on 25 May 2001

Bringing Music to the Masses

As Russia’’s musical talents continue to make a mass exodus abroad, renowned pianist Irina Nikitina is willfully going against the grain. With her annual festival Musical Olympus, running Saturday through June 5 in St. Petersburg, Nikitina brings to Russia the world’’s most gifted young musicians.

Nikitina personally visits the most highly acclaimed international contests - such as the Sibelius Violin competition in Helsinki, the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens and the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels - to find her candidates. Her efforts have won deserved praise from grateful audiences, and her Musical Olympus is now one of only two Russian festivals to be admitted to the prestigious World Federation of International Music Festivals. On the eve of the Musical Olympus’’ opening, Nikitina spoke to The Moscow Times.

- How do you choose the participants for your festival?

- They need genuine talent, and they have to touch my heart. We also have an honorary committee, which helps select participants. Claudio Abbado, Montserrat Caballe, Placido Domingo, Valery Gergiev and Mstislav Rostropovich are among its members. We don’’t forget our performers once they have returned home. One of the festival’’s main goals is to help young musicians launch their careers and sign their first contracts. Every year we attract prominent Western managers and foundations to the festival to help them get started.

- Since it was established in 1996, your Musical Olympus has run for only one week. Would you like to extend the festival?

- No. On the contrary, I would rather have it even shorter to make the festival more concentrated. One of the worst things that can happen to a festival is for it to become too loose. Extending the Musical Olympus would only make it more dissipated and less interesting. This festival is virtually a parade of winners. Long parades don’’t make sense. They are boring.

- Why did you choose to launch a festival and not a competition?

- I find organizing a contest to be less interesting. I initially wanted to establish the Musical Olympus to introduce maestros whom I myself chose. Also, a contest invariably has certain limitations, and I did not want to confine the event to a particular instrument or group of instruments.

- What types of musicians will perform this year?

- I’’ve invited vocalists, composers, cellists, pianists, saxophonists, violinists and flutists. There will be very talented vocalists, among them Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux (who won the first prize at the Queen Elizabeth Competition), and American baritone Nathaniel Webster (who took second prize at Munich’’s International Music Competition). We’’ve invited several winners of conducting competitions, among them Spain’’s Pablo Gonzales, who won first prize at the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition in London, and Tugan Sokhiev, second-prize winner of the third International Prokofiev competition. Dorian Wilson, a conductor from the United States, will be participating in his third Musical Olympus. The program itself will be very varied this year, including Schnittke, Berlioz, Elgar, Dvorak, Rakhmaninov, Ravel, Penderecki, Piazzola, Sibelius, Poulenc. Many of the works are very rarely performed in Russia.

- Why is it that you, a renowned pianist, never perform at the festivals?

-You can’’t go on stage and perform your best if you have just finished arranging accommodations, fees, negotiations and so on. A musician should be well aware of this.

- What is, in your opinion, the common problem concerning all Russian musical festivals - both in artistic and financial terms?

- Artistically, the major disaster is the lack of a substantial theme linking the festival together. Without it, the events often appear to be merely a series of concerts. As for the financial sphere, festival organizers depend almost entirely on sponsors. Often enough it is not clear until the very start of the festival what they really can afford. This, in turn, explains the sudden changes in program that often take place.

-Some musicians complain that their national performing schools are in jeopardy of being overwhelmed by so-called "international standards." How would you respond to this trend to globalize music?

- The term "international standards" sounds a bit sporty to me. The world of music is much more subjective than the world of sports. I don’’t consider such a trend to be dangerous. Rather, it signifies a step toward finding a common language among performing schools rather than establishing a threat to them. Yes, globalization brings with it a certain fading of borders, but this doesn’’t mean you must lose your individuality. It means, rather, that your art will be accessible to a much broader circle of audiences. If schools do their job well, the training they pass on to their students will never be obliterated from their style.

- The typical classical concert in Russia attracts for the large part the elderly and small children. Can you comment on the average audience?

- Unfortunately, this trend does exist. The elderly feel nostalgic for the concerts of the old days and they bring along the grandchildren who are too young to resist. This trend is depressing, but we have to understand why audiences are losing interest in the classics. They are deeply bored with what is on offer. Quality concerts offering a new work or a new interpretation of a familiar work have become a rare exception in an ocean of routine performances. Russian conductors still have unlimited, life-long contracts with their orchestras. But if they grow complacent and don’’t work with their musicians as they should, the orchestra cannot grow. A company’’s repertoire must be a subject of meticulous thought - not one of haphazard or occasional selection.

- Would you, then, call the current musical scene in Russia provincial?

-Yes, unfortunately. Most orchestras don’’t even have a particular profile, an individual style or an original repertoire. All the same soloists perform the same works with the same orchestras in the same concert halls. Sadly, what is missing is enthusiasm - the desire to experiment, to try something new. Many musicians are lacking both energy and hope. On the other side of the concert hall, Russian audiences have a very vague idea of what is happening on the international music scene - how it is evolving and changing - because they have very little access. The world’’s best orchestras don’’t perform here because it is too expensive to invite them. [The Mariinsky Theater’’s] Valery Gergiev, who brought, for instance, the La Scala Symphony Orchestra to Russia last year, is doing a tremendous job [to change this situation], but he can’’t solve the problem single-handedly.

- What do you predict for the future of Russia’’s music scene?

- It is important for those musicians who left Russia to have the desire to come back and perform here. But, sadly, many musicians do not want to keep in touch with their native country, and often not without reason. Some were ignored, some were offended, some were misunderstood. But by turning their backs on Russia, it is a loss not just for the Russian public, but for the artists themselves. If they understand that coming home can enrich them immensely, both the performers and the audience will truly benefit.


Author: Galina Stolyarova   Edition: The Moscow Times   Date: 25.05.2001