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Gergiev, born in Moscow, is the son of Tamara Tatarkanovna and Abisal Zaurbekovich. He and his siblings were raised in Vladikavkaz in their native North Ossetia in the Caucasus. He had his first piano lessons in secondary school before going on to study at the Leningrad Conservatory from 1972 to 1977. His principal conducting teacher was Ilya Musin, one of the greatest conductor-makers in Russian musical history. His sister, Larissa Gergieva, is a pianist and director of the Mariinsky's singers' academy.
In 1978, he became assistant conductor at the Kirov Opera, now the Mariinsky Opera, under Yuri Temirkanov, where he made his debut conducting Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace. He was chief conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra from 1981 to 1985 – the year he made his debut in the United Kingdom, along with pianist Evgeny Kissin and violinists Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin at the Lichfield Festival.
Gergiev in Brussels in 2007.
In 1991, for the first time, Gergiev conducted a western European opera company with the Bavarian State Opera in a performance of Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov in Munich. In the same year, he made his American début, performing War and Peace with the San Francisco Opera. Since then, he has conducted both operatic and orchestral repertoire across the world. He also participates in numerous music festivals, including the White Nights in St. Petersburg.
He became chief conductor and artistic director of the Mariinsky in 1988, and overall director of the company, appointed by the Russian government, in 1996. In addition to his artistic work with the Mariinsky, Gergiev has worked in fundraising for such projects as the recently built 1100-seat Mariinsky Hall, and intends to renovate the Mariinsky Theatre completely by 2010.
From 1995 to 2008, Gergiev was principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1997, he became principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. His contract there ran until the 2007–2008 season, and his premieres included a new version of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, revised and reorchestrated by Igor Buketoff in a manner faithful to Mussorgsky's intentions (unlike the Rimsky-Korsakov revision mostly used for many years until the 1960s or 1970s).
In 2002, he was featured in one scene in the film Russian Ark, directed by Alexander Sokurov and filmed at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
In 2003, he initiated and conducted at the Mariinsky Theatre the first complete cycle of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung to be staged in Russia for over 90 years. The production's design and concept reflects many aspects of Ossetian culture. Gergiev conducted this production in Cardiff in 2006 at the Wales Millennium Centre, in Costa Mesa, California in October 2006 in the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and in July 2007 in Lincoln Center, New York City to great acclaim and completely sold-out houses.
In 1988, Gergiev guest-conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the first time. In his next appearance with the LSO in 2004, he conducted the seven symphonies of Sergei Prokofiev. This engagement led to his appointment in 2005 as the Orchestra's fifteenth principal conductor, succeeding Sir Colin Davis effective 1 January 2007. Gergiev's initial contract with the LSO was for 3 years. His first official concert as principal conductor of the LSO was on 23 January 2007; this was originally scheduled for 13 January, but was postponed due to Gergiev's illness. In January 2013 he let it be known that he would be stepping down from the LSO position at the end of his contract at the end of 2015.
In October 2007, he took part in a Christmas project featured in the 100th anniversary issue of the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book. A concert by Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra featuring piano virtuoso Lola Astanova became a part of a $1.59 million fantasy gift. The super-concert was said to be hosted by the Emmy-winning American television personality Regis Philbin.
In June 2011, Gergiev assumed a reformist role as chairman of the International Tchaikovsky Competition. He replaced academic judges with notable performers and introduced an openness to the process, arranging for all performances to be streamed live and free on the internet and for the judges to speak their minds in public as and whenever they wished. Journalist Norman Lebrecht told Gergiev that he "had changed the music world forever" in doing so, by "introducing perestroika to the Tchaikovsky Competition.... No self-respecting contest will ever take place again behind closed doors."
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 works. He "has been criticised for skimping on rehearsal and detail." He often conducts using a toothpick for a baton. He said his favorite composer was Sergei Prokofiev in his DVD recording of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite. Fanart Banner