Ahead of Valery Gergiev's final concerts as LSO Principal Conductor, our Principal Flute Gareth Davies gives a first-hand account of the drama that unfolds when Gergiev takes the podium...
The theatre is in Valery Gergiev’s blood – the most obvious manifestation of which is his position at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg. There, like a true man of the theatre, he controls all of the strings, juggling orchestra, singers, dancers, directors and even overseeing the construction of a new hall, Mariinsky II. But it’s not just that, after all, his relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra doesn’t rely on the visual aspects of the opera or ballet – or does it? Plenty has been written about Gergiev’s often unconventional style of conducting. Barely a concert review goes by without mention of the toothpick, fluttering fingers or his seemingly impossible to decipher gestures. It seems that despite the lack of dancers and lavish sets, the visual aspect of Gergiev’s style is often centre stage.
I remember the very first time we played Stravinsky’s Petroushka. The piece begins in the hustle and bustle of the fair - the strings and clarinets whizz around, the flutes shriek like Whitecross Street market traders. The 'traditional’ way of starting a concert is for the conductor to walk on, acknowledge the leader, bow to the audience, turn to face the orchestra, perhaps check that everyone is ready, raise your arms, pause and begin. That night, it was as if the fair had started long before Valery walked up the steps onto the stage. He practically ran through the violins, and in one roundhouse punch of a gesture, shook the leaders’ hand, bowed and whipped around bringing his right hand crashing in for the downbeat. The house lights were still up. I wasn’t ready, but somehow managed to get my flute into position without taking any of my teeth out and made it just in time. Audience chatter was suddenly silenced, the players were already on the edge of their seats, everyone in the hall was instantly transported to the Russian fair. It was breathless, it was exciting – it was theatre.
Gergiev must be aware that once you strip away the raise of the curtain, the actors and the lighting effects, the action is stripped down to its bare essentials. It would be wrong to claim that his performances are purely down to his physicality – but you cannot ignore it.
Performances of The Rite of Spring are so commonplace these days that critics often complain that they have become sanitised, they are too perfect, they no longer sound like a struggle. Well, it’s always a struggle, it’s just not an easy piece for an ensemble to play. The ideal interpretation surely must be one which blends rhythmic and harmonic unity with an animalistic quality to the sound when required, a sound you can almost touch. One only has to see the look of violence in Gergiev’s eyes when he casts the upbeat at the start of the 'Dance of the Young Girls' to understand why it sounds like it does; the jerks and stabs of his shoulders punctuate the texture with offbeat accents. From that moment on until the end of the first part, he builds the tension at a furious rate, pausing just long enough for breath before the onslaught continues – the orchestra never relaxes.
He said to me once in an interview, that there are times when he is deliberately unclear to the players in his gestures; he likes to create tension and a sense of reinvention – certainly I don’t recall ever giving the same performance twice with him in charge. I think what he does is not only create a theatrical atmosphere of anticipation, danger and unpredictability for the audience, but also crucially for the orchestra. At the end of The Rite there is a distinctive pause before the final scream of the piece. Most conductors wait awhile, but nobody else ever waits quite as long as Valery – every single person in the hall waits and watches. The pause isn’t in the score, but as he stands unmoving for what seems like forever before suddenly clawing the final primal sounds from the orchestra, once again, the theatre is there for all to see.
This response is easy to justify in the ‘theatrical’ works. It’s simple to draw parallels with the moves of a dancer and a conductor, we can all make comparisons with the way a conductor spreads their arms wide like the wings of Stravinsky’s Firebird. What separates Gergiev is that he brings this same approach to the purely orchestral works too. There are no preformed images here, no narrative upon which to hang our expectations, it’s just music for the sake of it. But when you hear the Bartók Dance Suite or the Concerto for Orchestra, close your eyes and in Gergiev’s hands you can still see the dancers.
Photo: The Last Rite, Polish National Ballet. Staging by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. Photo by Shira Klasmer
Valery Gergiev concludes his tenure as LSO Principal Conductor with three concerts dedicated to the revolutionary ballet scores of Bartók and Stravinsky: The Firebird on 9 October, The Rite of Spring on 11 October, and The Miraculous Mandarin on 18 October, and on tour in Vienna, Luxembourg, Paris, Newark and New York.