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Is Munich Ready To Pass Gergiev The Baton?

Protesters welcomed Valery Gergiev to London earlier this month.
Protesters welcomed Valery Gergiev to London earlier this month.
MUNICH -- Valery Gergiev, one of the world's best-known conductors and Russia's leading cultural ambassador, has spent the last year drawing boos as much as bravos.

Gergiev -- who has supported some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's most controversial policies, including his crackdown on gay rights -- was heckled by angry protesters at New York's Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall last autumn.

Earlier this month, demonstrators at Trafalgar Square jeered Gergiev as he walked onstage to conduct an open-air performance by the London Symphony Orchestra. This time, the issue was not only gay rights but Putin's forcible annexation of Crimea and continued intervention in Ukraine, which Gergiev had publicly backed by adding his signature to a letter of support published by the Russian Culture Ministry.

Many in southern Germany expected similar protests when Gergiev arrived in Munich last week to conduct the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra for two nights of works by Stravinsky on May 22-23.

The performances included solos by pianist Denis Matsuev*, who had likewise signed the controversial Culture Ministry letter. That -- and the fact that Gergiev is set to take over as music director of the Munich Philharmonic in 2015-16 -- left many Bavarians calling for the performances to be boycotted and Gergiev's contract to be shredded.

The performances, however, passed without event. Eitan Finkelstein, a Munich-based writer who led calls for a Gergiev ban, suggests that a flurry of last-minute diplomacy by Munich's Moscow-born cultural elite may have bought the peace, at least temporarily.

"There are probably a lot of reasons why [there weren't any protests]," Finkelstein says. "But the main reason is based in the fact that in this instance, democratic public opinion was up against cronyism, big money, and mutual back-scratching. You know that Gergiev was offered the philharmonic music director post by two longtime Munich residents, composer Rodion Shchedrin and his wife, Maya Plisetskaya. They even took the trouble to travel to Linz, even though they're quite elderly, to serve as 'heavy artillery' in Gergiev's support."

Shchedrin, 81, and former ballet great Plisetskaya, 88, reportedly spent more than six hours in talks with Gergiev during their meeting in Austria. The result was a long, if sometimes evasive, open letter by Gergiev, published ahead of the Munich concerts, in which he defended his stance even as he attempted to assure German music-lovers of his tolerant views.

"I cannot ignore the fact that parts of Russian society live according to fundamental principles that are different from those of Western societies," he said, in an apparent allusion to Russia's antigay laws. "I respect my people and their traditions.... [but] one of my most important principles is respect for others and their personal lives."

He added, "With respect to my personal stance, there is no one in my ensemble and team who could accuse me of anything."
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) presents a Hero of Labor award to Mariinsky Theater Director Valery Gergiev during a ceremony in St. Petersburg in May 2013.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) presents a Hero of Labor award to Mariinsky Theater Director Valery Gergiev during a ceremony in St. Petersburg in May 2013.

The letter appeared to appease Munich's music fans, with public polls suggesting many residents felt the worlds of politics and art should not mix. With the Ukrainian crisis continuing to fuel anti-Russian sentiment in the West, it remains to be seen whether Gergiev's upcoming tenure in Munich will be controversy-free.

Jochen Eichner, a Munich-based music critic, says Gergiev's letter allowed all sides to "save face," with Gergiev extending an olive branch to his detractors while still upholding his views.

"It's debatable whether all of the interested parties were really satisfied in the end," Eichner says. "The letter itself seems more than anything like a smokescreen of words -- Gergiev didn't really express his true views. You can describe what just happened as a political ritual in which all sides took part. The ritual is complete and for now, at least, we can get back to the music."

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that two Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra pianists performed the Stravinsky works on May 22-23 and signed the Culture Ministry letter. In fact, both men performed but Daniil Trifonov was not a signatory.

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