There was an interesting, if occasionally frustrating, profile of Valery Gergiev in last week's New York Times magazine. Frustrating because the article was headlined "The Loyalist" (the cover line was "An Overture to Russian Nationalism") that seemed to want to condemn Gergiev for being a) proud of being Russian and b) far too close to the Kremlin. The former charge seems perverse unless, that is, any expression of Russian patriotism is inherently threatening and the latter seems, in some ways, almost inescapable if the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) wants to be able to do business and thrive in Russia.
Still, the article opens with a striking scene: Gergiev conducting Shostakovich's (splendid) "Leningrad" Symphony at a special concert in Tshinvali, the capital of South Ossettia. No need to search too hard for the political symbolism there. Then again, Gergiev is a North Ossettian himself and, whatever the rights and wrongs of the Geogian conflict last summer, there is the awkward fact that the South Ossettians themselves want to be Russian, not Georgian.
The article doesn't quite condemn Gergiev and it's all interesting stuff. The Russian classical repertoire might indeed be used as a kind of super-propaganda vehicle for Russia itself. But so what? The greater point - as the profile makes clear - is that Gergiev and the Mariinsky have rescued and popularised neglected parts of the Russian musical canon. And in doing so they've done everyone a service, no matter what compromises or occasionally shady accomodations with the Kremlin that may require.
(One of the best things about life in Washington is the Mariinsky Theatre's annual residency at the Kennedy Center; one of the more frustrating their occasional insistence upon performing, say, Rossini rather than Mussorgsky, Prokofiev or Tchaikovsky. Their Rossini is fine, but it's not what we need them for.)