The conductor's childhood
- Vladimir Ivanovich, what do you usually perform to your heart's content?
- The songs of the WWII period. These are simple and wise songs that are deeply rooted in the Russian musical culture and Russian hearts.
- Any artist tries to keep away from his work when he rests …
- I can live without music for no more than two days at the very beginning of the rest … And then I start to feel lost. I have to devote at least two or three hours to music, otherwise I feel incomplete.
- Many musicians consider their first performance with an orchestra the start of the career. What was it with you?
- I felt myself a musician in my childhood. It was in the prewar Leningrad. Any time I heard a wind band (those times wind band music was, what they call it, in fashion), I would run in the street and follow them, if they marched. Or I would stand in front of a band and lead it with a twig or my hand. My father always dreamt of me becoming a musician, but the war postponed my musical education for ten years.
Radio had a great impact on me. I used to stay at home (it was very dangerous to go out in the blockaded Leningrad) and listen to classical music. Music became a part of my soul.
After our family had been evacuated from the besieged Leningrad, we lived in Mourom. I started my classes at an amateur art studio. This is how I got my musical education, a part of it. Serious studies began in 1947 on my returning to Leningrad. I studied for eleven years: at first, at the college named after Musorgsky, then at the state musical college named after the Gnessins, at the conservatoire, at post-graduate courses… Music should be studied for years, simply because each age has its own music. One can be leading Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 for decades, but he will understand it only in the end of his life …
I think, I became a conductor only when I started to work with the symphonic orchestra by the invitation of talented Evgeny Mravinsky. It was in 1971. That is the starting point of my professional development. And it was all thanks to my great teacher. I was a conductor at a folk orchestra but I wanted so much to get to a symphonic one. I have always loved and will love folk music. I am thankful to God for the fifteen years I had lived close to this world, for my work with great singers: Lemeshev, Pirogov, Arckhipova, Mickhailov …
On the spirit of music, pop-culture and Russian soul
- You often speak about some national perception of the arts. What do you mean? What is the Russian specific perception of music?
- I consider Russia a lyrical place. Our national character speaks of it: we long to be closer to each other, we are kindhearted and we know mutual aid, we load ourselves with the sorrows of others. Russians enjoy and admire nature, works of art and music. We love choral singing and we often do it at table during feasts. Russians are able to understand and accept the soul of any other nation … And these are lyrical moments. The most lyrical and sincere composer in the world is Tchaikovsky. His music is admired everywhere! It is necessary to add that though Russians are able to understand any nation's soul, they also add their own features to its interpreting. And it does not lead to any distortions! Foreign critics often speak of it.
- And why do you call Beethoven the most modern composer in the world?
- There is something in Beethoven's music that can be found in any man's soul. His music is eternal. Time is the strictest and fair judge, and many talented composers are already forgotten or their works are rarely performed. Beethoven's music will live as long as this world exists. His music today, two centuries after is perceived as modern. It is fresh in every twist of imagination, in every bar. The man is what he was centuries ago.
There are two great composers, whose works do not need any refinement, adaptation, arrangement or shortening - Beethoven and Mozart. There is the best correlation of the work and the notion of the classical music.
What a conductor can do?
- What is the essence of your profession?
- Conductor is the coauthor of music. He can either interpret it to audience or ruin it. There were some cases in the history. Take, for instance, Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He conducted the orchestra at the first night of his Symphony No. 6 and it was a failure. Only five years later the symphony was “returned” to audience by Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikish. Why did it happen? The great composer was not a conductor. So, a talented composer needs a good conductor.
Conductor is a medium. He is responsible for the quality of music both to the composer and the audience. One is seriously mistaken if he thinks that any musician can become a conductor. It is a special profession.
- What are the qualities of an ideal conductor? Should he be authoritarian?
- Any conductor should hear and understand the author. It is the most important thing. As for his style, it is individual. There were different conductors, “dictators” and “non-dictators”. In the history of Russian orchestras Evgeny Mravinsky was considered a dictator, but his orchestra was famous all over the world. Another conductor, German conductor Carlos Cleiber was a very reserved and shy person nevertheless his records are works of a genius. The division of conductors into “dictators” and “non-dictators” is related to the character and style of work, and not to one's professionalism.
My ideal is Mravinsky, though I am not considered a dictator, and I am not one by nature. I succeed in managing musicians because of love, friendship and responsibility. I have never needed any dictatorial methods in my experience.
- Do you know any exceptions of the axiom, “There are no bad orchestras, and there are bad conductors”?
- These words belong to the famous French conductor - Charles Munch. There are no exceptions. I insist that in a week an ordinary orchestra consisting of professional musicians can be turned into a good one only thanks to the work of a conductor.
In opera there is the dictatorship of directors now. There were three epochs that changed consequently one another. There was the time of absolute power of prima donnas. It was beautiful and natural, I think. Then there was the epoch of conductors, which ended with the death of Carayan. And now it is the epoch of directors. They “invent” and direct! A director can make Boris Godunov in the famous opera a homeless, living in dump. Unfortunately I faced that modern staging, when tsar Dodon in the opera “Tale of a Golden Rooster” drove out on a bike. Sometimes I feel like leaving it all! It rarely happens that the composer, the director and the conductor are co-thinkers, and I am happy if it is so. The modern western scheme with the director on top is now being rooted in Russia, and it bothers me …
I am not at all against modern staging! Only it should be done thoughtfully and with talent. It should go from the composer! When the decisions can be explained by nothing but the desire of a director to look original, it is a disaster.
Places and people
- If you decided to abandon everything, where would you go?
- I don't know… Where can I go? Even if I am staying in some western country, I am a representative of my country, I love Russia. I try to cultivate understanding of Russian music and love to Russia when I travel abroad.
Of western cities I love Vienna and Zurich because they are very musical and I find it easy to work there. In Moscow it is the opposite, nobody helps me, I have to do everything myself.
I cannot call Petersburg my home city. It is related to my childhood reminiscences about the blockade, and they are far too happy.
- Could you live in the country? You love it so much; you have your birthday celebrations there. What about some faraway Austrian village…
- In the wonderful country of Austria, as everywhere else in Western Europe, there are no villages or wildlife left! That is why I celebrate my birthdays in the Russian village and not in Austria. In the village by the Valdai I get my pleasure communicating with common Russian people or go to fish. To my great regret, there are fewer and fewer people living in the village, some die, some leave… They are very good people. I value my being acquainted with them. They are kindhearted, sincere and always ready to help. They possess the true Christian traits!
I remember an example of my communication with the villagers. We were close friends with Georgy Sviridov. The last years of his life he spent in the village, and he wore valenki all the year round. Once his valenki got worn out, and Sviridov was worried. So, we went to find new valenki. We got to some village and found some tipsy men. I asked them, “Excuse me, where can we buy Valenki?” They laughed, “We don't know”. Suddenly one of them asked, “And who needs valenki in July?” It was an elderly man, a common, tipsy villager. I answered him, “There is a composer, Sviridov”. “Sviridov?! Let's go to my place, I will give him mine!”
Magazine “Foma” December 2007, ¹12/56