'Privileged, happy and honored,' says Russian conductor Valery Gergiev about China trip
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev performs in Beijing
Published: Mar 27, 2023 10:41 PM
Valery Gergiev conducts a concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing on March 27, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of the National Centre for the Performing Arts

Valery Gergiev conducts a concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing on March 27, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of the National Centre for the Performing Arts

Prokofiev, Korsakov, Tchaikovsky… Russian music filled the iconic classical music hall at Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) on Monday during a performance by veteran Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, one of the oldest musical ensembles in Russia. 

At a press conference before his first performance in China in more than three years due to the pandemic, the conductor said he felt "privileged, happy and honored" to be back on the stage at the NCPA. 

"It is like coming home. I have met many Chinese friends and also visited many places in Beijing already," said Gergiev, who will spend the next three days in the Chinese capital staging classic pieces such as Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune by Debussy, three excerpts from Romeo & Juliet by Prokofiev, Symphony No.4 by Mendelssohn and the William Tell Overture by Rossini. 

Gergiev and the orchestra's tour comes days after China and Russia signed and released a joint statement saying that the two sides will strengthen exchanges between museums, libraries, art galleries, theaters and other cultural, literary and artistic institutions.

"We once had extensive exchanges and cooperation between our two countries. Our cultural exchanges will be strengthened and grow thanks to the statement," said the 69-year-old, adding that the reason he and the orchestra are in Beijing is to bring music to the people who love it. 

Gergiev has been so well-received in China during past visits that he has won himself the Chinese nickname "Brother-in-law," as the pronunciation of this nickname and "Gergiev" in Chinese are very similar. 

Having previously visited the Palace Museum in Beijing, Gergiev said he knows "just how deep, powerful and beautiful the cultural stories of China written by so many Chinese artists are." 

Russia and China have a long history of cultural exchanges. The conductor still remembers that back in the 1940s, during the difficult times of World War II, young music talent Xian Xinghai, the composer of Chinese song "The Yellow River Cantata," had contributed a great deal to music exchanges between China and Russia. 

Young people from China and Russia will greatly benefit from the easily found opportunities and convenient exchanges brought by the joint statement, the conductor said, adding that he hopes to lead an orchestra made up of young Russian and Chinese musicians one day. 

On Thursday, Gergiev will lead the National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra, working with Li La, a cellist born in the 2000s, to present the classic works of Tchaikovsky. According to the conductor, Li and the orchestra will perform Variations On A Rococo Theme written by Tchaikovsky for cello solo and orchestra, which reflects the common wish of art institutions in the two countries to support young musicians. Symphony No.5 will also be staged during the performance as the joy and happiness expressed in the music are very moving, and the brilliant and jubilant ending, like a grand festival, is sure to create unforgettable musical memories for the audience.

In 2022, Gergiev was dropped by the Munich Philharmonic after he refused to speak out against the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Russian music and art have also been targeted by the West for the same reason. 

"I'm not worried about Russian music at all, as Russian music is loved by hundreds of millions of people around the world," said the veteran Russian conductor. 

''It is not Russian music facing challenges, it is those people who think they can stop Russian music or Italian music or others." 

Being against Russian music is just as "stupid as any Russian standing against Bach and Mozart," the conductor said. 

"It is too late to stop Tchaikovsky, simply too late."

Besides the China tour, the conductor also disclosed that an ambitious plan to tour Russia has expanded from 13 cities to 30. Before the pandemic, he used to travel to "50 countries around the world a year, a little too much," so he has decided to bring music to more people in Russia because he believes "the important thing is not where you go, but what you do." 

"Great performance brings happiness and joy equally."