Valery Gergiev performing in South Ossetia
Who would have imagined that barely after the guns stopped in South Ossetia, the principal conductor of the London Symphony, Valery Gergiev, who also is lead guest conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera, would appear out of the smoke to lead a classical musical requiem for the war dead?
Gergiev, it seems, is a native of Ossetia, and his performance of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and Shostrakovich's Seventh Symphony was surely one of the few propaganda coups--and the classiest--that Russia has had in the current international crisis. One can note that the numbers of war dead are turning out to have been exaggerated in early reports, and one can hope that people will find a resonance in their hearts for all of them--on both sides. That might cause reasonable men of good will to seek real peace.
Russian maestro Gergiev performs in South Ossetia
By YURAS KARMANAU
Associated Press Writer
Thu Aug 21, 5:26 PM ET
Surrounded by flickering candles and flanked by armored personnel carriers, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led a requiem concert Thursday for South Ossetia's war dead in the breakaway region's devastated capital.
As cameras on booms swept over the bullet-pocked facade of Tskhinvali's parliament, Gergiev -- an Ossetian native -- took to the stage and embraced a line of teary-eyed South Ossetian children.
The support of Gergiev, an internationally known cultural icon, seemed aimed at lending moral heft to Russia's case for war. In addition to being principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and director of the Kirov-Mariinsky Theater, he is principal guest conductor of New York's Metropolitan Opera and has performed around the world.
Ossetian and Russian flags waved in the summer night's breeze as the orchestra played Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony in a haunting reminder of the siege of Leningrad in World War II. It was followed by Shostakovich's 7th Symphony, which set a more defiant tone.
One man in the crowd had tears in his eyes. A little girl sat on her mother's lap, holding a candle in a clear glass. A Muslim cleric sat next to an Orthodox priest.
Speaking first in Russian and then in English, Gergiev talked of remembrance, hope and defiance. His main goal, he said, was to show the world the truth about what happened in Tskhinvali, which he called a city of heroes and a victim of Georgian aggression.
Gergiev defended Russia, which sent its troops deep into Georgia after the former Soviet republic sent its military to seize the South Ossetian capital. Moscow's response drew condemnation from the West for being lopsided.
"It was a huge act of aggression on the part of the Georgian army," Gergiev said, speaking from the improvised stage in front of the Stalinist-era parliament building, reduced to a scorched shell by the conflict.
"This is not yet a known story to the world," he said. "But I am sure that every day, every hour the truth will be coming through."
Russian officials have compared the Georgian surprise attack to the Sept. 11 attacks, calling it an unprovoked assault on innocent civilians.
But while Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili grants frequent interviews to Western media in his fluent English, Russian officials have struggled to make their case to European and North American audiences.
As soldiers watched from atop two armored personnel carriers Thursday, an audience of several thousand, many holding Russian and South Ossetian flags, stood or sat on folding metal chairs. "To you, the living and the dead. To you, South Ossetia," proclaimed a banner strung overhead.
Russia has stationed peacekeeping forces in the region since fighting broke out between the South Ossetians and Georgians in the 1990s, and it has supported the region financially and given most of its residents Russian passports.
The music chosen by Gergiev, and played by St. Petersburg's Kirov-Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, was resolutely Russian, patriotic and somber.
The orchestra first performed Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, which was famously played by the Leningrad Radio Symphony Orchestra as bombs fell during World War II.
Dmitry Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, the "Leningrad Symphony," followed. It was dedicated to the Russian city, now called St. Petersburg, besieged by Nazi Germany.
Gergiev compared the destruction in the South Ossetian capital to the devastation of another city besieged by the Nazis, whose name has become a byword for the horrors of war.
"What I have seen today is Stalingrad -- it is complete destruction," he said.
While the concert was intended as a memorial to the dead, it also appeared to be part of a carefully scripted public relations campaign on the part of the Kremlin.
Officials in Moscow made special arrangements for foreign journalists to cover the event, flying them to the Russian city of Vladikavkaz and then busing them south to Tskhinvali. The concert was broadcast live on the state-owned Rossiya and Kultura channels.
It was not the first time that Gergiev has commemorated a tragedy in the Caucasus. After the Beslan school siege in September 2004, he staged a concert for the victims.
On Thursday, the stubble-bearded conductor cited early claims by Russian authorities that 2,000 civilians had died in the fighting -- although officials have so far only confirmed 133 deaths.
He thanked Russian soldiers for intervening.
"If not for the help of great Russia, there would have been even more numerous casualties here," said the conductor, who was raised in the neighboring Russian region of North Ossetia.
"For the Ossetian people, after the Beslan tragedy, to lose 2,000 more people is a terrible loss, a terrible loss."
Residents of the capital said they were grateful for the chance the concert gave them to think of something besides death and suffering.
"Only here, thanks to this music, I feel the fear leaving," said Alina Zhurdova, 34. "I feel that life is returning to Tskhinvali and the music helps me forget the horrors of the bombardment that I went through."
Honey-colored glass lanterns holding candles were arranged on a flight of steps sweeping up to the stage, set in front of a row of square columns.
Some in the audience were grateful to be reminded of a world beyond war.
"Music has reminded me that life is not only war," said Soslan Medoyev, 24, a South Ossetian soldier dressed in camouflage and sitting in an armored personnel carrier. "Here I remembered that I am a construction worker, and that means a creator."
Associated Press Writers Mike Eckel in Tskhivnali, and Steve Gutterman, Paul Sonne and Jill Lawless in Moscow contributed to this report.