The Russians are coming ... straight to Davies Hall 

What a difference a couple of decades make!

In 1991, in the chaos of the Soviet Union’s meltdown, Valery Gergiev, a 37-year-old conductor then known only in Russia, made his North American debut in the San Francisco Opera House.

He now returns to lead the Mariinsky Orchestra in two concerts at Davies Hall, as one of the world’s best-known and busiest — some say overemployed — maestros, and a close friend of Vladimir Putin.

Back in 1991, San Francisco Opera General Manager Lotfi Mansouri imported Gergiev to lead a humongous production of Prokofiev’s “War and Peace,” then in 1994 to conduct Massenet’s “Hérodiade,” with Placido Domingo leading the cast in the tenor’s last stage appearance here.

Mansouri upped the ante the same year by having Gergiev and his Kirov Opera stage their productions of Prokofiev’s “Fiery Angel” and the next year Glinka’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila,” with a 22-year-old Anna Netrebko making her American debut as Lyudmila.

The Gergiev-Kirov partnership returned in 1998-99, and then disappeared from the local scene, switching to the Metropolitan Opera, where Gergiev became principal guest conductor, while holding down top positions with the Kirov Opera, the London Symphony Orchestra and St. Peterburg’s White Nights Festival, and appearing in guest conducting assignments too numerous to count.

But Leningrad-St. Petersburg has always been the home company for Moscow-born Gergiev from a family of Ossetians living in the Caucasus.

His musical education began in the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and by 1978, at 25, he became assistant conductor at the Kirov Opera under Yuri Temirkanov.

That great opera-ballet-­symphony-­theater organization was born in 1860 as the Mariinsky, named for Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Czar Alexander II. It was the venue for the premieres of seminal works by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

When Russia became the Soviet Union and St. Petersburg Leningrad, the company name was changed to Kirov, after a Communist Party leader. With the demise of the Soviet Union, all the names reverted back to what they were decades before.

The touring orchestra will perform an all-Russian program Sunday of music by Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, then on Monday the ultimate challenge to pianists, Rachmaninoff’s 1909 Piano Concerto No. 3, with Tchaikovsky Competition winner Denis Matsuev as the soloist, and Shostakovich’s 1971 Symphony No. 15.

Matsuev started piano lessons at age 3. As a teenager, he played hockey and football, and broke his arm twice — not a particularly good for a pianist, but audiences  today never would know of any resulting difficulties.

Mariinsky Orchestra

Presented by the San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $15 to $100
Contact: (415) 864-6000,

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Michael Daboll

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