Invoking the war in Ukraine, an American resigns from the Russian Mariinsky

American conductor Gavriel Heine has been a fixture at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia for 15 years. He has conducted h...


American conductor Gavriel Heine has been a fixture at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia for 15 years. He has conducted hundreds of performances of classics like “Swan Lake” and “The Rite of Spring.” And he did it as a protege of the company’s leader: Valery Gergiev.

On Saturday, Mr. Heine went to the Mariinsky again, but not for an evening at the podium. He was there to inform Mr. Gergiev — a longtime friend and supporter of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin – that he was resigning as resident conductor of the public theatre. Mr. Heine gathered up his belongings, including a few white bow ties and sheet music for “La Bohème” and “Le Tour d’Enut,” and prepared to leave the country.

Mr. Heine, 47, had been increasingly disturbed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I could never be in denial about what is happening in Ukraine,” he said in a series of interviews over the past week. “Russia is not a place where I want to raise my son. It is no longer a place where I want my wife to be. It is no longer a place where I want to be.

His resignation comes as war continues to upend the performing arts. Cultural institutions in Europe and North America, pledging not to hire artists who support Mr. Putin, have cut links with certain artists — particularly Mr. Gergiev — as well as orchestras, theaters and ballet companies. Many artists, citing the invasion, canceled appearances in Russia.

Mr. Gergiev, the theatre’s general and artistic director, was once one of the busiest conductors in the world, but his international career has plummeted. Carnegie Hall, for example, canceled a pair of Mariinsky Orchestra concerts under its direction that had been scheduled for May, after it was fall of a series of performances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in February. He returned in recent weeks to St. Petersburg to focus on this company and its national cultural empire, which encompasses several stages, thousands of employees and tens of millions of dollars in public funding.

Mr. Heine reunited with Mr. Gergiev at the Mariinsky on Saturday, where he was leading rehearsals and performances of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” and Verdi’s “Attila.” He described repeatedly trying to grab his mentor backstage to inform him of his resignation, ultimately cornering him in an elevator.

It was a quick conversation: five minutes while Mr. Gergiev rushed to a meeting. Mr Heine said Mr Gergiev seemed surprised but accepted his decision.

“He was very nice to me,” Mr. Heine said. “He gave me a handshake and a hug and wished me luck. And of course I thanked him for giving me such a big chance quite early in my career.

The two conductors also mentioned recent tensions between Russia and the West. Mr Gergiev – who was dismissed from engagements in the United States and Europe, as well as from the podium of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, for his refusal to publicly condemn the war – defended his decision, saying he does not was not a child, Mr. Heine recalled.

The Mariinsky declined to comment on Monday and said it could not yet confirm Mr. Heine’s resignation. However, the company removed Mr. Heine’s biography from its website on Monday evening.

Mr. Heine’s departure from the Mariinsky is an unexpected conclusion to his three-decade career in Russia, where he studied with renowned teachers and became a conductor in one of the country’s most prestigious houses. And its exit is another blow to Russia’s cultural institutions, which are grappling with boycotts and cancellations by foreign groups as the country’s arts turn increasingly inward under Mr Putin. Mr. Gergiev remains a key figure in Mr. Putin’s campaign. Mr Putin, in a televised meeting last month, asked Mr Gergiev if he was interested in the idea of ​​uniting the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow with the Mariinskyan arrangement that would take Russia back to the days of the tsars.

“Russia is just going to be more and more closed,” said Simon Morrison, professor of music at Princeton University. “He’s going to come back more and more to his true self, harsh as that sounds – a closed, angry, paranoid, resentful feudal realm.”

Mr. Heine, who grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ, became interested in Russian culture as a teenager. He accompanied his mother, a pianist, to a performance in Moscow, and while there took cello lessons with a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory.

After high school, he returned to Russia for linguistic and cultural studies. In 1998, he became one of the first American graduates of the Moscow Conservatory, then began to study with the eminent Russian conductor Ilya Musinwho also taught Mr. Gergiev.

His break came in 2007, when Mr. Heine approached Mr. Gergiev at a rehearsal in Philadelphia and asked if the Mariinsky had any openings. Mr. Heine was invited to make his theatrical debut later that year with Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”, and soon began conducting regular performances there. In 2009, he was named Resident Conductor.

During his time at the Mariinsky, Mr. Heine took to the stage for more than 850 performances and watched the company grow in power and size under Mr. Gergiev’s direction. The arts and the state, Mr. Heine said he had come to understand, were inexorably linked in Russia. He was at the theater twice when Mr Putin, the house’s main benefactor, appeared for award ceremonies and other events.

“I just assumed that culture is a priority for this government, for some reason,” he said. “And they’re very into it, and that’s the relationship.”

He acknowledged that Mr. Gergiev sometimes used art for political purposes, such as when he LEDs a patriotic concert in the Syrian city of Palmyra in 2016, shortly after Russian airstrikes helped drive Islamic State out of the city.

Still, Mr. Heine said, he was not bothered by Mr. Gergiev’s long association with Mr. Putin. The two have known each other since the early 1990s, when Mr Putin was a civil servant in St Petersburg and Mr Gergiev began his tenure at the Mariinsky, then called the Kirov Theatre.

“I never felt like we were serving the state,” Mr. Heine said. “It just seemed like the state trusted Gergiev with his artistic priorities, and he convinced them that his priorities were good priorities, and they funded that..”

The invasion of Ukraine changed his vision of Russia and his place within it. He had a personal connection to Ukraine, having been conductor of the Kharkiv Symphony Orchestra there from 2003 to 2007. When he saw footage of Russian missiles hitting a building in Kharkiv in early March, he was upset.

“It broke me,” he said. “I saw the faces of all the musicians I had worked with. I thought of my conductor who lives two blocks from this building. I mean, it’s his neighborhood. I just lost it. I couldn’t do anything that day and thought that was about it.

He decided to quit his job, in part because he feared for the safety of his wife and 11-year-old son. His family left for the United States in early March, while he traveled to Switzerland to conduct a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Lausanne Opera.

He returned to St Petersburg last week and spent several days tidying up his apartment and saying goodbye to colleagues over a meal at his favorite Italian restaurant near the Mariinsky, where a pizza is named after him. He submitted his resignation letter to the company on Sunday and returned his locker keys.

On Monday he arrived in London, where he is due to lead a production of “Swan Lake” at the Royal Opera House next month.

He said it was difficult for him to leave Russia, where he spent about half his life. He considers himself culturally Russian, although he remains an American citizen.

Still, Mr. Heine has made peace with moving on. “The saddest thing was not to enter the theater; the saddest thing was the disappointment and sadness of the people I had to tell I was leaving,” he said.

“Theatre is going nowhere,” he added. “I am.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Invoking the war in Ukraine, an American resigns from the Russian Mariinsky
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