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When the NY Times Becomes People Magazine: Arthur Lubow's Self-Indulgent Article About Valery Gergiev

 

Un article récent dans le New York Times raconte la carrière météorique du chef d’orchestre Valery Gergiev et veut traiter les relations entre le musicien et les pouvoirs du Kremlin pour mieux comprendre son démarche politique en défense de l’invasion de Géorgie par l’armée russe en août 2008. Ici on dissecte ce propos.

 

Une Note par Gilbert Doctorow

 

When the NY Times Becomes People Magazine: Arthur Lubow’s Self-Indulgent Article About Valery Gergiev

 

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

 

 

The Long March of America’s number one print news platform, The New York Times, from purveyor of “All the News That’s Fit to Print” to human interest stories is approaching the finish line. It began way back in the 1970s when Life Style and other feature sections that had formerly come once weekly in Sunday supplements were inserted in measured doses during the rest of the week to fill out the issues, and commuters were given the opportunity to amuse themselves with more than the daily crossword puzzle if coverage of world events got them down. The article entitled “The Loyalist” about Valery Gergiev, written by Arthur Lubow and published in the March 15th print edition of the paper is the apotheosis of the trivialization of a once great newspaper. Lubow was given the equivalent of 11 typed pages in which to examine Gergiev’s career, his relationship with the Kremlin, his role as administrator of a musical empire, his family life, and a great deal more, even a few words about what Mr Gergiev produces – music – and the pluses and minuses of his output. That so much space and authorial self-indulgence was accorded to a human interest story is a sad commentary on our age, when music critics in major newspapers are lucky to be given a few paragraphs of space to review world premieres of new operas not to mention rank-and-file symphony orchestra concerts.

 

In this essay I intend to examine what is missing in Lubow’s coverage as much as what is present, given that editorial stinginess with space was certainly not the determinant in the balance between the two. Since I have been a long-time follower of Valery Gergiev both in St Petersburg, where I attend his performances at least a dozen times a year, and in Belgium, where he typically has conducted his own and ‘borrowed’ orchestras several times a year, I intend to introduce some of my own observations on his music making. I also feel obliged to share some comments on Maestro Gergiev’s dealings with his musicians, about which I have heard a great deal over the years in a confidential manner from his assistant conductors as well as the foot soldiers in the orchestral pit. While the coachman should not have the last word about his employer, he should not be totally ignored either, as is the case in Mr Lubow’s reportage.

 

But before critiquing the Lubow article, I would like to put it into its context of current reader interests in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere that prompted its commissioning. Why this fascination with Gergiev’s persona and special focus on his relationship with the powers-that-be in Russia? .

 

Prior to August 8, 2008, Valery Gergiev was, for American Kulturträger generally and music-lovers in particular, a well-known and exciting conductor of operatic and symphonic pieces who was associated with the famous Mariinsky (Kirov) Theater in St Petersburg and, more recently, was a long time Guest Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, where he brought repertoire, productions and soloists from his home town to perform during regular annual time slots.. He was so much a part of the cultural scene in America for years that he had become indigenized, very much as his predecessor in the Mariinsky, Yuri Temirkanov, did during his 2000-2006 tenure at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra or cellist turned conductor Mstislav Rostropovich became in Washington, D.C. from his long service as musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center. The facility with which Gergiev and Rostropovich expressed themselves in English especially helped to establish their Americanization in the popular mind. In the U.K., as well, he has become part of the cultural landscape. He now serves as the principle conductor of the highly visible London Symphony Orchestra.

 

A concert in Tskhinvali, August 21, 2008

 

Following the crisis in the Caucasus which began on August 8, 2008 with Georgia’s night-time assault on the civilian population in Tskhinvali, capital of the “break-away” province of South Ossetia, followed by the Russian liberation of the province and incursion into Georgia in a brief but decisive trouncing of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s American-trained and equipped army, Maestro Gergiev made a dramatic démarche: on August 21st he conducted the Mariinsky Theatre orchestra in war ravaged Tskhinvali. The central piece in this memorial concert, which was broadcast live on Russian television, was Shostakovich’s 7th ‘Leningrad’ Symphony, evoking resistance to the evil of Nazi Germany and patriotic defense of the fatherland. In his comments to the audience, Maestro Gergiev condemned the Georgian attack as wanton aggression, cited the figure of 2,000 innocent deaths as a result of the assault, identified himself as an Ossetian and warmly thanked the Russian army for its timely and successful intervention. To get through to the consciousness of a Western audience for whom Southern Ossetia might as well have been Mars, he likened the Georgian attack to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York.

 

This extraordinary event was immediately reported in the world media. It was perhaps the only statement of the Russian point of view on the conflict to be given an airing at a time when the Georgian account of media savvy Mikheil Saakashvili was carried ubiquitously in the West, whether on CNN or in the humble and seemingly independent spirited La Libre Belgique. It may be argued that Gergiev’s concert and statements to the public and the media which followed for months constituted the single most effective Russian Public Relations exercise around the conflict in Ossetia and Russian invasion of Georgia. Otherwise the Russian state efforts were maladroit, focused narrowly on their domestic public and enjoyed scant success.

 

On August 22, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal and other media provided factual reports of Gergiev’s actions and speech in Tskhinvali, though the allegation of a close friendship between Gergiev and former President, now Russian Premier Vladimir Putin was insinuated into their coverage, however odd the reasoning had to be to arrive at the connection. WSJ mentioned en passant that Gergiev is based in St Petersburg, “Mr. Putin’s home town” (as well as the home town of 4.5 million other Russians, one might note).

 

More thoughtful and critical commentary came from other media leaders within several days. Already on August 23rd, The Washington Post published an analytical piece by its staff writer Philip Kennicott. The musically aware and sophisticated author explored what happened both from a comparative view of political démarches by other musical personalities in the world at large, such as Leonard Bernstein at the Berlin Wall in 1989 or Daniel Barenboim’s promotion of Wagner at a music festival in Israel in 2001, and from a perspective of Russian history with its composers going back to Tchaikovsky and more recently Shostakovich who created patriotic music that pleased and served the interests of its government of the day.

 

What stuck out in Kennicott’s well-informed discourse was the charge that Gergiev was “wading brazenly” into politics and that there would be a price to pay in terms of his international career. Kennicott said that the Maestro had breached a new phase in his relationship to power: “He has now allied himself with a greater Russian nationalism, with all its anti-democratic consequences.”

 

Kennicott also put some meat on the bones of the link between Gergiev and Putin, citing a familial relationship, namely that each was the godfather to the other’s children, This was later denied by Gergiev and, on the face of it is highly improbable at least with regard to godfathering Putin’s children given the twenty years or so discrepancy in time when each started his family.

 

On August 26th, the characteristically right-of-center Forbes published “Artistic Propaganda in Ossetia” by Jens Laurson and George Pieler, in which much the same ground was covered as The Washington Post piece, to the point where one might consider plagiarism was at work. The same references to Daniel Barenboim in Jerusalem and Lorin Maazel in Pyongyang mixing art and politics. The same reference to the personal bond between Putin and Gergiev. The Forbes piece was more strident in its characterization of Gergiev’s rhetoric as part of Russia’s crude “ongoing campaign of disinformation.” It spoke of Russian politicians and civilians parroting propaganda, as if the knee-jerk reaction of the entire Western media with regard to “Russian aggression” and “disproportionate use of force” validated pluralism and free thinking ways in the homeland of democracy.

 

At the same time, Forbes offered generously to overlook the folly committed by the Maestro, to keep well apart our views of the man and our views of his art, just as we have done in the past when accepting von Karajan and Furtwängler as respected performers notwithstanding their service to the Third Reich before our time. In the case of Gergiev, what we have is just “patriotic toadying to his bosses in the motherland.” We can move on, we can enjoy his impeccable conducting of the Russian classics. We can go watch his latest offering of the opera Kitezh by Rimsky-Korsakov with pure hearts and open minds.

 

I should mention in passing that all the intellectual efforts by Kennicott and Laurson/Fieler to find parallels with Gergiev’s mixing art and music by references within the concert world are needless plumage display. If we take arts closer to the heart of American interests, cinema and pop music, no one will question for a moment that screen stars and band members have long been known for their political causes, which have often been on the left of the political spectrum (“Hanoi Jane” Fonda comes immediately to mind) but not necessarily, as the infamous role of actor Charlton Heston in the National Rifle Association demonstrates. American stars of stage and screen regularly figure today as poster boys and girls in diverse social and political movements including the campaigns over Darfur, in defense of Myanmar monks and condemnation of human rights abuses worldwide.

 

The pro-Gergiev, anti-Gergiev controversy which ensued was picked up by the Financial Times, which these days might be said to qualify as much as an American publication as it is British given its large distribution in the US. On September 5th the FT published what was effectively a response to Gergiev’s critics. In the weekly “Lunch with the FT” column, Andrew Clark turned the microphone over to the Maestro, allowing him to expound on the Ossetian cause and his emotional involvement in the devastation that followed the Georgian attack. At the same time, the connection between Gergiev as musical director of the Mariinsky and Mr. Putin’s Kremlin, its principal benefactor, was brought out, though in a matter-of-fact rather than judgmental manner.

 

Until the publication of “The Loyalist,” The New York Times was largely on the sidelines in the controversy. Though it had brayed with the rest of the media pack about Russia’s alleged disproportionate use of force in Georgia early on, it was the first mainstream American newspaper to publish the findings of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) report on the immediate origins of the conflict. The page one article “Georgia Claims on Russia War Called into Question” on November 7 was cautious in backing away from the previous certitudes over Russian blame for the invasion of Georgia. On the next day, the paper issued excerpts from an interview it took with Valery Gergiev during his concert tour stopover in Miami Beach, reporting that the Maestro remained “unrepentant, even proud of his role” in defending Russian action against Georgia, and noting that he took The New York Times article on the OSCE findings as vindication of his position. It was here that Gergiev was also given the opportunity to rebut the stories about any personal relationship with Vladimir Putin and to explain his actions with reference to his own Ossetian background.

 

On February 24, 2009, The New York Times put out a further olive branch in the direction of the Russian conductor, sending its reporter Ellen Barry, down to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia (Russian Federation) to write about the costume atelier which Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theature has set up to serve the productions on its main stage.

 

“The Loyalist”

 

All of which brings us to Arthur Lubow’s feature article on Gergiev in the March 15th edition. In the context of the controversy over the relationship between art and power in Russia, Lubow is far more charitable to the conductor than the articles in other publications which date from immediately after the conflict in the Caucasus cited above. He explains the conductor’s closeness to the powers that be in Moscow in terms of the vast sums of financial support solicited and received from that quarter to keep the institution of the Mariinsky Theater going and growing. Indeed, today the project underway to reconstruct the main theater has an estimated cost of more than $500 million and it is hard to imagine government largesse of this magnitude being won by a director who does not have close and confidential relations with top officials in his national government.

 

So far, so good. But when speaking about the importance given to high culture, particularly opera and ballet, in Soviet and post-Soviet Russian political circles, it would be useful to mention that the same is generally the case across the Continent. It is the Anglo-Saxon world which has to do some explaining as to why Culture is left to fend for itself and find private sponsors. Old Europe opens the state purse strings to opera houses that are beloved by their educated elites as an offset to the subsidies given to sporting facilities and athletic events to please the demos. The world’s largest operating budget for an opera company, much of it state financed, happens to be in Paris, France To pretend that politics plays no role in who is appointed as Intendant and musical director at Bastille would mean to play the fool.

 

Otherwise, Lubow’s article covers a lot of ground, giving us an overview of how Gergiev made his career and raised the Mariinsky from its knees, the situation immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, restoring its international and domestic prestige and prosperity, while expanding its repertoire and artistic strengths. It all reads nicely. But it has no depth of understanding.

 

Lubow is a hired pen. He has interviewed a variety of sources like designer George Tsypin or musicologist Leonid Gakkel whose objectivity he clearly cannot judge. Last he wrote for the NYT about a façade design consultancy; what his next assignment for the paper will be we don’t know. He has landed at the door of the Mariinsky like a carpetbagger.

 

Lubow has touched upon real issues that surround Gergiev and the Mariinsky, but has systematically grabbed them by the wrong end. The words used to describe the Maestro – “living on the brink,” “authoritarian,” “emotional,” “limitless responsibilities,” “limitless possibilities – are all true. The problem is that they are double-edged, producing damage that is arguably as great as the positives.

 

Allow me to say up front that Gergiev’s achievements in projecting the Mariinsky, in projecting Russian music onto the world stage are undeniable and very substantial. It is hard to imagine anyone else who could have generated the excitement and ultimately the success that he has done. But it has come at a price which must not be brushed under the carpet in the way Lubow has done, probably because he was simply unaware of the downside out of his general ignorance of the situation on the ground

 

The most damning thing one might say about Gergiev’s work as a musician is the priority given to quantity over quality. Western visitors to the annual White Nights Festival in St Petersburg have to be struck by the tightly packed agenda. At times there are three major opera and concert events going on during a single day from morning till late at night, often involving the same artists. That is not normal, but it is a good indication of the overall situation of the music surrounding the Maestro year-round. He is a whirlwind. He is hyper-active. He often is under-prepared and his orchestras are often half asleep from fatigue. That is true not only of the Mariinsky orchestras (there are several of them) but also, when he can get away with it, of the orchestras which he conducts in the West, beginning with the Rotterdam Symphony, which a couple of years ago I heard in Brussels under Valery Gergiev in a state of exhaustion not at all different from his Russians back home.

 

Passion and excitement in conducting style! Indeed, all too true. And very often intelligence is sacrificed to emotion, with all nuance, all attention to the subtleties of text swept away by volume and thrilling tempi. Do not expect finesse or elegance – elements which are by no means “boring” in the sense suggested by Lubow and attributed to less dynamic conductors.

 

The Mariinsky stages several hundred shows each season. With or without Gergiev, these include many stunning performances, sometimes by little known young soloists. However, the quality of shows in a repertory theater like the Mariinsky can be highly variable from night to night and all too often descends to a shocking level, all the more so if the opera is non-Russian. I have heard the Mariinsky orchestra play Verdi, for example, to the level of a high school marching band, something unimaginable in the larger houses of Western Europe.

 

Lubow speaks of Gergiev as authoritarian. It is hard to imagine a conductor anywhere who is not dictatorial by nature: this is the personality type which comes with the territory. Gergiev also is described as passionate and living on the brink, traits which similarly belong to the artistically gifted generally, who are by definition monomaniacal if they are going to succeed in a highly competitive environment.

 

What is unique in the situation surrounding Valery Gergiev is that his will meets no obstacles. Here we have dictatorial personality and no institutional checks and balances in the Russian cultural establishment to prevent flagrant abuse. There are no labor unions or labor laws to protect his musicians from the whims and enthusiasms of their artistic director. The result has been virtual serfdom within the Mariinsky. This concerns not only chorus and orchestra but soloists and reaches even to the level of assistant conductors.

 

The Soviet music bureaucracy supported lead conductors with a constellation of stand-ins who conducted when the star conductor was away and in any case prepared the orchestra for their boss. This system is very much alive at the Mariinsky today, where an assistant conductor may not know till the last minute before the curtain rises whether the glory will be his, or whether the Maestro will fly in to take up his baton.

 

Knowing all of this, I am wryly amused by Lubow’s accolade: “[Gergiev] has made the Mariinsky, in his image, into the hardest-working orchestra in the world – and not coincidentally, into the best paid orchestra in Russia.”

“Hard-working” is an understatement. As regards the second part of that sentence, if true, the explanation may be found in the Russian state grants awarded to musicians in the country’s leading houses that were introduced a couple of years ago. These established living wages for orchestra members and so influenced the expected pay scales throughout the industry. It is that and not Mr Gergiev’s generosity of spirit, foreign tours or recording contracts which will account for any recent improvements in compensation of his underlings.

 

But if we speak about who gives to and who takes from the Mariinsky in general, then it is high time to explain the obvious: Valery Gergiev has been and remains as dependent on the Mariinsky for his personal career as the institution has been dependent on him for its revival. Without the Mariinsky as his home base he would never have been so attractive to Western houses who invited him in as Principle Guest Conductor nor would Phillips have signed recording contracts with a free-lance conductor. After all, the Western partners look to Gergiev primarily for his interpretations of Russian repertoire, which is a significant part of world repertoire, not because they necessarily find his Wagner Ring to be especially persuasive or needed. The imprimatur of the Mariinsky is the certificate of authenticity.

 

The same is wholly true of such world renowned soloists as Dmitry Khvorostovsky, Vasily Gerello, Vladimir Galuzin, Olga Borodina or even Anna Netrebko: the Mariinsky connection to this day is the point of reference in their careers and they return faithfully to its stage to renew that association each year.

 

When considering further facets of the authoritarian personality that is Valery Gergiev, we cannot overlook the cult of personality and host of sycophants with whom he surrounds himself. One of these many toadies is none other than the musicologist Gakkel quoted by Lubow. In this connection, I am reminded of the parody about the Mariinsky and its remarkable boss written in 1996 by the musical critic Kirill Aleksandrovich Shevchenko and entitled Phantom of the N Opera (Prizrak opery N-ska). In the assorted characters there we find a thinly veiled caricature of the servile Mr Gakkel. Lubow might have exercised greater care about weaving any information received from sources close to the theater into the fabric of his article.

 

After spending a great deal of space explaining how Maestro Gergiev took the Mariinsky company into new worlds of Wagner and foreign operatic repertoire in the original languages, Lubow devotes a couple of lines to the ballet troupe, saying that it has recently been receiving some of Gergiev’s attention. The curious thing is that in the bad old days of the Soviet Union the institution was far better known in the West for its (Kirov) ballet company, which produced the unparalleled stars Rudolf Nureyev and Natalya Makarova, than it was for its opera. Unfortunately the entire tenure of Valery Gergiev has seen the ballet languish. Gergiev believed fervently that the Mariinsky must master Wagner to prove itself fully symphonic. For the same reason he has always had scant regard for toe dancing music and has been miserly with allocation of resources to the dance company. There has been turnover in leadership at the Mariinsky’s ballet troupe, lack of direction and relative artistic mediocrity compared to the Bolshoi over the past decade.

 

 

In the heyday of The New York Times, a feature article with the scope and importance of the article on Gergiev published March 15th would have been assigned to the newspaper's Moscow Bureau Chief with possible assistance from in-house music critics. They would have brought personal experience, area knowledge and long matured reflections to bear on the task.  It is very regrettable that today's NYT editors follow the path of CNN or People magazine journalism, apparently counting on an ignorant readership to wave through whatever comes its way.

 

© Gilbert Doctorow 2009

 

 

G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.

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