Oh that’s a nice poster isn’t it. I’ve been seeing it here and abouts on the tube recently. Gergiev you say? Conducting some symphonies at the Barbican with the LSO? Great, that sounds lovely. But what’s that little story on the poster? Let’s take a closer look:
Well that’s quite something, isn’t it. Forever seeking out the truth in sound! How exciting. And imagine — imagine! — the great conductor stopping to listen to the music of a homeless man. I hope we’re suitably impressed. Although I suspect to be suitably impressed you’d need to be surprised to realise homeless people might be talented, and in fact are human beings.
Anyway, we don’t get to hear the end of the story. I became intrigued. Was the street xylophonist scooped up by Gergiev and ushered into a glittering percussive career, in the time-honoured rags-to-riches fashion? No, as far as I’ve been able to find out, this did NOT happen. For all we know he’s still sleeping rough on the streets of Manhattan. Perhaps he has died.
But I did find the source of the story, a long profile piece on Gergiev by Alex Ross in the New Yorker.
Everything in Gergiev’s world is filtered through music. His ears perk up, like a cat’s, at any faintly musical sound. On a walk down Broadway in December, I watched him become distracted by a young homeless man who was irregularly banging on a xylophone. In a split second Gergiev analyzed the performance to be certain that he had not overlooked the xylophonist of tomorrow.
The most glaring difference is that we learn the guy was “irregularly banging on” the xylophone. It’s a slightly loaded phrase which implies that he was terrible, or at least that if he was any good, only Gergiev could have possibly discerned it. That’s a good distinction, which has gone missing from the ad version.
But one thing is clear from both sources: Gergiev’s analysis takes place instantly, in a split second. That doesn’t bode well, does it. He’s a busy man, as the New Yorker piece, with its lavish opening description of all the things he could have been doing while catching an hour’s sleep, makes clear. But still if the musician had shown any promise, he might have lingered for, well, ten seconds or so? And with the talk of his being distracted, I can only picture him striding down Broadway, his nose wrinkling briefly as he processes the noise, then turning to his companion and saying in a thick Russian accent “No, sorry, it’s pony.”