minute, scheduling himself in several places in quick succession and not always getting to the airport on time—put psychological strain on colleagues in the West. (“It’s not ‘Waiting for Godot,’ ” one administrator says. “It’s ‘Waiting for Gergiev.’ ”) The Kirov itself is sometimes bent almost to the breaking point. Gergiev has saved it from the mediocrity into which the Bolshoi Theatre, in Moscow, has lately fallen, but the price has been a not quite healthy dependence on the magic of his personality. When Gergiev is gone, observers say, the quality of the Kirov’s performances slips precipitately. Has he built a better opera house in Petersburg, or has he fashioned a hall of mirrors for his own mesmeric powers? So far, it seems that he has created a hybrid—something between the world’s greatest opera house and a fly-by-night operation. In the end, there may be no contradiction.
Gergiev does entertain ideas of slowing down. In Israel, he discussed notions of fun with the celebrated violist Yuri Bashmet, one of his closest friends. Bashmet, who is also an intense musician but a more carefree soul, had recently gone scuba diving.
“You put on tanks, breathing apparatus, you go under water,” he explained.
“And?” Gergiev asked.
“You look around.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Nothing. Just looking.”
“Hmm, for pleasure, I see,” Gergiev said, stroking his mouth, sounding unconvinced.
He did take an hour-long pleasure cruise around the Gulf of Aqaba, but what really delighted him was the grand view from the balcony of his hotel: Jordan was a mile to the east, Egypt was visible across the gulf, and Saudi Arabia was farther to the southeast. There was an outdoor Jacuzzi—perhaps the only Jacuzzi in the world from which you could see Mount Sinai, if anyone knew where Mount Sinai was. But the Jacuzzi gave no sign of having been used. After admiring the view for a moment, Gergiev studied a fax in which the Metropolitan Opera briefed him on plans for the year 2001.
The Maryinsky Theatre is a big pale-green building surrounded by broad boulevards and a canal. Inside, it feels like the opera house that time forgot. Narrow staircases, worn down like the steps of a medieval castle, undulate beneath one’s feet: for more than a century, choruses have thundered down them toward the curtain. There’s a pungent smell of old wood. Some passages lead nowhere and are stacked with scenery that looks as though it dated back to the time of the legendary bass Chaliapin. One day, I went into the office of Dennis Kalashnikov, a quick, elfin man who, among other things, arranges logistics for the company’s tours. I asked him who was going to sing in “Parsifal,” and he went to his computer to print out the cast list. As I was on the point of being impressed by his efficiency, the room was plunged into total darkness; the addition of the printer to the system had evidently blown a fuse. “Welcome to the
Kirov,” Kalashnikov said merrily.
Gergiev is, in one sense, an insider, an heir to the Maryinsky tradition. In another sense, he is an outsider, a pretender. His strongest link to the past was made at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, which is housed across the street from the theatre. Gergiev studied there in the early seventies, and his teacher was an amazing man named Ilya Musin, who has taught each of the last three directors of the Kirov and who still teaches five days a week at the age of ninety-four. Through him, Gergiev can almost touch the world before the Revolution: Musin was taught by the conductor Nikolai Malko, and Malko was taught by Rimsky himself. When Gergiev conducts Shostakovich, he can bear in mind that his teacher first met Shostakovich in the student cafeteria.
Yet Gergiev is not a native Petersburger. He is not even, strictly speaking, Russian. He was born in Moscow but grew up in Ossetia, a small republic in the Caucasus Mountains, deep in the south of the Russian Federation. His father, an Army officer, came from Ossetia and retired there after serving heroically in the Great Patriotic War. Ossetians are a people of nomadic origins: they are descended from the Scythians, the marauders who swept across much of Russia and the Middle East in the first millennium B.C. Their dialect is related to the Iranian language group. Along with the other fifty-odd ethnic groups of the Caucasus, the Ossetians are considered outsiders: Russians habitually denigrate them as dirty, backward, and criminal.
It therefore caused some uneasiness when an Ossetian took over the glorious opera-and-ballet theatre of the tsar. According to the music critic John Ardoin, who is writing a book about the Maryinsky, “A lot of people in the theatre simply do not like him because he’s not Russian.” Even the friendliest of Gergiev’s co-workers tend to throw up their hands when confronted by a physiognomy and psychology different from their own. “Only an Eastern man could work like this,” the stage director Georgy Isaakian told me as he tried to sort out plans for the upcoming production of “Prince Igor” at the Met. “Westerners—we like to have a plan for life, some comforts, a sense of being settled. He is like a conqueror on the move.” Gergiev does not try to overcome this idea of ethnic difference; indeed, he manipulates it. He sometimes suggests that there is a kind of tribal, ritual aspect to his performances. “In my ‘Rite of Spring,’” he said at a New York Philharmonic rehearsal, “you can smell the blood.” These two inheritances from the past—the refined Petersburg phantasmagoria and the mountain culture of Ossetia—seem to correspond to the contrasting points of Gergiev’s artistic personality.
Gergiev’s chief memory of Ossetia is of an ordinary provincial childhood on which music steadily intruded. “I never wanted to be a musician,” he told me once, over lunch. “It wasn’t a decision I made myself. I was playing soccer from the age of six or seven. All I was interested in was in joining the other kids. Even if there was only a ball like this”—he picked up a round loaf of bread—“we’d play anyway, in some tiny courtyard.” He was pushed in the direction of music by his mother, a formidable woman with whom Gergiev remains extremely close. And something about the sound he made at the piano fascinated the first musicians who heard him. (The pianist Alexander Toradze, who is one of Gergiev’s closest friends, says, “He has an incredible sustained tone, an orchestral sound.”) Gergiev entered the St. Petersburg conservatory as both a pianist and a conductor, but was soon told to concentrate on conducting.
He gained early international exposure by winning second prize in the Karajan Conducting Competition in 1977. Karajan asked him to be his assistant in Berlin, but the offer got lost in the thickets of the Soviet bureaucracy. Gergiev is thankful that he was instead put to work as a staff conductor at the Kirov: “It was good for me—a time when I just worked very hard and found who I was as a conductor. Later, at a good time, I had all the international exposure.” You can still see in Gergiev a bit of the schoolyard ringleader, the charming bully whom everyone wants to please. But that familiar type has been absorbed completely into the musical realm.
Everything in Gergiev’s world is filtered through music. His ears perk up, like a cat’s, at any faintly musical sound. On a walk down Broadway in December, I watched him become distracted by a young homeless man who was irregularly banging on a xylophone. In a split second Gergiev analyzed the performance to be certain that he had not overlooked the xylophonist of tomorrow. His closest friends—Toradze, Bashmet, several favorite singers in the Kirov ensemble—are those who mean the most to him musically. He relates to them not just as people but as producers of sound. “I always compare Bashmet to Olga Borodina”—the Kirov’s leading mezzo-soprano—“who is maybe the most compelling vocal instrument of our time,” he told me. “They are like a brother and sister from the same blood group. It is also the way I want to make the orchestra sound: something to do with this dark, round, deep—brilliant, if needed; biting, if needed; even explosive—but basically this wonderful alto or contralto sound, especially from the celli and contrabasses and tuba and timpani. It can be huge, it can be heavy, it can be just lyrical. I do not get it just by beating time.”
So how does he get it? Most conductors can hold a score in their head. Many can reproduce an orchestral score on the piano. Some, like Gergiev, have a kind of photographic memory, which enables them to recall scores they looked at years ago. Gergiev’s talent is rarer: he can form an idea of the music’s emotional texture and bring it viscerally to life. Esa-Pekka Salonen, a fellow-conductor who admires and likes Gergiev without pretending to understand him, describes the process as follows: “Most other conductors hear the orchestra produce a certain type of sound, then react to it. Valery has a preconceived idea, and he works toward that goal until he reaches it. In the rehearsal, he micro-manages, works very hard on one particular phrase or passage. He leaves the macro-managing to the concert. Sometimes the whole form of the interpretation is revealed only in the concert. This keeps the orchestra on its toes.”
Gergiev’s conducting is more than merely dynamic. In the middle of chaos, he remains intensely calm. His motions on the podium are not manic but relaxed. Toradze, a round, ebullient Georgian who plays Falstaff to Gergiev’s Prince Hal, brushes aside the critical cliché that his friend deals principally in energy and force. “Of course, he has great grabbing powers,” Toradze told me in New York, sweating profusely after a madcap Gergiev rehearsal in which he launched into Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G standing up, because the piano stool had wandered off. “He will never produce elevator music. Or, if you get into his elevator, you may miss your floor. But it’s not just a matter of force—it’s also a matter of tone. Force is something that goes rapidly up and then rapidly down. A beautiful tone goes up slower and then it just floats.” Toradze got up to demonstrate the Gergiev pose and act out the Gergiev sound. “He leads with his chest, not with the chop of his hand. His forte is never klahp; it’s hraaah.” Toradze breathes out slowly. “He doesn’t kick. He expands.” Salonen notices the same inward stillness. He says, “The performance is an oasis of peace and quiet. It’s the only time his phone isn’t ringing.”
Another unusual feature of Gergiev’s artistic makeup is a talent for administration. From the start, when he made his début at the Kirov, in 1978—conducting Prokofiev’s vast and complicated “War and Peace”—it was apparent that he had a gift for big operations. Ten years later, when his predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov, left the Kirov to take over the Leningrad Philharmonic, Gergiev, at the early age of thirty-five, was put in charge. He shook up the orchestra, hired many younger players, and began looking for opportunities in the West. Several singers he cultivated—notably, Borodina and the soprano Galina Gorchakova—went on to spectacular international careers. The Philips label, with Gergiev on its roster, became a recorded encyclopedia of Russian opera. Despite such successes, chaos threatened to overtake the Kirov in 1995, when bribery charges were levelled against the chief administrator and the head choreographer. They were detained while Gergiev was away conducting “The Queen of Spades” in New York. As John Ardoin describes it, Gergiev had to fight what amounted to a coup: there were those who wanted to dismantle the theatre completely. Gergiev held on to his power, and in 1996 Yeltsin gave him total control over both opera and ballet.
Gergiev is generally revered in Russia—in part because so many other Russian musicians have fled to bigger money in the West—but he is also much scrutinized and worried over. Balletomanes complain that he knows far less about ballet than about opera. Russians complain that tickets tend to be made more readily available to tourists, at greatly increased prices. There have been blowups as a result of Gergiev’s peremptory manner. When he was appointed guest conductor of the Met, for example, it was front-page news in Russia—“the gergiev we’ve lost,” read one pessimistic headline—and it turned out that he had failed to inform the state bureaucracy of his new job. The head of the Russian Department of Information and Culture protested publicly, and Gergiev was mobbed by alarmed journalists. A phone call sorted out the flap.
It’s not hard to find a reason for Gergiev’s lack of consideration for the bureaucracy: this year he was promised a budget of thirteen and a half million dollars and he was given six million. “They told me that because of a plane crash in Siberia I cannot have my budget,” Gergiev complained to me. “I always try to give a positive message about Russia, but at the moment I can’t—not at the end of the financial year.” Before long, however, he was again speaking effusively about his theatre. “It is more spontaneous, improvised, it is sometimes out of stereo, out of order,” he said. “But there is a strange order in this out-of-order which we have at the Kirov. Yes, too many things depend on me personally, but this is the only way I can see to be productive in a country where things do not work. Either you have to leave the country, as many artists did, or you have to struggle to overcome these problems. You have to rely first of all on your friends and your orchestra and your trust in each other, instead of contracting them. If you start to negotiate a five-year contract with the Kirov Orchestra, it will be comic. It will be a comic situation because the government cannot guarantee the budget. The government cannot guarantee the government. You never know what kind of Communists or Socialists or President or military dictator will come along. You’d better just do what you can do tomorrow rather than think ahead seven years. But we will do the ‘Ring’ in the year 2000—if we are alive.”
Gergiev faces a very different way of life when he comes to conduct the Met or the New York Philharmonic. There is no problem with money, but with the money come restrictions. In Russia, he can rehearse far into the night if he so wishes. At the Met, the stage manager says, at a preordained time, “Maestro, we have to stop.” Also, American players respond less positively than Russians to displays of peremptoriness. One Philharmonic musician complained to me that Gergiev acted like a “priest figure” and talked too much. This is a strange complaint, given the parade of high priests and martinets who have led American orchestras over the years; Gergiev is a model of politeness next to a Toscanini or a Szell. In the rehearsals I watched at the Philharmonic, he was at pains to couch his requests in such gracious phrases as “I would welcome a short diminuendo” and “Let us respect Mahler’s staccato,” rather than outright demands of “Diminuendo!” and “Staccato!” Sometimes, though, he slipped into unattractive sarcasm. He singled out one musician and snapped, “If you are a great player—and you must be a great player, or you would not be in this orchestra—you can give me this color that I want.” There was an audible moan from the orchestra.
It’s a tense negotiation, the back-and-forth between an orchestra and a guest conductor. At this point, the Philharmonic players haven’t worked with Gergiev long enough to realize what kind of sound he is driving at, and Gergiev is still mastering American orchestra psychology. “It seemed as if he went in and out of favor with different sections, lost them and then won them back,” the conductor Richard Westerfield told me after one rehearsal. “A lot of European conductors are shocked when they find the orchestra talking back, but he seems to enjoy it.” During a rehearsal of the Mahler Sixth, the French horns actively rebelled against Gergiev’s habit of stopping the orchestra and discussing minute details. “Just tell us. Is it going to be slow or fast?” they called out. Gergiev stared at them for a moment and then said, “We are not there yet. I will tell you when we get there.” Which was to say, “I’ll show you with my hands.” The passage went off smoothly. “Thank you,” said the horns. “Thank you,” Gergiev replied, with an insinuating smile. The rest of the orchestra laughed—not an everyday occurrence. In that negotiation he got the psychology right: American players like to be shown, not talked to.
Gergiev knew what he was doing with his mixture of politesse and aggression. He did not want to produce yet another smooth evening for the well-to-do Philharmonic subscribers. “The musicians have played this piece too much,” he said to me. “They are on autopilot. I am in the process of destroying the autopilot. I am making a mess of it, and then I will try to build something in its place.” I asked him if he cared whether the orchestra liked him or not. “Well, ten or fifteen players came up to me and said, ‘It’s like a new piece. We never heard it like this.’ Maybe some other people don’t like it. I don’t know. This is how I work. Each time I come back, we know each other better, and each time we will begin a little farther along.” At present, Gergiev is farther along in his relationship with the Met. His “Boris Godunov” in December came close to his “dark, round, deep” ideal. The concurrent Philharmonic performances—of the Mahler Sixth and “The Rite of Spring”—were more uneven. Still, they had startling force. There was a coiled violence in the first movement of the Mahler, exhausted beauty in the Andante. The “Rite” was less brilliant and mechanical than it often seems in modern performances: it sounded like a group of wounded folk songs crawling out of bass-heavy darkness.
On the second night of the Mahler series, Gergiev conducted the Sixth Symphony not with a baton but with a chopstick. Afterward, over sushi, he explained why. “It started with Gegam Grigorian, one of our very fine tenors at the Kirov. He was having Chinese food with me once and dared me to conduct with a chopstick. So I did, one night when he had a very dramatic entrance, and he had a hard time concentrating. Anyway, tonight I used the chopstick in honor of my doctor, Michael Liang, also my very good friend, who was in the audience.” The doctor had been giving Gergiev chelation therapy—an intravenous procedure designed to detoxify the bloodstream and remove heavy metals from the body. The orchestra did not have this information and considered the use of a chopstick capricious and bizarre. “We found it extremely amusing,” an orchestra member said to me, in a way that implied the opposite. The chopstick seemed to be not just a tribute to Dr. Liang but also another psychological ploy—another way to mess up the autopilot. I was struck by the schoolboyish glee with which this supposedly obsessive, workaholic conductor talked about his chopstick. Something in Gergiev reminds me of those village devils in Gogol tales who leave perplexity and mayhem in their wake.
As I travelled with Gergiev, I kept wondering what made him drive himself so hard. My working hypothesis was that he followed some version of the great Jimmy Buffett saying “If we weren’t all crazy, we would all go insane.” I thought I received a better answer toward the end of a rehearsal of “The Flying Dutchman,” in the overheated attic practice room of the Maryinsky Theatre. Gergiev stopped suddenly in the middle of a passage and jabbered for several minutes in Russian. I had no idea what was going to happen next. Suddenly, the harp began tracing chords in ghostly B minor: it was not Wagner but, instead, the Prelude to “The Invisible City of Kitezh,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s second-to-last opera and his greatest work. There was a practical reason for this switch: the orchestra was to play excerpts from “Kitezh” on an upcoming tour and needed to reacquaint itself with the score. But I had the impression that Gergiev was also conducting “Kitezh” simply to savor the sound. With string tremolos shimmering a few feet from my ears, it was just about the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard: music from nowhere, an apparition, a mirage of winter heat.
In Russian folklore, Kitezh is a city that vanishes from sight when marauders approach. As it disappears, its bells keep ringing through the fog. Rimsky-Korsakov lavished on this scenario the utmost refinements of his style: magically precise orchestration; attenuated, silvery melodies; strange, static, symmetrical harmonies in his self-styled “tone-semitone” scale. The libretto, by Vladimir Belsky, is unusually fine. Anna Akhmatova admired it, and fashioned from it one of her most majestic poems, “The Way of All the Earth.” She wrote, “I will return to you before nightfall,/People of Kitezh.” Kitezh was the destination she imagined for herself after death: the city of art, the city of Pushkin, Petersburg as an immortal construct of the mind. The Petersburg historian Solomon Volkov writes of the opera, “This work seemed to foretell the further metamorphosis of the Petersburg mythos by praising not the victors but the vanquished—their valor in the face of inexorable evil power.” All this ran through my mind as I was listening to the Kirov Orchestra that afternoon. The full import of the music hit me. It was a vestige of a mostly vanished Petersburg world—the cult of “Hellenistic paleness,” as Joseph Brodsky defined it.
A strange thing about Gergiev is that although he is a brilliant talker he leaves some deeper things unsaid. He can intellectualize on demand, but he prefers to speak in more concrete terms about pieces he’s played, places in which he’s played them, people he’s played them with. He didn’t try to put “Kitezh” into words when I asked him what the music meant to him at that moment. “Fantastic, fantastic music” was all he said. Gergiev’s performances are really a kind of intellectual argument in themselves, to the effect that Russian composers are not virtuosos or eccentrics or genius amateurs—which is how standard histories generally treat them—but, rather, musical auteurs, whose output must be taken whole. Almost single-handed, Gergiev has erased the common view of Rimsky-Korsakov as a mere orchestral colorist, presenting him instead as a major operatic thinker. He is now engaged in a similar mission on behalf of Prokofiev. A production of Prokofiev’s wistful Mozartean farce “Betrothal in a Monastery” will shortly be seen in the Kirov’s festival at the Met, and new productions of “The Gambler” and “War and Peace” are planned for later seasons. Gergiev and Toradze have made a blistering recording of the complete Prokofiev piano concertos. It’s difficult to think of a conductor in recent memory who has attempted this kind of wholesale reorientation of the repertory.
Gergiev’s argument is not only about Russian music. He is conducting more Wagner, more Berlioz, more Mahler. If there is a general thread that ties his interpretations together, it may be a passion for chords, for the art of harmony, for the beauty of the vertical. Through much of the twentieth century, the fashion has been for linear thinking, driving counterpoint, structure and coherence and precision. Gergiev, to the distress of some, is not so much interested in these things. In rehearsals, he likes to talk about chords. I heard him say, variously: “I want to bring out the strangeness of the harmony.” “You have to hear the harmony moving. If it’s too loud or too fast, the harmony disappears.” “Each harmony is a solo.” And “Harmony, harmony, harmony!” He separates chords, defines them, and then gives each one a visceral connection to the next. Any moment of any piece, he suggests, can have the same instantly hypnotic effect as the opening of “Kitezh.” This is the approach of a pianist who has adopted the orchestra as his instrument: simultaneous entries of instruments are cued not with hard, pointing gestures but with a liquid, dropping movement of the wrist. The chords are rolled a little, rocked from side to side—first bass, then treble.
I decided early on that Gergiev’s piano-playing must be the key to his brazen, secretive art. But I had not had a chance to hear him play. Then, at my last meeting with him, in London, we had a late dinner in the Palm Court of the Waldorf Hotel. Midnight in the Palm Court: an appropriately operatic setting for Gergiev’s last performance on my behalf. Although the restaurant was closed, he persuaded the night staff to serve us dinner. The room was mostly dark, despite a spread of icy white Christmas lights. There was a grand piano next to us, and I pointed at it encouragingly. Gergiev sat down and played a sumptuous sequence of chords from “Lohengrin.” The sound was, as Toradze had promised it would be, huge, beautiful, orchestral. It was mesmerizing, and it cast a strange aura over this already strange room. The Waldorf was becoming Kitezh. Then the playing stopped. “Quite a good opera, yes?” Gergiev said. “Food! I am by now extremely hungry.” From the other side of the room a waiter was approaching nervously with dinner.