Renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev spoke to a crowd of Music Humanities students and other members of the Columbia College and University community at a World Leaders Forum event at Miller Theatre on Friday, Oct. 7. The event was sponsored by the Center for the Core Curriculum, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Miller Theatre.
Gergiev is the Director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, home to the Kirov Opera and Ballet. Under his leadership, the Kirov Opera has come to be recognized as one of the great opera companies of the present day. Gergiev is also Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Principal Guest Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. He was in New York to conduct the Mariinsky Orchestra at Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night Gala.
Gergiev participated in an hour-long discussion with Elaine Sisman, Anne Parsons Bender Professor of Music and Chair of Music Humanities, followed by a question-and-answer session and a reception at Faculty House. Students from Saint Petersberg State University also took part in the discussion via videoconference.
Gergiev spoke of the emotional qualities that draw audiences all over the world to the music of Tchaikovsky and of the emotional connections and happiness people feel when they hear the powerful voices and moving performances of opera singers. He also answered question about getting along with opera directors, conducting different genres like symphony and ballet, and pursuing a career as a conductor.
He said he did understand the concept of a “career” before he had one, but that he knew he wanted to be a conductor when he first heard a great orchestra as a teenager.
“For me, being 18 years old, 19 years old, it was a total shock to hear great orchestra, great conductor for the first time in a great hall… to hear great opera and ballet performances,” he said. “So my destiny was clear. I knew even then, in 1972, that I will never change course. I will go and become a conductor.”
“You learn and learn, and suddenly you have a career,” he added. “Because I learned something, my destiny helped me. At some point I was standing there in front of the Vienna philharmonic saying good morning.”
Gergiev was born in Moscow in 1953 and studied conducting at the Leningrad Conservatoire. In 1977, at the age of 24, he was appointed assistant conductor at the Kirov Opera. He later served as artistic director and principal conductor of the Opera before becoming director of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1996. He has appeared with all the leading orchestras of the former Soviet Union and has conducted most of the world’s major orchestras. He also heads the Faculty of Arts at the St Petersburg State University.
At the Oct. 7 event, Professor Sisman said, he was “in his element,” surrounded by attentive students. He asked many students their names and interests when they asked him a question.
“He packed the house, with many hundreds in the audience, and it is clear that music excites him to his core,” she said. “He is genuinely interested in communicating with and encouraging young people.”
The event was geared towards students in the Music Humanities course, which has been a required part of the Core Curriculum for Columbia College students since 1947. The course introduces students to music of the Western world and engages them in the debates about the character and purposes of music that have occupied composers and musical thinkers since ancient times. Musical life in New York is also a key component of Music Humanities, and instructors encourage students in the course to attend concerts and opera.
Professor Sisman said the Gergiev event showed Music Humanities students the passion driving a major musical figure.
“Concert and opera attendance is a rich part of the Music Humanities experience, so for students to hear such a vivid musician and personality, and to be able to ask him questions, is an exceptional opportunity,” she said. “He told wonderful stories and revealed details about the ‘miracles’ that can happen in a concert hall.”