Gergiev's Russian Overture: A Symphony of Sympathies

The audience listens raptly to the work, presented to honor victims of war.
The audience listens raptly to the work, presented to honor victims of war. (By Chris Hondros -- Getty Images)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008

Of his Seventh Symphony, written in the darkest days of World War II, Dmitri Shostakovich once said, "I wanted to create the image of our embattled country, to engrave it in music." Valery Gergiev, one of the most sought-after conductors in the world, chose Shostakovich's wartime piece, subtitled "Leningrad," to anchor a concert he gave in the war-torn Georgian city of Tskhinvali on Thursday. Dressed in black and performing on the steps of the bombed-out parliament building, Gergiev has also engraved himself into history -- wading brazenly not just into politics, but politics by other means, in a way that few other classical musicians would dare today.

Gergiev is an ethnic Ossetian, but he has long been a man of the world. With significant political and personal support from Vladimir Putin, he has built St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre into an international opera powerhouse. He is the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and has served as principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It's hard to imagine a classical musician today who is more in demand, which makes his appearance in South Ossetia this week an event worth teasing out of the political coverage of the war in Georgia.

Politicians use classical music rather like they use white-tie galas and red carpets. It adds dignity and intensifies an occasion, making it more serious and profound. But the music heard at political events is all too often ignored, despite its often huge symbolic importance. When the New York Philharmonic went to North Korea, journalists mentioned that they had performed Leonard Bernstein's Overture to "Candide," and some noted that it was performed without a conductor. But the resonance of the performance was lost in most news coverage.

Although it's a popular encore for the Philharmonic, especially on tour, it was an extraordinary gesture to play the "Candide" overture without someone "in charge" for an audience of dark-suited automatons, standing and clapping in eerie unison. Bernstein's overture (inspired by Voltaire) is fast paced and difficult, and to perform it without a conductor underscores a basic fact: Unity and collective discipline can be had without submitting to authoritarian power.

But what message is there in Gergiev's choice of Shostakovich's wartime potboiler for an Ossetian victory concert? From a Russian point of view, the connection is obvious and blunt: Shostakovich's symphony lamented Russian suffering and Nazi aggression, before celebrating "a beautiful future time when the enemy will have been defeated." Using it in South Ossetia connects the glory of the Russian people's fortitude in World War II to the victory over Georgian forces in Ossetia.

Edith Wharton once wrote that "Analogies are the most dangerous form of reasoning: they connect resemblances, but disguise facts." The analogy Gergiev chose to emphasize -- two Russian victories -- is tenuous at best. Shostakovich wrote the Seventh Symphony literally under fire, having remained in Leningrad as the Nazis began shelling it. The Russians lost 20 million people in the war. Shostakovich couldn't know that when he began the composition in 1941, but he could be certain that the suffering of his people was unfolding on an epic and horrifying scale.

There is little of the moral clarity of World War II that can be applied to the conflict in South Ossetia. There were provocations on both sides, over a region where strong ethnic identities have created an intractable set of problems: a desire for Ossetian autonomy on one side, Georgian commitment to territorial integrity on the other, and lurking in the background, centuries of Russian expansionism. Hitler forced war on the Russians in 1941. The Russians, in Ossetia, have participated in an escalation of border tensions, and then used the spark of war to further extend their influence in a volatile region.

No matter where one's loyalties lie, the analogy of World War II is extreme in its application to Ossetia. Gergiev's decision to underscore that analogy, and by extension to validate what many in the West believe was a disproportionate Russian response to Georgian provocation, drags the conductor into territory most musicians try to avoid. Gergiev is now a controversial figure, espousing a political worldview that extends far beyond the political platitudes of most artists.

When Leonard Bernstein, for instance, conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 at the Berlin Wall in 1989, the only thing mildly controversial about the event was the conductor's substitute of the word for "freedom" for the word for "joy" in the Schiller poem Beethoven used in his "Ode to Joy." When Daniel Barenboim conducted Wagner in Israel, in 2001, he was risking far more, given the composer's notorious anti-Semitism and the strong anti-Wagner sentiments among some Israelis. But he also made it a "democratic" event, by asking the audience to debate whether they wanted to hear the piece. They decided they did, and despite some walkouts, Wagner was finally heard at a major festival in Israel.

Gergiev's gesture is more in your face, and it may well dog him as he continues his international career. Gergiev's friendship with Putin has raised some eyebrows in the past -- each is godfather to the other's children -- but most understand it as a canny alliance in Gergiev's larger battle: to keep the Mariinsky Theatre alive. His performance in Ossetia goes far beyond green-room chatter with Putin after a performance. He has now allied himself with a greater Russian nationalism, with all its anti-democratic consequences.

And in a strange way, he has stripped some of the historical bark off Shostakovich, who was, during the Cold War, often (and unfairly) seen as a political toady to Stalin in a way that was unseemly for an artist. Like Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture, which was written to commemorate Napoleon's defeat outside Moscow in the 19th century, the Shostakovich "Leningrad" symphony is a patriotic musical form without direct equivalent in the United States. Both are pieces that celebrate Russian power through the prism of Russian grievance. Just as we have never suffered the same intensity of wartime horror, America also lacks patriotic music that specifically uses victimization to intensify national feeling. Our patriotic spectacle pieces (Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," Sousa's marches, Dvorak's "New World" Symphony) are usually optimistic and upbeat.

And yet we love the Russian potboilers, which we listen to with emotional engagement, but no particular awareness of their darker political connections. Gergiev, in a single concert, has reminded us of the intensity of national feeling lurking in Russian music, and has allied himself with the questionable excesses of that same enthusiasm.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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