The 2006 Polar Music Prize is awarded to the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev for the way his unique, electrifying musical skills have deepened and renewed our relationship with the grand tradition; and for how he has managed to develop and amplify the importance of artistic music in these modern, changing times.

Chapter: Passion for music

Passion for music

Valery Gergiev is one of the busiest and most sought after conductors in the world – applauded at the podiums of major opera houses and concert halls. He emerged in the 1980’s as one of the most exciting new conductors, particularly of opera and ballet. He is the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg since 1996. At the same time he works as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He was the principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York 1997-2008, at the same time as he was principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. A busy man – a champion of culture and an activist for peace. Valery Gergiev covers most of the classical repertoire, but closest to his heart are the great Russian composers – Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky etc.

Trailer for the film You Cannot Start Without Me: Valery Gergiev – Maestro by Alan Miller (2009)
Chapter: Moscow to St Petersburg

Moscow – Vladikavkaz – St. Petersburg

Valery Gergiev was born on May 2nd, 1953 into the family of an officer and brigade major, Abisal Gergiev, and his wife Tamara, who was an instrumentation engineer. When he was six, the family moved to his parents’ native Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia in the Caucasus. He had his first piano lessons in secondary school. As a little boy, Valery wasn’t noted for any outstanding ability in music; he was an ordinary boy who loved climbing trees and playing football. But when he and his sister Larisa started at the well known musical school #5, the music conquered his heart, and in his teens he decided that he wanted to be a conductor.

View of St. Petersburg with St. Peter & Paul and St. Isaac Cathedrals Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Herbert Ortner

At 19 he moved to Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was named during the Soviet era, to study at the Leningrad State Conservatory.

Street view in Vladikavkaz by the Caucasus, where Valery Gergiev grew up from the age of six until nineteen. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Iosif Korotkij)
From Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Kirov Opera 1993, conducted by Valery Gergiev
Chapter: Studies and debut

Studies and debut

Valery Gergiev entered the conducting class of Ilya Musin, legendary teacher and conducting theorist at St. Petersburg Conservatory, in 1972. In 1975 and still a student, he won the All-Soviet Union conductor contest in Moscow.

Ilya Musin, Russian conductor, prominent teacher and theorist of conducting at St. Petersburg Conservatory, from the 1930’s into modern times.

The following year he won the Herbert von Karajan Conductors’ Competition in Berlin. When he graduated in 1977 he was asked to join the Kirov Opera (now the Mariinsky Opera), where he started as assistant to the chief conductor. But already by 1978 he had independently directed his first opera, War and Peace by Sergei Prokofiev.

Chapter: Mariinsky Theatre

Mariinsky Theatre

As assistant conductor under Yuri Temirkanov, Valery Gergiev made more exciting opera performances at the Kirov through the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, marking the arrival of an extraordinary conductor. From 1981 to 1985 he was director of The Armenian State Orchestra, conducting widely throughout the Soviet Union. In 1988 he was appointed chief conductor and artistic director at the Kirov, which changed its name back to the historic name Mariinsky in 1992.

The Mariinsky Theatre (former Kirov) in St. Petersburg. Via Wikimedia Commons

Mariinsky Theatre is home to the Mariinsky Ballet, Mariinsky Opera and Mariinsky Orchestra. In 1996 Gergiev was appointed general director by the Russian government.

The grand hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, from the stage (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/PerfektangelII)
Gergiev and the Mariinsky, Russian repertoire - from records released 1991-94.

Valery Gergiev started his tenure at the Kirov with immense energy and enthusiasm and developed the company’s orchestra to the point that it rivaled the famed Leningrad Philharmonic. Soon he began to establish an international profile for the opera and ballet companies, which reverted to the original name Mariinsky in 1992 following the growth of “perestroika” and the decline of the Soviet state.

Early recording with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Borodin Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (1990) Philips/Universal

He led the company on its first big tour to the west in 1989, and has since taken the Mariinsky companies on tours across the world. At the same time he established himself internationally, highly demanded by the world’s leading orchestras. Gergiev’s conducting style is considered by many to be abrasive, yet passionate. He is thought of as a “driven” conductor who is at his best in highly dramatic work. Curiously, he often conducts using a toothpick for a baton.

Valery Gergiev in an early international performance, with 15 year-old pianist Evgeny Kissin in Japan, 1986. Gergiev is 33 years old. Music by Rachmaninov.
Conducting the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra: Pictures at an Exhibition, Part 1, "Promenade" by Modest Mussorgsky.
Chapter: International career

Berlin, Montreal, Dallas, Stockholm...

Valery Gergiev works with renowned ensembles like the Berliner Philharmoniker, the London Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (UK), L’Orchestre National de France, Swedish Radio Orchestra and the symphony orchestras of San Francisco, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, Minnesota, Montreal and Birmingham.

Rotterdam Philharmonic’s home stage, De Doelen Wikimedia Commons

For the Mariinsky Theatre he was the first to establish artistic co-operation with the world’s leading opera houses. Also, several international music festivals has been established by Gergiev, the most well-known being the Stars of the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg.

The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Blehgoaway)
Chapter: London


In 1988, Valery Gergiev guest-conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the first time. In his following appearance with the LSO in 2004, he conducted all seven symphonies by Sergei Prokofiev. The engagement led to his appointment in 2005 as the Orchestra’s fifteenth principal conductor, succeeding Sir Colin Davis from January 2007.

London Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Hall, London Wikimedia Commons/User:FA1020

At the same time he continues his responsibilities as general director at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg – and guest-conducting on stages and with orchestras around the world.

Prokofiev’s complete symphonies with Gergiev & the London Symphony Orchestra (2006). Philips/Universal Music
Life in a Day, a day at work for London Symphony Orchestra's principal conductor Valery Gergiev. Mini documentary by the LSO.
Chapter: Charity & Peace

Charity and peace work

Valery Gergiev is well-known for his active stance with regards to the protection of humanistic ideals. In the 2004-2005 season he initiated a worldwide series of charitable concerts entitled Beslan: Music for Life. Under Gergiev’s direction concerts were held in New York, Paris, London, Tokyo, Rome and Moscow. In August 2008 he conducted a requiem concert with the Mariinsky Orchestra in front of the ruined Government House of South Ossetia in Tskhinvali. All in all, Gergiev is an important person in the cultural and official life of Russia.

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra play for peace in Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, 21 August 2008
Chapter: New Mariinsky

The new Mariinsky

Among Valery Gergievs achievements in recent years, besides artistic and musical such as the return of Wagner operas to the St. Petersburg stage, he managed to get support for a brand new Concert Hall as part of the Mariinsky Theater. The new building opened in November 2006 and has broadened the repertoire possibilities.

The interior of the Gasteig in Munich. Wikimedia Commons/Photo: Andreas Praefcke

The new Concert Hall is where the recordings are produced for the new Mariinsky record label that was founded in 2009. On the international scene, Gergiev has continued as principal conductor for the London Symphony Orchestra. The contract runs until the end of 2014. In January 2013 it became official that Valery Gergiev will succeed Lorin Maazel as principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from January 2015.

Valery Gergiev at a press conference for the Baltic Sea Festival in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo by Johan Ljungström. (Photo: Swedish Radio. All Rights Reserved.)
Chapter: The Polar Music Prize

Stockholm, May 2006

On 22 May 2006, Valery Gergiev was awarded the Polar Music Prize in the Stockholm Concert Hall, together with the British rock group Led Zeppelin. The Citation for Gergiev was read by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina, who received the Polar Music Prize herself in 2002.

Guests arriving at the Stockholm Concert Hall for the Polar Music Prize Ceremony (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Opera singer Ekaterina Semenchuk (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Receiving the Prize from HM King Carl XVI Gustaf (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Citation for Valery Gergiev, read by Russian composer and Laureate of the Polar Music Prize in 2002, Sofia Gubaidulina. Gergiev receives the Prize from HM King Carl XVI Gustaf.
Ekaterina Semenchuk sings "Adieu, forêts" from Peter Tchaikovskys The Maid from Orleans, with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Agrest.