Belfast Festival: Mariinsky Orchestra

'You just shouldn’t miss a Gergiev concert. Something special will definitely happen and you have to be there to experience it.'

In relation to most European capital cities, St Petersburg is a relative newcomer. At the beginning of the 18th century, Tsar Peter the Great had only just begun the enormous task of building his 'window on the west' on the banks of the Neva River.

Rome wasn’t built in a day - and neither was St Petersburg. Known as the 'Venice of the north' on account of its water-logged location and canal system, the city gradually assumed a Baroque grandeur during the reign of Peter the Great’s daughter and successor, Elizabeth. But it was Catherine the Great who significantly defined the capital as architecturally amongst the greatest in Europe within a century of its foundation.

It was also Catherine the Great who, in 1783, established the Imperial Opera and Ballet for St Petersburg. 77 years later, in October 1860, the Mariinsky Theatre - an elaborate, Italianate U-shaped auditorium with the biggest stage in the world and a seating capacity of over 1600 - opened its doors. It took its name from its royal patroness, the Empress Maria Alexandrovna.

Since then, the theatre has changed its name three times, reverting back after half a century from the Kirov to the Mariinsky in 1991, and has undergone several renovations and extensions. During the second world war, for example, the building suffered huge damage as part of the siege of Leningrad. It was completely restored subsequently: the latest plans seek to add a new complementary 2000 seater auditorium.

The Mariinksy’s opera and ballet companies have a distinctive artistic pedigree, as one would expect. Few houses in the world could claim so many premieres of famous works by the great Russian Romantics like Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and of course Tchaikovsky. This impressive support for the contemporary carries on to the present day, which is probably a result of the theatre’s quite outstanding artistic and general director, Valery Gergiev.

Gergiev was appointed assistant conductor to the great Temirkanov at the Kirov back in 1978 becoming chief conductor in 1988 when Temirkanov moved to the St Petersburg Philharmonic. It wasn’t until 1996 that Gergiev assumed complete control over the Mariinsky Theatre and all its various components - the opera, the ballet and the orchestra. To suggest that he has made a success of that job would be an understatement.

'Gergiev is one of the most personable characters you could ever meet – a real statesman, a dynamo, full of energy,' says Kathryn McDowell, managing director of the London Symphony Orchestra where, in addition to his Mariinsky obligations, Gergiev is currently principal conductor.

A native of Carrickfergus originally, McDowell has a long experience dealing with some of the top musicians in the world, with her background at the Arts Council of England, at the Welsh Millennium Centre and indeed even a stint as deputy general manager of the Ulster Orchestra back in the 1990s.

McDowell sees Gergiev as a force to be reckoned with, not only in artistic terms but also in his drive to re-establish the Mariinksy as one of the great artistic centres of the world. McDowell has witnessed his particular strengths at close quarters.

'He is undoubtedly one of the top conductors in the world at the moment – his performances are always riveting. With the London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev shows complete respect for the musicians and encourages them to excel. His performances are always dramatic, passionate, imaginative, and if you listen to the same repertoire two nights running, there will inevitably be something new and interesting to experience.

'In the best sense, Gergiev is unpredictable. For him, the live performance is everything. He responds to the audience and the acoustic of the concert hall. He creates an energy that is tangible.'

That I can vouch for as well. Ten years ago, Gergiev made a special trip to Omagh with his Mariinsky Opera Chorus in a Concert for Peace. It was just so intense both emotionally and musically.

Gergiev has decided this time to bring his Mariinsky Orchestra to the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. Again, there is the absolute certainty that he will create a performance that will be electrifying. Who better to give us the first professional performance here of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony than Gergiev himself, accompanied by his beloved orchestra? The music runs in their blood.

McDowell agrees. 'In performances of Shostakovich, Gergiev is second to none. Some of the most exciting interpretations I have ever witnessed have been his Shostakovich symphonies. He allows the music to speak for itself. You just shouldn’t miss a Gergiev concert. Something special will definitely happen and you have to be there to experience it.'

Philip Hammond

Book your tickets to see the Mariinsky Orchestra via the Belfast Festival website, and check out Culture Live! listings for all Belfast Festival events.