on 01 August 2002

Olympian ideals

A festival dedicated to showcasing promising young artists in Russia may be an indicator of wider trends, reports Mike Farish.

IF YOU WANT A MEASURE OF HOW Russia has changed over the decade since the fall of the Soviet regime, it would be difficult to find anything more symbolic than the first thing you see when driving out of St Petersburg airport - a Coca-Cola bottling plant. As you head into the city, there is plenty of other evidence of the spread of western consumer culture - adverts for all sorts of goods from cosmetics to computers festoon the buildings.

But you will also find relics of the old regime - facades adorned with hammer and sickle symbols, even the odd statue of Lenin. Then a set of heroic stone figures in the centre of a massive roundabout commemorate the siege of the city from 1941-44 and provide a reminder that this has also been a place of immense suffering.

In fact, St Petersburg is a city of huge contrasts. In intent, it is a city built by imperial decree on what was once marshland in order to be a ’’window on the west’’ for the Russian state. In form, it is a place of huge official buildings, wide boulevards and shabby side-street tenements. Artistically, however, St Petersburg has always served as a flagship city. Its Philharmonic orchestra and Mariinsky Theatre company are world famous and well-travelled.

But in the other direction, as a venue for visiting artists, things are more equivocal. For one thing, the city’’s concert-going public, while discerning, does not easily give itself over to enthusiasm for artists it does not know. For another, with the Russian economy in a torpor and official subvention under severe pressure, the necessary resources are not easy to come by.

These latter observations are made by Irina Nikitina, a woman who since the middle of the 1990s has made it her mission to turn this situation around by introducing to St Petersburg a regular supply of previously unfamiliar artists. The means by which she has done so is a series of annual festivals she has founded under the title Musical Olympus, which take place in the city during the ’’white nights’’ period in the early part of the summer The 7th in the series comprising six concerts took place over a week-long period straddling the end of May and the beginning of June this year.

The unusual feature of the concerts is that the soloists and conductors are for the most part young artists who have distinguished themselves within the recent past on the international competitions circuit. To be more precise, they are young artists who have both done that and impressed Nikitina, herself until recently a pianist, as having genuine interpretative talent. The spectacular, barnstorming type of young performer who overwhelm competition juries, but then fail to register on the concert circuit - and who, ironically, if they are pianists, have a tendency to be Russian - have no part in her scheme of things. `I am not interested in artists who are not going to be anything more than one-off sensations,’’ she says.

This is the reason why the roster for each of the festivals so far includes not just various competition winners, but a good number of second- and third-placed young performers, as well. Nikitina is adamant that if a performer who catches her eye, or more precisely her ear, is not the one who does the most to impress the judges at a competition, then her judgement is the one that will count.

This year, for instance, performers included Taliana Samouil, a Russian violinist who won second prize in last year’’s Michael Hill World Violin Competition in New Zealand, and Monika Leskovar, a Croatian cellist who came second in last year’’s ARD International Music Competition in Munich. But elsewhere, there was also a first-placed contestant in last year’’s ARD competition, Polish marimba player Marta Klimasara.

In fact, Nikitina says that there are a number of competitions around the world whose standards are so high that she effectively promises a place at the Musical Olympus festival to the winners. She mentions not just the ARD competition, but also the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens, the Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels and the Geza Anda piano competition in Zurich.

But the significance of the Musical Olympus festival is not just that it gives young artists the chance to appear in an exciting, famous venue. It also says something about the way the arts are being reshaped in Russia, specifically about the extent to which developments can now be driven by individuals with the right mix of vision, motivation and, importantly, contacts.

In the case of Irina Nikitina and Musical Olympus, it is tempting to suspect a personal motive. She is herself a former musical competitor, and the notion that she is trying to provide a way onto the professional circuit that was not available for herself seems plausible. That is not, however, a notion she encourages. Instead, she focuses on the festival’’s role as a catalyst for the introduction to St Petersburg not just of new artists, but also of new, or at least unfamiliar, music. Hence, for example, the inclusion in this year’’s festival of the Ballade for Alto Saxophone, Strings and Percussion by Frank Marlin with the French saxophonist Alexandre Doisy, another second-placed contestant in last year’’s ARD competition. In fact, the overall repertoire for the festival is a highly eclectic mix of standard showpieces - Rachmaninov’’s Paganini Variations, for instance - with a leavening of more offbeat works. Nikitina indicates that she sometimes uses her obviously considerable powers of persuasion to convince performers of the merits of playing lesser-known works.

Nevertheless, it certainly seems that the Musical Olympus is now firmly established as a fixture in the city’’s artistic life; audiences in the Grand Hall of the St Petersburg Philharmonia this year seemed to be around 90 per cent of capacity. Nikitina admits, though, that when she first started the venture, there was an assumption that it would not survive.

So how has Musical Olympus defied those pessimistic early projections? Part of the answer is obviously the intrinsic attractions of the soloists: young, talented performers who could well be the major stars of tomorrow are rarely short of an audience. Another is the clever programming, with its judicious mix of the familiar and the slightly challenging. A third element is the undoubted quality of the orchestral support, something that is perhaps easier to acquire and more affordable in Russia than elsewhere. This year the festival called, amongst others, on the city’’s Symphony Orchestra and State Hermitage Orchestra. In the past it has even had the Philharmonic Orchestra with Valery Gergiev, though in this year’’s festival the conductors tended to be competition graduates.

But the ultimate factor appears to be the way that the festival has generated support by integrating itself into the wider world, both musical and other-wise; something which, it seems, is due in no little respect to Nikitina’’s own efforts. There is, for instance, a tie-up with the World Federation of International Music Competitions, whose secretary-general Renate Ronnefeld sits on the festival’’s organising committee. The Federation is, in fact, officially listed as one of the festival’’s founders, though only the Musical Olympus Foundation, where Nikitina holds the post of president, pays the bills. ’’We own the risk,’’ says Nikitina flatly.

Elsewhere, the festival has been highly successful in getting ’’names’’ to endorse it and local sources of patronage to back it. The honorary committee lists amongst its members, for instance, the likes of Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Yury Temirkanov and Mstislav Rostropovich. Meanwhile, the programme boasts glossy adverts for the most expensive hotels in St Petersburg.

But Nikitina also imports a section of the audience. She has put together a Friends organisation of wealthy individuals, both Russian and non-Russian, who jet in for the festival and other events laid on for them. This year a parallel attraction was a Johann Strauss Ball that Nikitina has organised for several years past with the aim of imparting a little grace and elegance to the new post-Soviet business elite. In fact, something of the atmosphere of the last few years of the Romanovs before the Revolution seems to be in the air when the Musical Olympus is underway.

Nikitina, however, does not exude nostalgia. She is instead full of ideas about how the organisation can advance. Indeed, as she talks, it becomes evident that she sees the festival as just one part of a larger artistic presenting enterprise. The Olympus organisation has already brought jazz and gypsy music to the Grand Hall of the St Petersburg Philharmonia, and next year there are plans to bring in foreign orchestras; she mentions the Japanese NHK and French Radio Symphony orchestras.

In fact, what you see with the Musical Olympus organisation is possibly the beginning of a modern Russian commercial arts sector, whose roots have been put down only in the last decade, and which has no legacy from the old regime. It is highly appropriate that its home should be in the traditionally western-oriented city of St Petersburg.

At the moment, it obviously relies heavily on one woman for its promotion, indeed its survival, but if it can get as far as it has in the present financial climate, the chances are it will know how to take advantage of future opportunities.


Author: Mike Farish   Edition: International Arts Manager  Date: 01.08.2002