Security was tighter than usual at the Egg, as Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts is known on account of its structure, an ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass surrounded by an artificial lake. The delay at the airport-style metal detectors on the way in left some of us panting at pace through the grand hall, up the stairs and across the carpeted foyer into the concert hall.
Every one of the more than 2,000 seats was sold out and there was a special air of excitement as the orchestra took their places and tuned up. When the conductor entered in his black smock, the audience roared and cheered and continued applauding until he lifted his right hand to begin Prokofiev’s first symphony.
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Gripping a toothpick between his thumb and forefinger, the other fingers on his right hand fluttered while he kept those on his left hand splayed. Soon he was almost dancing as he directed the orchestra and within minutes, he had created, within the hall, the atmosphere of excitement and unpredictability for which he is famous.
At the beginning of last year, Valery Gergiev was the most celebrated, sought-after and wealthiest conductor in the world, director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and chief conductor at the Munich Philharmonic with regular appearances everywhere from Metropolitan Opera to La Scala. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, he has been banned in the West and has been performing exclusively in Russia until this week’s four, sold-out performances in Beijing.
“I visited 40 to 50 countries every year over the past 30 years and now I am wiser,” he told a press conference on Monday.
“Now, I have more concerts in Russia and am happy about that. I love performing in smaller cities and for people who may not have many opportunities to watch great concerts.”
Munich fired Gergiev last March when he refused to make a statement condemning the invasion and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, where he had worked on and off since 1988, severed all ties. The Verbier Festival, the Bayersische Staatsoper, the Met and La Scala followed suit.
Gergiev did not publicly endorse the invasion but his long-standing support for Vladimir Putin, whom he has known since the 1990s, meant that his silence appeared to imply consent. His agent Markus Felsner summed up the position of much of the music world in a statement announcing that Gergiev was no longer a client.
“It would be utterly wrong to hold artists accountable simply because of their nationality. All art is political but not all artists are politicians. However, artists also understand the clear difference between patriotism and active political support of one’s nation’s current government,” he said.
“When a government viciously attacks the order of peace on which our entire continent was rebuilt, a previously outspoken political supporter of that government, holding a government-supported office, cannot, in my personal view, in a seemingly neutral way, appeal to ‘both sides’ for peace or remain altogether silent. Nor can those who serve him with love and devotion.”
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As the applause faded after the soaring violin solo at the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a young man next to me turned and said in English: “That was magnificent”. He told me he was still in high school and had taken the train from Tianjin more than 100km away to hear the concert and would go back immediately afterwards.
He asked where I was from and when I told him, he said he spent a year at primary school in Dublin and claimed to have enjoyed it. He really wanted to talk about the music, though, and about Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra and all the concerts he had been to and those he hoped to hear at the Egg if he won a place to study engineering at a university in Beijing.
The last piece on the all-Russian programme was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, Pathétique and this time, there was no toothpick and no score as Gergiev seemed almost inhabited by the music as he conducted. Tchaikovsky died a week after its first performance and the symphony, with its long, slow, final movement, came to be seen almost as his own requiem.
As the last, anguished notes faded, Gergiev held the orchestra in silence, his right hand half raised before it slowly descended and dropped to his side.
“I love this,” my neighbour said.
“The way the music is always leading us to silence. To death. Can I say that?”