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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Russian officials are staying tight-lipped about plans for the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics on Friday. There are lots of rumors, though. There's talk of a choir of a thousand children, circus performers and ballet dancers. Some of Russia's leading classical musicians are expected to perform.

Also on stage, renowned conductor Valery Gergiev. Russian President Vladimir Putin named Gergiev an international ambassador of the Sochi Olympics. Gergiev is a powerful force in the world of classical music, but as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, he is also polarizing.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Valery Gergiev's story has passion, power, anger and tremendous beauty - a lot like the music he conducts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: Valery Gergiev is a formidable presence: tall, broad-shouldered. He often shows up for concerts uncombed and unshaven. He has strong ties to major orchestras throughout Europe and the U.S., the London Symphony, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Rotterdam, Munich. But Russia is where he has made his biggest impact.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: In 1988, when Gergiev was in his mid-30s, he took the helm of the historic Kirov Theater, a jewel of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. The Mariinsky, as it's now called, has been home to Russia's greatest performing artists: Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Nureyev, Baryshnikov. Put it this way, in 1892, "The Nutcracker" had its world premiere there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: It's been said that Gergiev runs the Mariinsky like a tsar. It's also been said that the institution needed the ruthlessness of a tsar to survive. When Gergiev took over, the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse, and so was its funding of the arts. Filmmaker Allan Miller directed a documentary about Valery Gergiev.

ALLAN MILLER: Gergiev discovered that those funds were really not going to last very long. And he took the orchestra around the world to give concerts in order to make money for the theater.

BLAIR: Gergiev helped raise the institution's profile around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: The orchestra's 2001 recording of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was praised by critics as reinvigorating a piece that was so overplayed, it had lost its ferocity. Music critic Ted Libbey was on the panel that named Gergiev's "Rite of Spring" one of NPR's 50 essential classical albums. After its release Ted Libbey talked about why it was selected.

TED LIBBEY: Gergiev turns back toward trying to evoke some of the brutality that is written into the music that was designed to be part of the experience. I mean, his guys just sail through this music. There's no question that they can play the notes, but they go a little bit further.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: Valery Gergiev is an unstoppable promoter of Russian culture. He's championed young artists who've become international stars, like opera singer Anna Netrebko. He's also revived lesser-known works by masters, like the opera "Sadko" by Rimsky-Korsakov, with tenor Vladimir Galouzine in the lead.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "SADKO")

BLAIR: To further his dreams for the Mariinsky, Valery Gergiev uses his significant political connections. Gergiev has known President Vladimir Putin for years. Filmmaker Allan Miller, whose documentary about Gergiev is called "You Cannot Start Without Me," says the friendship between the two goes back to when Putin was mayor of St. Petersburg, where the Mariinsky is based. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Putin was deputy mayor, not mayor, of St. Petersburg.]

MILLER: He says, of course I know Putin. I know him very well. He admires Putin. He admires his taking over when things were chaotic in the '90s, authoritarian though that might have been.

BLAIR: And here's where Gergiev has infuriated human rights activists. He was a vocal supporter of Putin in the last election. Last fall, a reporter for a Dutch newspaper asked Gergiev about Russia's anti-gay legislation which bans, quote, "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." Gergiev was quoted as saying "In Russia, we do everything we can to protect children from pedophiles. This law," he continued, "is not about homosexuality, it targets pedophilia."

Shortly thereafter, gay rights activists protested his concerts at the Metropolitan opera in New York, shouting Tchaikovsky was gay. There were also protests of Gergiev's concerts at the Barbican Centre in London. Inside the Barbican, gay activist Peter Tatchell surprised the audience.

PETER TATCHELL: Dressed in the most stylish tuxedo I could find, I walked onto the stage as the orchestra was warming up and simply made a short statement criticizing Gergiev's support for the new anti-gay law. I was immediately pounced upon by security staff and eventually I left of my own volition.

BLAIR: Peter Tatchell says he's experienced firsthand violent discrimination in Russia. In 2007, he was in Moscow to support efforts to hold a gay pride parade. Tatchell says he was beaten up by neo-Nazis and then arrested.

TATCHELL: It's an affront to human dignity for anyone, including an esteemed Russian and international music artist, to align themselves with legislation and a regime that violates human rights.

BLAIR: Critics of Gergiev's see a certain irony in his loyalty to Putin. Throughout his career, the conductor has been devoted to the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer who suffered greatly under Joseph Stalin's repressive government.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAIR: New Yorker critic Alex Ross praised one of Gergiev's recent performances of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony. But Ross also said he felt psychological unease at hearing Gergiev, a conductor who has made what Ross called a pact with authority, interpret the work of a composer who was terrorized by a dictator.

Valery Gergiev has made statements saying he is not anti-gay and that he has never discriminated against anyone in his entire career. In an interview that aired on CNN this week, he went a little further.

VALERY GERGIEV: I myself, question very much why the country needed something like this law. And I didn't even read it. Honestly, I didn't have time. I only learned about this law when things started to happen that I heard about.

BLAIR: Valery Gergiev also said he can't imagine anyone in Russia wants to upset the world's community during the Sochi Olympics. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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