Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Portrait of a Whirlwind

Valery Gergiev in YOU CANNOT START WITHOUT ME (Photo: Thirteen/White Nights Foundation of America/WNET.org)

You Cannot Start Without Me
Directed by Allan Miller

In classical music circles, Valery Gergiev’s energy is legendary, not only on the podium, where he leads orchestras in a whirlwind frenzy, but in everything he does. The Russian maestro is head of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg (where he leads opera, ballet, and orchestral performances), principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and frequent guest conductor worldwide.

When Gergiev walks onstage to conduct, he looks disheveled with unkempt, thinning hair, looking for all the world like someone who barely got onto the plane, caught a cab at the airport, and just made it to the hall in time for the start of the concert. The title of the documentary, You Cannot Start Without Me, has a double meaning. Though alluding to Gergiev’s perpetual globe hopping, the actual phrase is spoken by Gergiev early in the film while he’s giving advice to a younger conductor, telling him to, in effect, let the musicians know who’s the boss.

Throughout this breezy but engrossing 85-minute documentary (to be shown on PBS), Miller has seemingly unlimited access to Gergiev. We are flies on the wall at the Mariinsky when he discusses staging problems with a prima ballerina and during a heated discussion about casting singers for upcoming seasons. At one point, the conductor is visited by superstar soprano (and Gergiev protégé) Anna Netrebko backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, and she hams for the camera most charmingly as they talk about the impossibility of attending a Russian gala together because of their busy schedules.

The film’s most enlightening sequences focus on the maestro with his family. Gergiev operates at full speed whether rehearsing, performing, traveling, or doing business: as the head of the Mariinsky, he has to deal with bureaucrats—successfully, one assumes, since the new concert hall complementing its hallowed opera house was built quickly, red tape and all). When he’s with his family—two sons, a daughter, and a young wife—he seems ill at ease, as if visiting acquaintances he doesn’t see often. Gergiev admits that he wishes he had more time to be a better father. When one son tells him he wants to be a ship’s captain when he grows up, Gergiev seems taken aback, laughing it off. This sequence heartbreakingly reveals the consequences of the choices he has made in his busy career—then it’s off to the next concert.

Miller’s filming style is the opposite of his subject’s: in a relaxed way, the director includes incidental moments that comment on the whole. When Gergiev meets ballerina Uliana Lopatkina in his office, he keeps glancing over to the television showing a soccer match. Later, while rehearsing a symphony, he keeps looking at his watch as if impatiently waiting to get to his next appointment. (Does he have ADD, one wonders?)

There are minor irritations. Although Gergiev speaks fluent English, his Russian accent is so heavy that at times it’s difficult to understand him, particularly in one interview sequence while on a moving train, where subtitles would have been a great help. There’s also footage of him earlier in his conducting career using a baton, which he no longer does—why didn’t Miller ask him about that? Overall, though, You Cannot Start Without Me is an absorbing film that glimpses the rarefied world of one of today’s most tireless classical music jet setters.

originally posted on film-forward.com

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