A marathon week in Shanghai for Gergiev and Mariinsky
"Musicians are classified into two categories. One desires more performances, while the other simply has more performances."
That was Valery Gergiev's response to a Shanghai Daily question about his hectic workload and time management in Shanghai. This week, the world-famous Russian conductor is in town with the celebrated Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, performing the complete version of Wagner's epic opera "Der Ring Des Nibelungen."
The 16-hour marathon opera is played in four chapters over four days at Shanghai Grand Theater on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. The series is part of the ongoing China Shanghai International Arts Festival.
In between the first two chapters of Wagner's opera, Gergiev led the orchestra across the Huangpu River to the Shanghai Oriental Art Center for a symphony concert of Sergei Prokofiev's compositions on Tuesday evening.
"Musical performances are never a burden for me," said Gergiev, 70, who is known among Chinese admirers as a "brother-in-law" as the pronunciation of his name is similar to jiefu in mandarin, which
"We have a lot of performances simply because people want to see us. Musicians cannot force an audience to listen, but they can attract them, which leads to successful performances," he said.
Gergiev is on his third trip to China, bringing with him a 300-person entourage. The orchestra and opera troupe are in Shanghai, while the ballet group is performing in Beijing.
"I hope to bring more performances to China in the future," Gergiev said. "Shanghai is a modern and innovative city, but its historic complexes also appeal to me. I know that a new Shanghai Grand Opera House is in the works, and I intend to bring more performances there."
"Der Ring Des Nibelungen" is a quartet of epic music dramas partly based on characters from Germanic heroic legend. Wagner worked on the libretto and music for nearly 26 years.
The first chapter, "Das Rheingold" (The Rhinegold), was premiered in 1869. "Die Walküre" (The Valkyrie), "Siegfried," and "Götterdämmerung" (Twilight of the Gods) complete the Ring cycle. The four chapters are frequently performed independently.
Mariinsky Theater's latest version of "Der Ring Des Nibelungen" grafted the Nibelung myths originating from Northern Europe with Russian myths and legends. The first two chapters premiered in St. Petersburg earlier this year, while the latter two are making their world debuts in Shanghai on Friday and Sunday.
Gergiev used an analogy when asked which of the four nights he was most looking forward to.
"It's like asking parents which of the four children they like most," he remarked. "Das Rheingold is the shortest, and each subsequent chapter is longer than the one before it. Wagner most likely preferred to compose in this manner. It's an epic work. We hope the audience enjoys the stage effects as well as the singing and orchestra."
The towering statues, either standing or lying on the stage, have become a signature feature of Mariinsky's Ring cycle. The enveloping projection on three screen walls transports the audience between the three realms of God, man, and earth.
Tickets for all four evenings have been hot sellers. Shanghai Grand Theater had to add extra seats for Sunday's "Götterdämmerung" due to high demand.
Wagner's grand opera, like Gergiev's understanding of music and musicians, transcends time and national boundaries due to its everlasting theme and deep philosophy.
"In today's complicated world, if we try to understand each other like musicians, this will become a better world," Gergiev said.
"We live in an era of tension. I wish people could communicate with one another in the same way they listen to different music. Musicians are like bridges that can help bridge gaps and contribute to world peace," he remarked.
On Tuesday evening, Gergiev's extrovert and sometimes curt style of conducting was on full display at the Oriental Art Center when he led the Mariinsky Orchestra to a passionate rendition of composer Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in D Major and Symphony No. 5 in B Flat Major.
The Russian conductor got on his job almost immediately as he walked in, like a man in a hurry, after quickly shaking hands with his first violinist and acknowledging the audience.
Holding his signature toothpick, Gergiev's strength and energy were on full display as he rendered an optimistic execution of Symphony No. 1, which has remained one of Prokofiev's most popular compositions and is regarded as the "classical" symphony.
The concert concluded with two encores, earning Gergiev a standing ovation from the enthralled audience before he exited the stage.
The Mariinsky Orchestra (previously known as the Kirov Orchestra), founded in 1783, is one of Russia's oldest musical institutions. Gergiev was named Mariinsky's chief conductor and artistic director in 1988, and the overall director in 1996. In 1998, he brought the Mariinsky Orchestra to China for the first time, performing two concerts in Beijing.
Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra performed at the Oriental Art Center for the first time seven years ago, joining hands with China's famous pianist Lang Lang. His most recent trip to the Art Center was four years ago.