VALERY GERGIEV, 52, is a powerful-looking man who keeps his salt-and-pepper beard at stubble length. His concentration when he is conducting is legendary, but offstage, he looks fatigued and harassed, often rubbing his eyes. The phone calls and demands on his time are continual, and he seems happiest when performing. In fact, he absentmindedly waves his baton while talking on the phone, perhaps wishing he could control the conversation as easily as he controls his orchestra. His office at the Mariinsky is cozy and old-fashioned - there is no computer on the ornate, hand-carved wooden desk. He wears unfussy, almost sloppy, clothes, but the beautiful Breguet watch on his left wrist hints at his status, as does the long fur coat he sometimes wears during the fierce, seemingly interminable Russian winter.

He has come to be seen as a Russian patriot who carries the message that Russia's grand musical tradition is alive and well to concert halls throughout the world. Gergiev was raised in Ossetia, a Russian republic in the Caucasus region. He discovered a passion for playing piano at the age of eight and spent extended hours - sometimes entire nights - at the keyboard.

His talent was recognized early. When he was 15, his musical mentor urged him to consider becoming a conductor, but Gergiev was reluctant to take that route. The local conductor was a short man who wore platform shoes and performed with the sort of exaggerated emotion that Gergiev disdains. He found the conductor somewhat ridiculous and turned his attention to playing with friends in a rock band that took its inspiration from the Beatles.

It didn't last long. He liked the Beatles' harmonies, but by then, he had discovered Beethoven, and the Liverpudlians paled in comparison. Soon he discovered the great Russian, French, and Italian composers and left pop music behind. He arrived in St. Petersburg (known as Leningrad) in 1971 to study conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he quickly earned a reputation as a force to be reckoned with. He won his first international competition just five years later. He had already started to develop his signature understated style, using his expressive, fluid hand movements to convey information, not drama.

Gergiev became artistic director of the Kirov Opera at the Mariinsky in 1988 at age 35, in what turned out to be the tail end of the Soviet era. He sees both good and bad in the abrupt collapse of Communism that soon plunged the former Soviet Union into a period of economic and political chaos. There was a mad scramble for money and resources as state subsidies dried up, and many found they could not afford to pay for health care or schooling, which had been paid for by the government.

"Something is gone and I miss it terribly," he says. "People were not talking money, money 20 years ago because there was a certain support for everyone. Maybe it was a wrong system, all in all. But then came a very painful period when people would sometimes sell their soul in order to be paid somehow, which is not good for art. All these troubles made things unclear. There were huge changes, and economically, everything nearly collapsed. It may be five or 10 years before things are clear."