Russian conductor stays, succeeds

Friday, May 02, 2008

Life has been interesting for Vladimir Spivakov. Perhaps too interesting at times.

While numerous prominent Russian dancers and musicians headed West, through defection or other means, the respected violinist/conductor remained in Moscow - where life for artists and non-artists remains challenging.

Yet, Spivakov, who brings his Moscow Virtuosi (along with crowd-pleasing pianist Olga Kern) to Gates Concert Hall on Tuesday, didn't struggle to make a living, as so many of his peers did.

Spivakov's talents as a violinist caught the world's attention after a triumph at the Montreal competition in 1969, and his solo career was launched. Yet he also caught the conducting bug and, in 1979, made his podium debut with the Chicago Symphony.

That same year, he created the Moscow Virtuosi, a chamber-orchestra collection of 24 hand- picked musicians whom he brought to Spain for three years of preparation and polishing - and, as it turned out, a taste of the comfortable life outside Russia.

"When it was time to leave, about half of them chose to stay in Spain," Spivakov said. "They wanted to have the more-tranquil life there. To many (outsiders), it appeared that there was turmoil, but I never fired anyone, to use the lexicon of (Donald) Trump.

"Mostly it had to do with age. Many of the players were older, and some had grandchildren with them."

Undaunted, he returned to Moscow with the remainder of the Virtuosi and set about creating the group's "second edition," as he described it.

"We had new blood coming in - many younger players. I wanted to get good people, great professionals. I wanted to get a good atmosphere in the group."

The Virtuosi are celebrating their 30th anniversary with an ambitious world tour. A similar tranquility was not to be found in his other ensemble, the Russian National Orchestra.

Founded in 1990 by Mikhail Pletnev, the RNO invited Spivakov to become its conductor in 1999. What he discovered shocked him. "It was like the musicians were in jail," he recalled. "The (executive) director was formerly with the KGB."

He objected to the treatment of the players, and in 2003, his contract was not renewed. The squabble made headlines in all the Russian papers. In the midst of the scandal, he received a phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Mr. Putin asked me to build a new orchestra," Spivakov noted. "I was surprised to hear from him, but I think that he understood that I wouldn't stay in Russia without work."

The Ministry of Culture gave him $2 million to form a new band - at first called the Russian National Philharmonic Orchestra, later renamed the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, to avoid confusion with the RNO.

"I heard 400 (auditioning) players, and chose 100 of them," he said. No surprise: 30 of the new orchestra's members had defected from the RNO. In fact, 64 musicians left orchestras in Moscow and St. Petersburg to work with Spivakov.

Ironically, his former orchestra, the RNO, appeared earlier this season in Gates Hall, where the Moscow Virtuosi will perform on Tuesday. No grudges are held by Spivakov, he insisted.

"The new orchestra was formed with players who will love each other. I treat them well - I'm against using the clock (in rehearsals). I am not a jealous or selfish man. I have other conductors come in to lead them, such as James Conlon.

"We musicians are like soldiers," said the 64-year-old conductor. "We do what we do for music. With the Virtuosi, it is going very well. This is the best chamber group in Russia.

"They all came from the same school, the Moscow Conservatory. They all knew me, and I understood that I was an example for them. You know, a good teacher is also a good student."

As if the two orchestras aren't enough to keep him occupied, Spivakov also maintains his solo violin career, though "sometimes my violin cries, because it gets so lonely," he said.

In addition, he runs the summertime festival in Colmar, France, where he's been for 20 years, and serves as president of the International House of Music in Moscow. "It has three halls," he said, "but thankfully, I am not responsible for the finances."

He's also involved with the Spivakov Fund, which has given assistance to more than 2,000 talented young people since 1994. As Spivakov puts it, with supreme understatement:

"I work very hard."

By Marc Shulgold

Rocky Mountain News

Friday, May 2, 2008

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