Interview with Vladimir Jurowski, Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of LPO
We met with Vladimir Jurowski in Henry Wood Hall in beginning of Novembe 2018, during the break between rehearsals of Stravinsky’s opera ‘The Rake’s Progress’. In November Jurowski and London Philharmonic Orchestra had a very intensive programme including two installments of their ‘Changing faces: Stravinsky journey’ cycle that began in February 2018 and will finish in December 2018. They were also rehearsing for a concert containting the works of Chezh composers who died during the Holocaust. And, thrillingly, for the centenary of the First World War Armistice they prepared a premiere of a work for chorus and orchestra ‘Triumph att finnas till...’ by a renowned Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg who was also present during the rehearsals. Taking a short break from his intensive rehearsals (sometimes including three in one day), the conductor took his time to speak about his musical past and challenges and pleasures of programming and performing the programmes with his London Philharmonic Orchestra. Stravinsky cylce, as well as his long-term interest in playing contemporary classical music were the topics of our talk.
Yulia Savikovskaya: Vladimir, how did you first realize that the process of perception of the world around could be made through music, and how the connections to music grew and developed during your years as a teenager and a young adult?
Vladimir Jurowski: I got this feeling so early, I can't even remember its first manifestations. Music has always been a part of my environment and everyday life, and for me to listen to music, any kind of music, was as natural as listening to my parents ' conversations with each other. And here I mean not just to hear the music, but to listen to it. There is a huge difference between these two activities. We hear a lot of what is going on around us, but it is very rarely that we attentively listen to things. I learned to listen to music as a child. Surely, some works and some types of music were boring for me at that time. I remember when the music seemed monotonous to me, as, for instance, Bach's music did, I reacted to it like all children would – I got bored and I fell asleep. The first memorable impression of music that I consciously listened is Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf" as my family had an LP with Nikolai Litvinov reading this fairy tale. There is a famous recording with Natalya Sats, and there was another one with Nikolai Litvinov. Then, of course, there were LPs specifically made for children that were based on Soviet radio shows: ‘The Adventures of Buratino’, ‘Dr. Aybolit’, "Boomchik and the Drum". The composers who wrote music for these LPs were really good ones: Mikhail Meerovich for ‘Dr. Aybolit’, David Tukhmanov for ‘Boomchik and the Drum’, wonderful music of Shirinsky for ‘The Adventures of Buratino’, where all roles were read by the above-mentioned Nikolay Litvinov all. This music was written specifically for these productions and was using the best patterns and examples of that time. There was also some some lightt music, for example, I remember fragments from Loewe's musical ‘My Fair Lady’. We had a lovely little EP produced in Riga that had about five or six songs, three on each side: songs by Eliza Dolittle and by Father Doolittle. These are my earliest impressions.
Then at the age of two I was taken to see a ballet by a Soviet composer Igor Morozov "Doctor Aybolit", and for a long time it remained my main source of impressions about music performed alive, because my father was a conductor, but at that time in Moscow he mostly conducted ballets. Those were ballets of the mid 1970s, my first operas came later. By the way, children were not allowed to the opera houses until a certain age (unless they were produced in Natalya Sats Musical Theatre for Children) so it was only at six years old, that I heard ‘Eugene Onegin’. ‘The Swan Lake’ was seen at about the same time, I think.
Well, one would say that was indeed very early on in your life.
Yes, the music entered my daily life very early on. And I also remember that we started singing very early, too. My sister and I did not attend the kindergarten (although there was one just nearby), but at that time the children were allowed to play on the street without any problems or fears, so we got to know a lot of children from early childhood, while at home there were two retired grandmothers who took care of us. I mention it because usually children start to sing in the kindergarten, while we began to sing even without attending it, and then after reaching five years of age we went to a special primary department of state musical school. Officially, we started our studies there at the age of six, and from the age of five we attended its teaching practice for very young children. Our parents made us start our music education — first it was me, and then my sister two years later — not because they wanted to make professional musicians out of us, but because they wanted to introduce us to music actively and from the early age. I remember that in school very early on we sang in a chorus and had solfeggio lessons, and we did it independently. And we had the ORFO orchestra, Orchestra of children's musical instruments, which I think was a great invention. Everyone had their parts, we had to learn them. For instance, I played the metallophone even before I learned to play the piano. I think that the first communication of a child with music should be active, where you are not just listening, but doing something yourself. You can sing and then play the instrument. By the time I started going to general education school I still had no idea what serious music was, what it was for. No one planned making me a musician, but it was already clear that music had become part of my daily life. And now when I recall all childhood impressions that included trips to nature, staying in the countryside, visits to puppet theatre and to special children's performances or movies, it is the musical impressions that stand out as the strongest.
You started your studies at the department of music theory, and then got inspired by conducting. Could you describe what conducting meant for you at that time? Did you want to share your vision of music with the world?
No, conducting at that time for me was first of all a way to convey to the world the music of my friends and classmates, because they were all composers, and I did not think of conducting any serious things at that time. I did not have the courage to take on such a responsibility, but I was ready to conduct some small composition of a friend who sat with me at the same desk in the college. One should not forget that we started attending the College of Music at about 15, so we we were still children at that time. Although the plans we had then were quite ambitious, not childish at all. My composer friends, for instance, were going to change the world with their compositions and creativeness. I wanted to be a part of it, and since I wasn't writing my own music, being a mediator of someone else's music seemed a very worthwhile thing to do. My own father served as a good example, as he conducted modern works of his friends a lot. At that time I did not think about a conductor’s career seriously, as career plans generally did not enter my mind at that time. I just wanted to be engaged in some creative activity, but since I did not compose music myself, I thought that I could choose to interpret it, to be a director or conductor.
So is it from that time that your interest in contemporary music had been developing? Had it remained with you for life? I understand that you promote modern music both in London and in Russia, as, for instance, when curating and programming the ‘Other Spaces’ Festival in Moscow.
Certainly. I just have put it into different words earlier. I had a very early understanding that modern music, as Ostap Bender, a famous character created by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, once said: ‘A car is not a luxury, it is a means of transportation’. So, modern music is not a luxury, but a necessary condition for the existence of music in general, music as a live stream. Otherwise music will become just a museum object and would have already become one if we listened and performed only music written by the glorious masters of the past. Therefore, the difficulty lies only in the simple fact that modern music is created by people who often - not always, but quite frequently - are mentally a few steps ahead of the rest of the planet’s population.
And so do other people have to develop and grow in order to understand this music?
I would say so, indeed. It is not possible to do it for some types of music, and for others it is not necessary to do it at all, but the music which is really avant-garde and progressive, requires some effort on the part of the listener, and the need to do it deters audiences very often.
You once said that there should be almost an obligation, a rule of thumb for orchestras to play music by modern composers.
Yes, and it is important and necessary to introduce such a habit and practice for listeners, too. Schumann has a wonderful book of advice for young musicians – he wrote it for children, as an appendix to his ‘Album for the Young’. One of his pieces of advice in this book is to ‘respect the old, but never distrust the new and the unknown’. Just because the name of the composer is not yet known does not mean that this composer is bad or not worth listening to. But, of course, in Schumann’s time it was slightly easier, as the norms of the music language and music practice were not so far removed from popular music. Roughly speaking, popular music and serious music used the same tonal principles. And after having listened even the most recent work, be it Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, not to mention Verdi, people took a stroll and whistled the theme that was lodged in their memory. And now let’s try to imagine someone whistling a theme from a composition by a contemporary author! Although there are those who can write a memorable melody, today it has become much more difficult to do.
I was very interested in your idea that during the Soviet period there was almost a ban on Western classical music of 20th century, and that is why now in post-Soviet Russia we are still almost stuck in the interest in romantic music of the 19th century and have difficultues in accepting modern developments. It seems that your festival ‘Other spaces’ tries to introduce new names to Russian audiences.
Thanks God, several different endeavours have been happening in this domain, and the festival "Other spaces", which by the way is not my invention, is only one of them. I took it from other people who continue to take an active part in its creation and its new editions.
Are these people and yourself succeeding here? Do people attend the concerts?
That's the greatest thing of all – yes, it is happening, people do come. But the thing is that for something in our minds change, it is necessary for these processes to happen everywhere, and not just at special festivals. That is, we would be able to say that there has been a revolution of musical consciousness at a certain point in future when the presence of modern music — no matter of what kind, written in no matter what style and what language— will become the norm in the programmes of musicians around the world, along with more well-known classical music. In the meantime, unfortunately, these are still isolated attempts by idealists to change the rather rigid and immobile body of the music business, which still holds on to the usual and repeatedly heard things.
But here in London as I noticed even the Stravinsky cycle that LPO had during the year was interspersed with commisions of new music by Anders Hillborg and Magnus Lindborg. Did you discuss these future works with them? Did you personally make these commissions?
Well, the LPO orchestra made the commissions, not me personally. However, I participated in the selection of pieces or composers to work with.
How did you select them? Was your choice based on whose music you like or with whom you would like to work with?
When we have to select pieces or composers, one had to admit that it is not only personal interests or personal tastes that matter but also commercial, business aspects. Unlike in Russia, Western composers are practically all clients of large publishing houses.
Do these publishing houses monitor the timely payment of a composer’s commission?
Yes, they do, and they also make sure that their composers always have enough work. A Western composer, with some rare exceptions, never works without a commission. This is also a kind of a business – a very special and not very profitable one. But if the composer manages to become one of those in high demand, he will be bombarded with orders from different sides. Magnus Lindberg and Anders Hillborg, are in modern parlance, well-promoted and well-known composer stars. Hillborg’s ‘Mantra’ was, as it seemed to me, an interesting but not really innovative composition by Hillborg – he has other really good pieces of music, but this composition did not seem to me very successful. But I am very proud that along wth Hillborg’s ‘Mantra’ in the same concert appeared - and was perceived very well — the opus Yuri Falik, the late Russian composer from St. Petersburg, that was written after Stravinsky's death. Yes, it was written forty years ago, but if Falik was still alive (and he died in 2009 at the age of 72) he would still be considered a modern composer. He is not a classic. His work, it seems to me, was a small discovery for Western audiences. One of the journalists reviewing that concert even wrote that it was the main reason for coming to listen to it. I cannot, of course, conceive each of my programmes in such a way as to always introduce some discoveries of the unknown music, but our concerts are not banal and quite inventive, and we are in contact with new composers all the time. In the recent years Mark-Anthony Turnage and Julian Anderson wrote pieces for us, we had several premieres of works by Magnus Lindberg who had been our Composer-in-Residence since 2014/2015 season. Alexander Raskatov also wrote for us, and there were also works by other composers that had not ever been played by other orchestras. Now, speaking of Russian composers, we have played several works by Edison Denisov, including his final opus, the Second Symphony, which was written shortly before his death. We played the Third Symphony by Valentin Silvestrov, a composer from Kiev, that had never been performed in the UK, and we had the London premiere of Benjamin Yusupov's Cello Concerto. These were very significant and important moments. We had a whole festival dedicated to Schnittke's music in 2009. We had an emblematic and scandalous project – the opera ‘Vita Nova’ by Vladimir Martynov which got the most excruciating reviews my projects have ever received. However, I am pleased that we made it. It also pleases me to remember that in London we were torn to pieces by critics, while in New York this opera was received much more favorably. Apparently London audiences haven’t matured yet to perceive Russian conceptualism in music.
And how did you plan your current year-long cycle of concerts for 2017/2018 season dedicated to Stravinsky? Comparing the programmes of various London orchestras one is inclined to think you have followed in Philharmonia orchestra’s footsteps who had their Stravinsky year in 2016/2017 with ‘Myths and rituals’.
You know, we plan things very much in advance. Our Stravinsky project had already planned Philharmonia announced their ‘Myths and rituals’ programme. Well, we could not cancel our own festival at that stage.
Was it an unlucky coincidence?
We can't have a monopoly on such a composer as Stravinsky. Moreover, we initially had a slightly different approach. Philharmonia played selected works that were chosen with the theme of myths and rituals in mind. In my opinion it is possible to make a festival of all Stravinsky works around this theme as all Stravinsky canon is either myths or rituals. But our idea was to make a global retrospective of the composer's work from his earliest to his latest works. The only problem was that, given that we are a symphony orchestra with 30 subscription concerts a year in London, we could not accommodate all works by Stravinsky into these 30 concerts. There was once a project of full Stravinsky works in London, but it was organized not by a particular orchestra but by Southbank Centre and BBC in collaboration. Two concert organizations Concert joined their forces in 1979, and between 1979 and 1982, around the time of centenary since Stravinsky’s birth, they performed all the works by him within the period of 2-3 years. It was an absolutely incredible festival, almost all London orchestras took part in it, as well as BBC radio Corporation, Royal Opera and Ballet, Glyndebourne, and many guest artists. And they indeed played everything ever written by Igor Stravinsky.
But it seems that such a programme could only be realized within a long period of three years?
Indeed, but it meant that none of them had to sacrifice their entire season for being part of it. They became part of this huge puzzle through dedicating a part of their concerts to this project, and so indeed every single work by Stravinsky was played then.
During the 2017/2018 we first learned about Stravinsky's teachers...
Yes, they were Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Lyadov.
And then there was a chronological logic to the concerts – Russia, period in emigration, then the USA.
Yes, we started with the Symphony in E flat major, which was his work of student years in St Petersburg Conservatory. It was written in 1904-1905, when he was taking a composition course with Rimsky-Korsakov. It is still a very young Stravinsky, not like Stravinsky as we know him at all. His recently discovered ‘Funeral song’ was performed in the second or third concert. And now, after Russia and Paris, we are now in the post-war period. In one of our last concerts his very final work, Requem Canticles, will be performed, and the other concert will feature a very rarely performed ‘Threni’ (Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah), one of his later works. I dream of performing this one in Moscow one day. As far as I know, these two pieces have never yet been performed in Moscow.
Then, according to your idea, a full impression of this cycle could only be made by visiting all concerts that constitute it? This is a very cool idea, and I don’t think that such practice has been instilled into the minds of Russian audiences yet.
Yes, indeed, not yet. There have been some long-term projects in Russia curated individually – for instance, Gennady Rozhdestvensky had his own subscription concerts called ‘Mozart and ...’. He also had ‘Foggy Albion’ project where he performed British music. So there are personal subscription concerts of conductors devoted to one theme, but it is impossible for the symphony orchestra to devote its entire season to one theme only, as orchestras do not have a sufficient number of individual subscriptions. Look at the State Orchestra of Svetlanov season in Russia: they have two personal subscription cycles, one in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, the other in the Tchaikovsky Hall. A new subscription cycle has been introduced in the Second Philharmonic Hall. And in each of these subscription cycles there are only four or five concerts, of which two or maximum three are conducted by the Principal Conductor, and guest conductors are invited for the rest of the season. So, it is also necessary to find guest conductors who would agree to be part of such subscription series.
Finally, after all these years of working in London, do you think that British critics and audiences perceive you as a mediator of Russian music and Russian style of conducting?
Well, I do think indeed that British public still has a perception of me as a Russian conductor coming from a Russian school of music making. But everyone also knows about my connections with Germany, and I play a lot of German music. And additionally, everyone knows about my passion for modern music. I am perceived, first of all as myself and only then as a representative of some school or another, which seems to me the only approach possible.