It’s been more than a decade since Russia changed the name of the former Czarist capital back to St. Petersburg, but in Japan, where commercial concerns overrule even historical destiny, it took a long time for the reversion to take hold. For most of the ’90s, any orchestra or ballet company from the city was invariably advertised as being from Leningrad (with “St. Petersburg” added in parentheses), since the Soviet name has a stronger grasp on the imaginations of classical music buffs in Japan. Even at the height of the Cold War, Japan welcomed these artists almost annually. In fact, the St. Petersburg Mussorgsky State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre tours the archipelago every December and January, but in Japan they change their name to the Leningrad State Ballet and Opera.

The final nail in the Leningrad coffin should be driven in this fall, when almost every major Russian artist will find his or her way to Japan to celebrate the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg. Czar Peter I founded the city as “a window to Europe” in 1703 after he captured the area from the Swedes and built the Fortress of Peter and Paul there. It has always been considered the most Westernized city in Russia, which is one of the reasons the Bolsheviks moved the capital to Moscow after the revolution.

The city’s dedication to European art is represented by the Hermitage Museum and the Mariinsky Theatre, which is home to the Kirov Opera and Ballet. The Kirov is arguably the one great Russian artistic institution that has flourished, artistically, since the fall of the Soviet regime. While its Moscow counterpart, the Bolshoi, hemorrhages artists to the West and becomes increasingly mired in power grabs and scandals involving (supposedly) overweight prima donnas, the Kirov rivals the great opera houses and ballet companies of the world, and for one reason: Valery Gergiev.

More than a few critics have called the 50-year-old artistic director the greatest conductor in the world right now, and if he is it’s because he has an advantage; namely, the vast Soviet-era repertoire that tends to be overlooked in the West. Gergiev has made it his life’s work to elevate Glinka and Prokofiev to the opera pantheon occupied by Puccini, Wagner, and Verdi. He has used his considerable reputation to stage ambitious but generally unknown works such as Prokofiev’s “Semyon Kotko” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh” in places like the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and Covent Garden, London. Because few people had heard these works before, it’s as if Gergiev himself had discovered them.

Gergiev is the obvious star of the upcoming Russian Arts Festival in Japan, where he will conduct not only the Kirov Opera in productions of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” and the Japan premiere of Prokofiev’s massive “War & Peace” (with which Gergiev debuted at the Kirov in 1978), but also several local orchestras and even the Kirov Ballet. Normally, ballets are considered beneath the talents of great conductors, but Gergiev will man the podium for one performance (Nov. 27) of “Romeo & Juliet,” a ballet that caused Prokofiev no small amount of political grief with the Soviet authorities.

Gergiev replaced Yuri Temirkanov when he assumed the artistic directorship of the Mariinsky in 1988, and Temirkanov then went on to helm what is now called the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, replacing his mentor Yevgeny Mravinsky, a legendary conductor who made the Leningrad Philharmonic into the greatest orchestra in the USSR, if not the world (the reputation remains high, but pales next to that of the Mariinsky Orchestra’s). In Japan, Temirkanov is considered the most emblematic Russian conductor.

As such he will be presenting his hits: Tchaikovsky’s thunderous Fourth Symphony, Shostakovich’s overly long Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s very popular “Pictures at an Exhibition.” He will have in his entourage several of the world’s most celebrated soloists to perform the concerto portion of his concerts, including violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Natalia Gutman and pianist Martha Argerich (who’s Argentine, but nobody quibbles about national purity when you’re that famous).

Another pianist who will be joining the Temirkanov gravy train is Eliso Virsaladze, one of the few women soloists to succeed as a touring professional in the Soviet Union. However, the most acclaimed Russian pianist of the past 20 years has been Evgeny Kissin. Having just turned 32, Kissin no longer belongs to the ranks of child prodigies — perhaps no instrumentalist in the history of music has racked up as many “firsts” and “youngests” — but he remains in the minds of many the greatest living Russian pianist since the death of Sviatoslav Richter several years ago. A totally unself-conscious performer, Kissin is one of those very rare musicians who only has to apply himself to a piece in order to master it.

The world’s best violist, Yuri Bashmet, will play with and conduct the Moscow Soloists in two programs, one an obvious tribute to himself featuring a slide show to celebrate his 50th birthday, and the other a joint concert with Sergei Nakariakov, a young trumpeter of enormous versatility and teen-idol charm.

The festival will wind up with a performance by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the New Japan Philharmonic. Rostropovich is perhaps the only remaining superstar of the Soviet era who actively defied the authorities, first by defending Prokofiev and Shostakovich when their work fell out of political favor, and then by sheltering dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn for four years in his home. As a man who understands the true value of artistic freedom, he is specially equipped to represent Russia’s window on the West and most vital reliquary of artistic imagination.

Schedule of performances

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