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City of Munich and Munich Philharmonic Renew Valery Gergiev Amidst Many Critical Overtones

Valery Gergiev Stays In Munich, Extends Contract To 2025

So, Gergiev's contract as chief conductor of the MPhil gets extended until 2025. Big deal, huh?

Outsiders may think that the renewal of his contract should have been a slam-dunk; in fact, many onlookers had been surprised that Gergiev had chosen to make Munich his main orchestral base in the West. When he signed the contract, I suggested that those who wondered why the world famous wunder-maestro Gergiev had signed on with the widely considered provincial, second-tier Munich Philharmonic, look at a map: Munich is nice and central and has a great airport with excellent connections: It's a perfect base for international operations. Gergiev had been wanting a position with a central European orchestra; it’s where most of the classical music action is and the gig is one of the best-remunerated positions in the business. (See also ionarts: Valery Gergiev Signs Contract With Munich Philharmonic)

Apart from the issue as to why Gergiev signed in Munich, there is also the question of why Munich signed with Gergiev. The reason is the Munich Philharmonic's strange mixture of an inflated sense of self ("one of the greatest orchestras in the world") and a complete lack of self-esteem that expresses itself in the near-desperate way in which it needs to get the biggest possible name -- all other qualities being secondary at best -- out there to reinforce the self-image.

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G.Mahler, Sy.2
V.Gergiev / MPhil

Where the Berlin Philharmonic are perfectly happy going with an internationally rather unknown quantity like Kirill Petrenko (granted an easy choice, when you know that he's as close to a Carlos Kleiber of our days as it gets), where the New York Philharmonic is happy to name someone with relatively little international stature like Jaap van Zweden as their next chief conductor, simply (presumably) because they are convinced of his ability, the Munich Philharmonic has a tendency (as do many orchestras!) to desperately match their perceived fame with the perceived fame of a conductor. It's usually a recipe for disaster or, at best, civilized boredom.

In that sense getting Gergiev was a coup for the orchestra. International attention. Recording projects. Reviews. The whole chalupa! So what if he is notorious unpunctual. He's got a drive to himself, he gets things done, he has connections. True, he is a bit much reliant on soloists in his circle (Matsuev again?!) but that circle also includes sheer blazing talent (Behzod Abduraimov and Denis Kozhukhin anyone? Or Trifonov?). Unfortunately for the Munich authorities, both musical and political, Gergiev attracts unwanted attention for his association with the Russian regime of Putin - a very good acquaintance of his from their St. Petersburg days and someone without whose support, tacit or explicit, Gergiev could never have achieved as much with the rebuilding of the Mariinsky Theater (institution, orchestra, everything). Guilty by association, Gergiev gets blamed for everything we (rightly, usually) don't like about the Russian government.

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G.Mahler, Sy.4
V.Gergiev / MPhil

It is expected that he kowtow to journalists that drill him on his alleged or tacit support for the less savory aspects of Russian policy, but of course he won't. He knows that back at home, there's no separation of politics and arts... and while he doesn't get involved in Russian politics in the West, he cannot separate them abroad by distancing himself publically from them, either. It's not impossible that he supports these policies. It's much more likely that he doesn't particularly care; music, his own little art-empire and the people that work for are likely more important. Probably he just thinks that the Western journalists are so ignorant of the situation on the ground in Russia, that it's not worth bothering with them in the first place; they wouldn't understand. Perhaps he doesn't care that much altogether. It doesn't matter: He's made a scapegoat by the righteous set who are offended that Gergiev considers -- to radically reduce the issue to its essence -- Putin afar more important than them a-near.

Other, more sensitive and sensible journalists don't hone in as much on the political aspect - even if they are bothered by Gergiev's refusal to outright condemn Russian laws like the one that banned 'propagation of non-traditional forms of lifestyle', which hits close to home to many classical music journalists in Munich and beyond. (Not that it is in the least his job to comment on Russian policy, even if he's perceived a friend of some of Russia's powerful political leaders.) They are worried that Gergiev simply isn't all that great for the orchestra or the orchestra not that great with him; that his mastery of the Germanic core repertoire is not nearly at the level of the music he excels in. That the concerts are boring, thick-textured, under-rehearsed. That his leadership style, while it can be inspiring in the short run, is exhausting in the medium- and long-term. That's a good point; it's a point I tend to agree with. If Gergiev produced musical results akin to those of K.Petrenko, I don't think we would be having this discussion, even if he were Putin's backrub-buddy or if they played bridge with Bashar al-Assad and Recep Erdoğan. Still, for the Munich Philharmonic it is -- even for all the cynical and psychologically unhealthy aspects that are part of it -- probably a net benefit to have Gergiev at the head of the orchestra. And that's the point, apart from sharing the news, I am making in this piece for Forbes on which I hope you might click and better yet: enjoy.

Forbes: Valery Gergiev Stays In Munich, Extends Contract To 2025


Anonymous said...

If I were the Munich Philharmonic Intendant, I would have started discussions with Manfred Honeck.

That said, one positive aspect of Gergiev's tenure in Munich was the establishing of the record label. From what I listened from Gergiev's own Munich recordings, my impression was that they are in the not bad / nothing special category. But the two Celibidache releases were gems.

So please more historical recordings. I have my own Celibidache bucket list - perhaps I will share in a later post - but I would also love releases from the Munich Philharmonic under Kempe, Karl Richter, Jochum, Knappertsbusch, and perhaps other gems hidden in the archives.

jfl said...

Oh, how I would Loooooooooooooooooooooooove to have Honeck at the Munich Phil. I don't suppose it's realistic, but I'm with you all the way on that.

Agree also: re the recordings; have only heard the M2 & B4 so far ("nothing special, not bad" indeed) but am looking forward to the M4 and the archival stuff.

And that Kempe Beethoven set -- apart from the Esoteric SACD release -- hasn't gotten much love, either... perhaps they can bring that out.