Ahead of his appearance with the Munich Philharmonic at this year’s Prom 4, Valery Gergiev gave a long interview to David and Alison Karlin. Here are some of the highlights.

For a man who spends so much of his time flying across the globe, a man with so many fingers in so many musical pies, Valery Gergiev knows how to stop and smell the roses. When he finds himself in one of the many churches and cathedrals across Russia, he will stop and spend hours listening to the choral singing and the sound of the bells – unique to each place. These people don’t consider themselves classical musicians, he says, but their sounds are at the heart of the tradition of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic, BBC Proms 2016 © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic, BBC Proms 2016
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Gergiev sees himself as the proud custodian of that tradition, with the mission of bringing classical music to audiences across the world, including some of the least probable places. His modus operandi is simple: start by exposing the audience to the leading performers in the world, preferably free. Play for kids, arrange with the local university to play for students. Give the audience “eye-openers” and “ear-openers”; get them to the point where you have “a public which knows and which in a way demands quality and expects things to be done on a very high level.”

Children singing in a chorus is the best possible thing. I think it’s even more natural than playing violin or playing piano.

He believes that teaching children to sing in choirs is the best musical start you can give them, to which end he chairs the Choral Society of Russia, with a mission to bring together choirs from Russia’s 86 regions. He reminds us how big Russia is – regions like Yakutsk or Krasnoyarsk are six times the size of France; a region three times the size of France is considered mid-sized. He has visited around 50 of those regions and hopes that they will set up their own programmes, which he will bring together into large scale events, such as the massive choir set up for the Sochi Olympic Games. It’s all a matter of appointing the right energetic, inspirational choirmasters, and it’s a work in progress – “at best half way”.

All these people come to us now, so we don’t have to go anywhere.

Audience development has been a major project for a long time. 15 or 17 years ago, the Mariinsky started going into universities and giving free concerts – no tickets, just open doors – with their full orchestra and chorus and stars of the calibre of Netrebko, Borodina, Nikitin, Abdrazakov. That investment has paid off richly, generating an audience big enough to fill the new Mariinsky II, which Gergiev eulogises as “one of the most powerful complexes of our time”.

The Mariinsky II, view from Dekabristov St and Kryukov Canal © Danila Shklyar / State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
The Mariinsky II, view from Dekabristov St and Kryukov Canal
© Danila Shklyar / State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
With the advent of Mariinsky II, the scale of the St Petersburg operation is eye-watering, with four chamber venues in addition to the two opera houses (one new, one traditional) and the main concert hall (which has an orchestra pit and can therefore double as an opera house when needed). On occasion, they stage three operas on the same day, which they can do because they employ enough singers, dancers and musicians. The scale has enabled them to secure a quantity of old and precious (and expensive) Italian instruments: “This is what makes the orchestra sound very special, not only players but also instruments”.

Primorsky Stage © Gennadiy Shishkin / State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
Primorsky Stage
© Gennadiy Shishkin / State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
The St Petersburg venues are augmented by the company’s most ambitious venture to date: the “Primorsky Stage” in Vladivostok, just over 9,000 km away (the Primorsky region is where “Siberian” tigers come from). August’s “1st Far East Festival” opened with Prokofiev’s opera Betrothal in a Monastery; it included Diana Vishneva and Yulia Lopatkina, two of the top dancers in the world, as well as the winners of this year’s Tchaikovsky Competition. Gergiev is investing a lot of time in the Primorsky Stage and he expects rapid results – he is hoping to have transformed the region’s audience over a period of six or maybe twelve months. Less confident mortals might have planned on decades.

One has to be generous and open and just curious... we have to make institutions so confident that we can spend, lets say, 2% of our overall budget on things which are not “let’s do this, we’ll sell so many tickets”

A recurrent theme is that the Mariinsky can rapidly decide to put on a free concert to build audience goodwill. Gergiev’s ambition as a proselytiser of classical music – and Russian music in particular – is world wide; “Music doesn’t have borders”, he says. He is heading to Amsterdam to work with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA, which didn’t even exist until he helped co-found it in 2013, on the initiative of Carnegie Hall's Clive Gillinson. He points to a recent trip to Cuba organised on the spur of the moment: the Mariinsky Orchestra was already in North America and it was just before Obama’s visit to Cuba, so he figured it was a unique opportunity to see the country “while it’s still, so to say, Castro country” and while “everything is like it was in 1959”. He says it would have been “naive” to expect a contract from the local government or theatre. He fishes out his phone and proudly shows photos of extraordinary marble colonnades from Havana; he talks enthusiastically about the diversity in Latin America, which he has visited recently for the first time, playing to huge audiences – the biggest being at the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City (which seated 12,450 in the 1968 Olympic games). Gergiev sidesteps politics for virtually all the interview, apart from expressing sadness at present levels of violence in many countries or the destruction of antiquities at Palmyra, but clearly, he has the political backing to do ad hoc ventures in the knowledge that they will get funded.

We have to think what people will say in 20-30 years about this era, this period of time.

Gergiev is profoundly conscious of the grand sweep of musical history. He is fascinated by how orchestras change over time – for example how the Concertgebouw has evolved over the decades from Mengelberg to Haitink to the present day. For a man not readily described as humble, he shows real humility in considering how future listeners will view his recorded or filmed output. But he’s in no doubt about his mission to lay down audio recordings and film of the great Russian works, especially to fill in those works that he considers don’t have an adequate selection of top quality recordings – Stravinsky’s symphonies or Jeu de Cartes, for example, or Prokofiev’s operas. Prokofiev’s first opera, The Giant, was written at just nine years old, and Gergiev find it "shocking" to see the genius that was already visible. The Mariinsky performed it in May at one of their chamber venues and had great fun: he thinks they should film it properly some time. He points to Semyon Kotko as an important Prokofiev opera that should be performed more.

Gergiev is chairman of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. He suggests that the prize may not be the most important thing; what excites him is that the competition gives young performers the chance to sit down for an hour or more with the great musicians of the age. He remembers learning in this way from Mravinsky, Karajan and many more. He vividly recalls a life-changing four hour meeting in 1988 with Leonard Bernstein, whom he considers a genius and someone he was “somehow destined to meet”. The pair discussed how to perform Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich; Bernstein was furious that Gergiev did not know his recording of the Shostakovich Leningrad Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the simple truth being that Bernstein’s recording wasn’t available in the Soviet Union.

The Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev © Valentin Baranovsky / State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
The Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev
© Valentin Baranovsky / State Academic Mariinsky Theatre
Surprisingly for such a metropolitan creature, Gergiev loves nature and small places. He loves the sensibility to nature of the Scandinavians – their lakes, their forests, the clean air, everything made of wood. It’s one of the reasons why he stays involved every year with the Mikkeli and Baltic Sea festivals – he feels passionately that the Baltic Sea and its environment need help. Most recently, the small place that blew him away was Frutillar in Chile, a town of some 10,000 inhabitants two hours south of Santiago – he shows us gorgeous photos of lake, active volcano and the Teatro del Lago, a beautifully constructed 1,200 seat hall which opened in 2010, nestling by the lakeshore.

When we ask what is his least favourite airport in the world, the first thing that comes to mind is two and a half hour queue at JFK, surrounded by a lot of furious people. He points out that as a “relatively busy man”, he feels that as a gateway to the country, “something is not quite thought through”. We English may pride ourselves as the masters of understatement, but we have certainly met our match.

Editor's note: You can hear Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra from September 26 - 28th in London's Cadogan Hall celebrating Prokofiev's 125 anniversary, more details here.