It is not often that many classical music stars get together to perform but this time Cadogan Hall witnesses the performance of the pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, violinist Jennifer Pike and actors Edward Fox and Freddie Fox – all conducted by an outstanding master Jan Latham-Koenig who is also known to be Head of the Novaya Opera Artistic Board in Moscow, Russia. He brings a unique programme to commemorate Shostakovich’s birthday on 25th September. He also toured Russian and the UK with the first ever Britten – Shostakovich Festival orchestra bringing together 86 Russian and British musicians from leading conservatoires in the UK and Russia – a remarkable non-governmental initiative and an impressive achievement in bringing the two countries together. We managed to have this conversation with Jan Latham-Koenig on the eve of his concert in London.
It looks like you have always been at the crossroads of cultures. What has urged you to move and work in Russia? Was it your attraction to its culture or, possibly, the projects you have always wanted to do?
I have always admired the Russian culture, Russian music. When I was a child growing up, the most eagerly awaited annual concerts in London were the performances of Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, Oistrakh, Gilels, Richter, Svetlanov – these top Russian artists of the 1960s and 1970s commanded a cachet which almost no other artists could do. Of course, there were exceptions like Arthur Rubinstein, but the artists I have mentioned were in a class apart, and they were the most awaited. Interestingly, during the Cold War there was an absolute fascination with cultural life in Russia. There was an immense admiration for Russian culture without necessarily the involvement of politics.
During the Gorbachev years we made a major tour of the Soviet cities, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg and the Baltic republics. And then, I came back to Russia ten years ago when I was asked at a fairly short notice to take over a production of Lohengrin by Kasper Holten in Moscow. And that is when my involvement with Russian music began.
So, it all happened unexpectedly, and you did not plan any particular move?
It was never planned. I have always greatly admired Russian music, but it was never planned.
What is the strongest quality of the Russian musical school in your opinion? If you could sum it up in one word what could this be?
We usually have the image of Russians as more spontaneous, emotional, if not sometimes chaotic.
They are emotional and chaotic, or can be like this, but what characterises the great Russian musicians is their knowledge that everything starts from the discipline – and of course, they have to possess distinguished emotional qualities, as well.
As a conductor, since 1992 I have collaborated with Evgeny Kissin, who is one of the world’s greatest pianists and also happens to be a close friend of mine. I also performed with the pianist Vadim Repin, the cellist Alexander Knyazev and singer Olga Borodina. I have always felt that their absolute commitment to the highest standards is the most important thing.
Is it challenging to perform with the mixed orchestra? How do you manage to bring together Russian and English talent? Their mentalities, attitudes, perceptions, do they complement or contradict each other?
No, it is not easy to bring them together, but each nationality is stronger on certain things and weaker on others. The British young musicians generally have more advanced orchestral training mentality whereas the Russians tend to have a more advanced soloistic technical capacity. And the challenge is to improve the technical level of the British players and work on the orchestral technique of the Russian players.
The reason why we called ourselves Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra almost typifies the cross-cultural pollination which manifested itself through Benjamin Britten's friendship with Dmitry Shostakovich. This was a musical friendship that blossomed despite a very difficult political climate (especially, in the early 1970s) and that really stood out.
It is not the first Shostakovich - Britten musical event you are organising. Why do you think it is so important to highlight this friendship between the two composers now? And what do you find so interesting about their artistic friendship and mutual sympathy?
From a musical point of view, both composers were great admirers of each other’s music and were, influenced by each other in various subtle ways. Besides, Sir Laurie Bristow, himself a viola player, reminded me that in 1971, at the height of great diplomatic tensions between the UK and Russia, Britten and Shostakovich gave a joint concert at the British Embassy and were even received at 10 Downing Street. Even in times of a diplomatic crisis, the USSR musicians and British musicians were welcomed in each other’s countries.
And I think that symbolises what we are, essentially, trying to do: it symbolises how each culture can and does influence the other to mutual benefit. And I hope that our concerts will be the symbol of that.
Which Russian composer is closest to your heart, apart from Shostakovich?
I would say Tchaikovsky and Rakhmaninov. I love Moussorgsky, Prokofiev and Borodin, but Tchaikovsky and Rakhmaninov in particular.
Which quality attracts you in their music?
The extraordinary melodic gift, and the intensity of emotion, the emotional depth that these two composers can engender.
What was the most memorable performance of a Russian musician that you had ever witnessed?
As a spectator and listener, I remember the most dramatically charged concert that I ever saw in my life, an absolute key event, something very special. In the 1960s I was the member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, and we gave concerts in 1967-1968 that included Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. We were first giving concerts in Manchester and Aberdeen, and then in August 1968 we were scheduled to do a concert in Croydon. However, there was a free day between our Manchester and Croydon concerts. Very generously, the National Youth Orchestra bought a hundred tickets for what was going to be the first of three promenade BBC Proms concerts on the first ever UK tour of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra conducted by E. Svetlanov with soloists Rostropovich and Oistrakh. And the first concert was scheduled for the 21st or the 22nd of August 1968. I was already an enthusiastic prommer and was looking forward to the performance. On that day, as we arrived from Manchester, I noticed a very unusual atmosphere at the Euston station: everyone seemed to be buying newspapers. And the reason for that agitation was that Chekhoslovakia had been invaded by the Warsaw Pact countries.
Even though the entire British classical community was looking forward to this concert, everybody thought that it would be cancelled. It wasn’t. And yet, there were huge demonstrations inside and outside the hall. That was the most electric atmosphere I had ever witnessed in a concert hall. And the protestors started shouting during the performance. However, Rostropovich was playing Dvořák with incredible poignancy. At the end of the 2nd half of 10th Shostakovich’s symphony (and this was the reason why the Orchestra had bought tickets for us, because that piece was in our repertoire) the playing was of such extraordinarily high level, that despite the demonstrations during the first half of the concert, at the end of the Shostakovich symphony there was a huge applause, and the concert ended very happily. At that time, being a very young boy, I was trying to analyse why this had happened, and I realised that the power of music, of culture, of art, -- and in this particular case, of music,-- to override and overcome whatever political problems there were, was immense. These problems could at least temporarily be conquered by music. Music was stronger than anything else. And however much the demonstrators wished to protest against this invasion, they realised there was something more important when faced with this extraordinary music-making.
Many years later, as I was conducting opera in Vienna at the Staatsoper, I chanced to rehearse in a neighbouring rehearsal room with Rostropovich who was conducting another opera. I met him and asked him about that London performance in 1968, and he agreed that it was the most emotionally charged concert of his entire life. And I say this without any criticism of either the USSR, or Rostropovich, or myself.
This concert, remarkable for quite extraordinary music-making, happened more than fifty years ago and we must look at it as the historical event, as part of the post-war European history. In fact, during the darkest days of the Cold War Russian culture was so greatly admired that I consider this performance to be a supreme example of this.
What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it! Obviously, as you say, the music is more powerful than any political dissent. So, how the idea of the Britten – Shostakovich Festival Orchestra was born? You have already had a full UK tour, performing in Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh.
The project was born over the discussion that I had over with Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador to Russia, after his meeting with Sergei Lavrov when 2019 was announced as the year of music. Mr Bristow and I thought that the best way to celebrate this would be by creation of the bilateral orchestra between very fine British and Russian musicians. And so, incredibly, we made this project happen with the help of some influential figures on both sides that Mr Bristow introduced me to.
Why do you think Shostakovich and his works continue to hold such an appeal to the British audiences?
I think there has been a huge amount of publications over the last 40-50 years in the British press about Shostakovich and his place in the Soviet society, his life and works representing Russian Cultural history from the 1920s until when he died in the 1970s. Although his music is so Russian, he has carved out his own style with much personality. And looking at that generation of Russian composers to which he belongs, I think that Shostakovich is the only one whose music is most accessible to Western ears.
I wanted to include at least one or two pieces of Shostakovich into out programme, because one of the Presidents of our orchestra is Shostakovich’s widow, and she came to both performances in Moscow. I was very keen to include pieces that he wrote when he was married to her, and we manged to do that: one was a symphonic poem with chorus from Novaya Opera – the Execution of Stepan Razin, and the film music to Hamlet, which he did at the same period. It was a very emotional journey for us. And the thrill of the young musicians seeing the widow of someone who is essentially a legend to them was palpable. I love important historical occasions and the sense of history that sometimes one can bring to a concert.
I have also noticed that you like to experiment, for instance, you have recently collaborated with Marita Philips (Crawley) and composer Konstantin Boyarsky on the new opera named Pushkin. How did you find this experience? And do you plan any new similar projects with them?
Not at the moment but it was a wonderful thing. I met Marita through a mutual friend, and she told me that her dream was to get an opera performed from the libretto that she had written about her great, great, great grandfathers. And I knew Konstantin Boyarsky from a long ago, and I thought he would be the ideal person to write an opera: he was a Russian who spoke perfect English (the libretto was all in English). And so, I had a foot in both camps, so to speak. Amazingly, we managed to stage it and performed it first with Novaya Opera in Moscow, then, in 2018, took it to the New Grange Park festival near London. Our most recent performance took place on 18th June this year back in Moscow. So, hopefully, that was a success!
Is there any contemporary Russian composer you would be happy to collaborate with?
I do not have any specific projects involving them, but I would be delighted to meet more Russian contemporary composers and if the occasion presents itself, to do a new opera with them or something similar.
And finally, what is the most important about being a musician?
Expression. Music is nothing without expression. Of course, one needs the talent, the rhythmic qualities and the analytical qualities, and yet if music does not express emotion, or if the young conductor or musician cannot communicate this emotion to the audience, then it is all lost.