Reflection of soul
[b]Music is a world where sounds reign over the soul. It is heartfelt and strong, arousing deep emotions. [/b][b]In my opinion, spiritual perception of music is of primary importance but what do professionals think, being the ones who create and present music? What do they hope for in their dialogue with listeners? [/b]Professor of music Vyacheslav Bortnovsky is one of the country’s leading conductors and have worked with various Belarusian creative groups. Mr. Bortnovsky has enjoyed hundreds of performances, including many abroad, so is an appropriate person to offer comment.
In my opinion, spiritual perception of music is of primary importance but what do professionals think, being the ones who create and present music? What do they hope for in their dialogue with listeners?
Professor of music Vyacheslav Bortnovsky is one of the country’s leading conductors and have worked with various Belarusian creative groups. Mr. Bortnovsky has enjoyed hundreds of performances, including many abroad, so is an appropriate person to offer comment.
Is classical music losing its popularity?
Evidently, this issue should be viewed in a broader sense, in the context of the development of world musical culture. If we analyse regional development, we can see a powerful ‘musical explosion’ across Asia. South Korea, China and Japan have seen amazing achievements at international competitions, so are a bright example. Some fifty years ago, they had just begun to master our European musical heritage, studying European musical culture. Now, they have colossal success.
South American region hasn’t excelled in classical music for many centuries. However, Venezuela has adopted a state programme relating to its organisation of symphony orchestras; it is lowering crime and unemployment and raising spirituality by educating children in the joys of orchestral music. This shows how classical music can bring not only simple pleasure but can help in solving social problems. I can assure you that classical music is still popular worldwide and will remain so.
How great is interest towards classical music in our country?
Interest towards classical music in Belarus is rather high. However, at present, decentralisation is a major task — acute for both our country and other states. It’s vital that concerts by leading musicians take place in capitals and in the regions.
What are the traditions of the Belarusian musical school?
The Belarusian school of performers formed inside world culture. Of course, the roots of Belarusian culture go deep into Russian musical culture. In a professional context, we’re now continuing what was laid in Soviet times. Conducting is currently experiencing a new stage of development in our country. Meanwhile, Belarus’ school of conducting is connected with prominent names from Leningrad’s conducting school: Alexander Ismusin and Victor Dubrovsky. The latter headed Minsk’s Symphony Orchestra in 1956. Yuri Yefimov was chief conductor from the 1970s to the mid-1980s. Creative contacts promoted the establishment and development of the Belarusian musical school. At present, our performing schools are rather independent. We have a wonderful Academy of Music, which trains musicians to highly professional levels. Traditions of friendship and liaison with Russian musical culture are continuing.
A conductor is somehow a mysterious figure. What are the secrets of his influence over the orchestra?
Back in the late 19th century, great composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov ironically said that conducting is a ‘dark business’. He was so right. The profession has its faзade, which can mislead people. They ponder the figure standing in front of the orchestra and wonder what he is thinking and doing. It’s not always easy to understand how a conductor influences a performance; we’d have to asses administrative and creative aspects. Of course, a conductor is a very important figure, guiding the creative face of the ensemble. He leads, taking responsibility for the interpretation of a musical piece.
In the past, there have been attempts to ‘get rid of’ conductors. In 1922, a group of famous musicians decided that an orchestra had no need of a conductor. They organised a band, known as ‘Persimfans’, performing without a conductor. The trend became popular and spread beyond the Russian borders, with such groups arising across Europe. However, within a decade, everything broke down; experience showed that a leader was needed at the heart of large group creativity. Today, a symphony orchestra comprises 100 to 120 members. Of course, some results can be achieved even without a conductor; this requires far more rehearsal time though. Each of us possesses an individual viewpoint, so a unified musical policy is needed.
If we speak about conductors from an historical point of view, there was absolutism in the conductor’s profession from the early 20th century to the 1970s. Conductors possessed great powers, even showing elements of dictatorship. One of the world’s most famous conductors — Herbert von Karajan — was like this. Now, ‘conductor-orchestra’ relationships are more democratic. The orchestra chooses its conductor, although the conductor’s priority remains, with all rights equal.
You’ve performed with various musicians, including those from abroad. Is it difficult to make contact? What determines a conductor’s authority?
It’s a difficult question, which also has a psychological aspect, encompassing the orchestra’s professional level and its state at the moment you arrive. Of course, when arriving in another country, a conductor always faces the problem of establishing contacts. The first rehearsals are always very difficult, with the chief conductor of the orchestra directing and guiding musicians. I’d like to give an example, describing our symphony orchestra’s tour of Spain twenty years ago. The tour was a success, but our impresario agreed that one of the concerts would be dedicated to Zarzuela — national Spanish operetta. Although the orchestra was prepared, it wasn’t aware of the stylistic peculiarities of Spanish Zarzuela, so didn’t get a good review. We’re talking about penetrating the style of another country’s musical culture. This is a conductor’s task. For example, I can determine by ear which orchestra is performing Tchaikovsky’s music: either a Slavonic group from within the post-Soviet space or a British orchestra.
How can people’s musical education be influenced?
Anyone can listen to and understand music, even if they possess little capability. In my opinion, this process can happen at any age. If you’ve been close to musical culture all your life, it makes it easier to understand and accept music; the process of comprehension lasts a lifetime. It may take time to gain full appreciation, but this will finally come; each fruit has its own harvest time. A tomato needs first to become ripe before being eaten; ‘introduction’ into classical music also takes time. Don’t begin with complex material; definite criteria exist for each age. In this respect, I can explain how state policy aims to make classical music attractive. During our tour of France, we had several projects, making music ‘suitable’ for schoolchildren. We gave special concerts which primarily gathered a children’s audience. A musicologist familiarised children with instruments from the symphony orchestra and musicians played each one to show their timbre. The state policy aims to bring children closer to classical music from school age. I’m confident that gradually introducing classical music to school children will later yield fruit. Listening to Mahler’s symphony in live concert is too intense an introduction, often leading to rejection. It’s necessary to enter the world of complex music comprehension with something more easily understandable.
Which musical styles and trends are spiritually closer to you?
I think that each musician is different in this regard; something may be spiritually inadmissible for one but not another. Romantic culture is closer to me, with the romantic style more comprehensible.
Which musical events of recent years have most impressed you?
Probably, I should speak about personalities in musical culture. A musical event cannot exist without a creative personality. Of course, it’s a landmark event to attend a concert by a prominent musician. Unfortunately, these rarely take place, so are ‘milestones’. Recently, we’ve had few such creative events but Minsk will soon welcome legendary Valery Georgiev, who I’ve known since studentship; we studied in parallel groups. In my opinion, he is a great personality in the musical world.
World musical culture is favouring the trend of personalities, while musical events are linked to outstanding performers. Recently, Matsuev visited us — one of the brightest contemporary pianists. The British conductor Retol is also an acknowledged master, as is Zubin Mehta. Undoubtedly, audience always expects bright performances from them. In the past, Stravinsky’s concerts have greatly impressed me — professionally and musically.
You are a Dean of the Musical Art Department at a University, so you must be more aware of what’s happening in the minds of our future musicians. What are their preferences, including musical?
I think that youngsters always search for their own path, just as we did in our youth. They’re constantly searching for their own way in life. As the Head of the Department, I think that one of my administrative functions is to enable everyone to find their own path; each of us is individual, especially in the arts. We can create a single school and educate all musicians in one manner. Outstanding teachers, like world acknowledged master Ilya Musin — viewed by historians of the art of conducting as the founder of Leningrad’s conducting school — taught everyone using one and the same methodology. He wrote four books, with two being purely of methodical character. I visited his classes for fifteen years and know first hand that he had a single approach and training method. Meanwhile, his lessons ‘generated’ extreme diversity, both regarding professional manner and in conducting technique. Valery Gergiev and Yuri Timerkan are leading world conductors but represent two quite different styles; they aren’t ‘twins’ from a creative and conducting viewpoint. Laying the foundations for Belarus’ performing art school, I believe that it’s vital to preserve and develop individuality; it needs the opportunity to reveal itself.
What makes a ‘talented musician’?
To my mind, talent is inherent. Hard work and determination are required to fulfil your potential, alongside the desire to create. If you don’t have a goal or the desire to creatively realise yourself, you’ll fail as a musician at some point.
How diverse is the contemporary musical life of the country?
At present, every trend and genre is present in Belarus, with the Belarusian State Philharmonic Society, the National Opera Theatre and Musical Theatre enjoying popularity. The genre of operetta is also developing well; we have great creative potential. We have the chance to implement the boldest projects, with every opportunity to create. Moreover, we have a very intensive concert playbill. If you look at the list of proposed concerts, you’ll see how intense it is — even we think so! However, there is too much centralisation of musical life in the capital; we have to ‘unload’ Minsk, enabling these events to take place right across the Republic.
Is music and conducting a profession for you? What are your professional plans for the near future as a conductor?
Of course, it’s my profession; it’s my life. As far as my creative plans are concerned, I like the proverb: ‘If you want God to laugh, tell Him about your plans’. Undoubtedly, there are plans and projects, in addition to my desire to create. I believe that Belarusian listeners will soon learn about these. I hope that I’ll be given an opportunity to implement my plans and that I’ll have enough strength and health for this.
One of the nearest plans is a concert of masterpieces of world opera art at Minsk’s Concert Hall, on May 11th. The event will feature opera stars from all over Russia, Azerbaijan and Belarus. Alongside acknowledged masters, I’m also preparing a debut of several young Belarusian performers, who’ll be making their first concert steps. I did the same in the late 1990s, selecting young students from the Academy of Music for the ‘Opera Stage Stars of the 21st Century’ concert. It featured second, third and fourth year students from the Academy of Music. I performed this programme with a state orchestra and those performers are now soloists with leading theatres, touring all over the world. For example, Yekaterina Semenchuk is a leading soloist with the Mariinsky Theatre, performing at Covent Garden, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera. Prince Charles invited her to sing at his birthday event in London. Meanwhile, one of the participants of that concert will soon come to Minsk to sing: Volodya Moroz. He is also a soloist with the Mariinsky Theatre and, like Yekaterina, performs at the largest European concert halls.
This shows that a conductor may ‘open’ talents and give them a ‘ticket’ to a creative career — maybe even to fame. We shouldn’t think that a conductor only enters the stage to wave his baton. Before the performance, he thoroughly considers the whole project and the direction of his programme. First, ideas are born in his head, followed by settling of organisational issues: to unite all musicians and build a programme and a rehearsal process. If translated from French, to conduct means to manage, yet everything should be interpreted in a broader sense. Conducting encompasses so many elements: from the programme itself and its content to project implementation. These are accumulated in one personality.
By Victor Kharkov