Saturday, November 08, 2008

Gergiev defends South Ossetia concert in NYT.

Today's New York Times has an interview with St. Petersburg-based conductor Valery Gergiev, who has drawn considerable media attention lately as much for his support of the Putin government as for his dramatic and occasionally idiosyncratic approach to the classical repertoire. Currently touring the United States with the Kirov Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, the conductor who is proud to be known as "the world's most famous Ossetian" is eager to defend a recent concert appearance that raised a few eyebrows:
Back in August, the conductor Valery Gergiev took the stage in Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and denounced its “monstrous bombardment” by Georgia.

Speaking both in Russian and, pointedly for the outside world, in English, he said Georgia had carried out a “huge act of aggression” and praised Russia as a savior. Then Mr. Gergiev — perhaps the world’s most famous Ossetian — led the Kirov Orchestra of St. Petersburg in what was billed as a memorial concert for the dead in the five-day battle between the two countries.

The event gave off a strong whiff of Kremlin propaganda and prompted a flurry of denunciations of Mr. Gergiev for supporting what many in the West saw as the bad actor in the war, Russia, which had intervened with overwhelming force after Georgia’s attack.

But three months later Mr. Gergiev remains unrepentant, even proud, of his role. In fact, he says he is vindicated by accounts by independent monitors in an article in The New York Times on Friday, suggesting that Georgia was not acting defensively and had launched an indiscriminate attack, although disputes over who was to blame remain.

“That’s what I’m saying for three months,” Mr. Gergiev said on Friday, in a follow-up conversation to a wide-ranging four-hour interview here on Thursday before a concert on the Kirov Orchestra’s American tour, which moves on to Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday and Monday. “I’m not celebrating this. Sooner or later the truth comes out.”
The program for the South Ossetia concert included Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, which gets us back to the challenging question of how one should understand and interpret Shostakovich's music. Naturally, Gergiev has an opinion on the subject - an opinion partly expressed by his decision to program Shostakovich in the first place and the circumstances under which the concert took place:
The scene at the concert, witnesses said, was surreal. The area was awash in light amid the blacked-out city. Foreign reporters were hustled in for a quick glimpse. The smoke from burning Georgian villages, set upon by militiamen or possibly Russian troops, rose nearby. The concert was broadcast across Russia, and it evoked the suffering of Russians in World War II through a performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, completed during the epic German siege of Leningrad and steeped in nationalist sentiment.

. . .

He defended his program, saying critics had ignored that he began with the Andante from Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, peaceful music, and ended with the death-haunted finale of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. As for criticism of the choice of the "Leningrad” Symphony, he said that Shostakovich “was writing against evil.”

“Shostakovich was thinking of a composition which defended our right to live in this world,” Mr. Gergiev said.
To read the rest, click here. I don't have time right now to reflect more fully here on the questions that this story raises about the often complex relationship between conductors and politics, though you can find some thoughtful discussions on the case of Valery Gergiev (and that of Venezuela's Gustavo Dudamel) here (I should say that I don't necessarily agree with all the points expressed in said discussion, but I nonetheless think it worth reading).

How one interprets the music of a composer like Dmitri Shostakovich (or, perhaps, any composer) is a doubly-complicated question. One may accept the line that, as Gergiev puts it, Shostakovich "was writing against evil" and "defend[ing] our right to live in this world." However, one also has to admit that this message has contemporary implications and can't simply be understood in the historical context in which Shostakovich worked. By programming the Leningrad Symphony at a concert in South Ossetia, Gergiev drew an explicit parallel between Shostakovich's time and our own - a parallel with overtly political connotations. I note this simply to offer a reminder of the potent cultural and political significance that music written decades (or even centuries) ago can have in a contemporary context. More could be said on this, of course, but for now I simply wanted to get you thinking about the topic. AMDG.


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