The celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev always has a million things on the go, but this coming year he’s also celebrating 25 years as leader of one of Russia’s most venerated cultural institutions: the Mariinsky Theatre, the roots of which date back to the era of Peter the Great and the birthplace of some of the world’s great classical ballets and operas, by composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Few artistic directors could have pulled off what he has in St. Petersburg in the past quarter-century. When he — at the age of 35 — took over as leader of the Mariinsky (then called the Kirov) in 1988, it was an underfunded institution that had been eclipsed by the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

By sheer force of personality and drive, Gergiev moved the Mariinsky into the post-Soviet era: winning massive new funding from the government, expanding its repertoire (but also highlighting great Russian composers such as Mussorgsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich) and setting out with his singers, musicians and dancers on a grueling schedule of international touring.

"All of this was a big responsibility and worry for me. But there was great potential to demonstrate to Russia and to the world how glorious was the Mariinsky tradition,  if developed," Gergiev told CBC News in his dressing room at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory recently, just ahead of a performance with his Mariinsky Theatre Stradivarius Ensemble.

An artistic home

Born in 1953, the year Stalin died, Gergiev is the son of a Red Army officer. His family is from the Caucasus and he spent his childhood there, away from the political pressures of Moscow. But his musical training was conducted in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky. Though he studied piano initially, he was quickly streamed into conducting because of his charisma and leadership qualities.

"I was 24 when I was asked to start at the Mariinsky. It was a great invitation for me. It was my artistic platform and my home," he said. 

'We keep the best talent in Russia and the only way to do that is to offer interesting creative work and conditions they'll find comfortable'

—Valery Gergiev

Today, Gergiev is one of the most sought-after conductors in the world. He juggles two big jobs — principal director of the London Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Mariinsky — as well as countless other side commitments with festivals he has founded around the world. Gergiev is known for his passionate conducting style and his great charisma.

"The Russian orchestral performance is associated with emotionally big playing," he said.

The global powerhouse is also famously patriotic. He uses his skills as a power broker to nourish Russia’s artistic talent, offer incentives to keep them in the country and build up the Mariinsky Theatre.

"There are so many things going on in the arts today in Russia." he said.

"There are wonderful things happening in smaller cities. There are wonderful pianists, violinists and dancers. There are so many great Russian dancers. They are everywhere.

"We keep the best talent in Russia and the only way to do that is to offer interesting creative work and conditions they’ll find comfortable." 

Canadian-designed Russian theatre

With this in mind, Gergiev spearheaded the construction of a second opera and ballet theatre, the Mariinsky II. Designed by Toronto-based architectural firm Diamond and Schmitt, it sits next to the historic Mariinsky Theatre opened in  1860. Now completed, the new building will stage its first performances this coming spring.

"It was made by the same team that designed the Toronto opera house. The Mariinsky will have more space, but the same level of comfort and intimacy," Gergiev said.

Making ambitious projects happen is no easy feat in Russia, but Gergiev is said to have a powerful ally in President Vladimir Putin, who has expressed a great interest in reviving Russia’s prestige through institutions like the Mariinsky.

Unpretentious and hands-on

Though a skilful power broker and fundraiser, Gergiev appears to have retained his bohemian side. He is unpretentious, with a sense of humour. He’s also refreshingly unconcerned about his appearance. Just 15 minutes before a black-tie concert, he sits relaxed in his dressing room, still in his street clothes, his face unshaven and hair sticking out in all directions. Along with me and my photographer Evan Mitsui, he has invited three elderly Russian émigrés, who are eager to chat with him.

I first met Gergiev a decade ago when he allowed a CBC News crew to film backstage at the Mariinsky during the rehearsals and performance of his experimental staging of The Nutcracker. He had a hands-on approach to the running of the Mariinsky, knew everyone and looked like he was having a lot of fun.

Now in Toronto many years later, he looks much the same, albeit a little more exhausted given his non-stop travelling and conducting.

At a rehearsal with his musicians, he gives directions in Russian — talking quietly, intimately, as with old friends. He conducts, as he sometimes does, using a toothpick. (He says he also sometimes uses a flower. "Why not?")

He welcomed some Canadian students to listen to the rehearsal and then, sitting in a chair onstage, he invited their questions afterwards, opening with a friendly "So, how is your life?"

They stare back, terrified. But then, one brave student raises his hand and asks about Shostakovich and interpreting him. Gergiev smiles warmly and then, leaning forward, offers a long and thoughtful explanation that leaves the student beaming.