Irene Kukota met with the conductor Maxim Emelyanychev to talk about his appointment as Principal Conductor of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Baroque and Contemporary Music.
Russian-born conductor Maxim Emelyanychev is the new rising star of the classical music world: he is young, charming, charismatic, extremely talented and remarkably versatile as a musician who is equally interested in performing rare Baroque pieces and works by contemporary composers. He had also a roaring success as conductor and harpsichord player during his recent debut at the ROH in London when he conducted Handel’s Agrippina staged by Barry Kosky and starring the diva Joyce Didonato. Perhaps, all these factors added up when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra invited Maxim as Principal Conductor at the start of the 2019/20 Season.
Despite the fact that he is only 31, Maxim can boast an impressive professional record: he began conducting at the tender age of 12. Having been born to the family of professional musicians, he showed an early interest and ability in music, and now demonstrates a considerable mastery while playing harpsichord, piano and coronet. He first drew attention to himself as a uniquely gifted musician, who could play on the whole range of keyboard (including antique ones) and rare wind instruments. I can testify to this, as I had a chance to see him simultaneously performing and conducting Agrippina at the Royal Opera House this November. Also, he received his first award in 2013 at the age of 25. This was Russia’s Golden Mask theatre prize for his work as a fortepianist in Le nozze di Figaro — the Perm production and recording for Sony, conducted by Theodor Currentzis.
A graduate of the Nizhny Novgorod College of Music named after M.A. Balakirev and Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Maxim Emelyanychev studied conducting with Alexander Skulsky and Gennady Rozhdestvensky. He is a laureate of many international competitions including Moscow Volkonsky competition, Bülow Competition of pianists -conductors, and the harpsichord competition in Bruges. Maxim has worked with famous symphonic, chamber and baroque orchestras, such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Belgian National Orchestra, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Real Orquesta Sinfonica de Sevilla, Orchestre National de Lyon, Orchestre Sinfonica di Milano La Verdi, St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
He also conducted operas Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Zürich Opera), Rinaldo (Glyndebourne Festival). Besides, he is the chief conductor of the baroque orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro since 2016 and did various European concert tours with the collective, including In War and Peace tour with Joyce Didonato, performances of Handel’s Serse, Agrippina, Rodelinda and Tamerlano.
In 2019 he received the Newcomer Award at the International Opera Awards. Maxim is also a Grammy nominee (2017), winner of the ECHO Klassik (2016) and Gramophone Award (2017).
Hopefully, this long introduction only whetted your curiosity. And my first question was about Maxim’s early steps in conducting.
What was it like to study with Gennady Rozhdestvensky?
It was amazing to study with such a master, to watch him rehearse, communicate with the orchestra, to follow his recommendations in the classroom. I was also lucky to have worked as the accompanying pianist in his classroom for 6 years. That was a fundamental school for me.
I am also very indebted to my other teachers. In general, for a musician it doesn’t matter what, who and when, or at which moment would overturn your perception of music and worldview. For me such person was Anatoly Levin, professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, conductor of the Moscow State Academic Chamber Musical Theatre. It was he who introduced me to historical performing and invited me to play the harpsichord part in Mozart’s piece in the Youth Symphony Orchestra of the Volga region. This alone totally and completely changed my understanding of music: I began to study old instruments and realised that they may differ in type or harmony, that some demand special technique of playing and have their own rhetoric. In music, it all happens just like with any creative mental process: one goes to a museum, sees a painting or a sculpture, and this can bring about an internal transformation, become a catalyst for something new. Or one can enjoy the beauty of sea unset and suddenly gain an insight. In music, like in any creative profession, all such things are very important and meaningful.
You mentioned ancient music, authentic instruments. Obviously, this is the direction you pursue as the conductor of the orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro (Golden Apple). Please, tell us about your collaboration with this ensemble. For how many years has it been going on now?
We are already in our sixth year of collaboration. I met the founder of the orchestra Riccardo Minasi in Moscow. Il Pomo d’Oro Orchestra was being formed at exactly that time and Riccardo invited me to perform with them. Initially, I participated in their projects as a harpsichord player, and later– as conductor. Handel’s opera Tamerlano became my conducting debut with them.
Now it is not so easy for me to juggle commitments, in order to continue our collaboration but I genuinely enjoy working with Il Pomo d’Oro. We have many ideas and plans for the future, including recordings, concerts and tours. Just over a month ago we completed our tour In War and Peace with Joyce Didonato that began in November 2016. Furthermore, we have a very diverse programme, including not only baroque music and individual contemporary works, but also dance and performance. For example, we plan to release new recordings of Mozart’s and Handel’s operas.
You also perform some rare, long-forgotten musical pieces. Are there any composers who used to be very popular but sank into oblivion, and you now wish to re-introduce to the public?
Absolutely, yes. Please, do not forget that only a century ago Vivaldi was largely unknown. Everything began to change from the times of Mendelssohn onwards. It was he who began to campaign for performing ancient music rather than contemporary. Prior to his times, old music was hardly performed, which means that in times of Mozart they did not perform much of Bach. However, in the days of Shostakovich, Mozart, Bach and Mendelssohn were performed more often than the works by Shostakovich.
Nevertheless, when wishing to perform a rare, forgotten piece, one is required to carry out an extensive musicological research. One needs to spend a lot of time in libraries and museums, working in archives, searching for manuscripts. On this account, I am very glad that two our recent CDs with Jakub Józef Orliński — a very talented young Polish counter-tenor – contain plenty of such material, which has been recorded and will be performed for the first time. The most recent CD was released by Warner Classics (most likely Maxim meant here the release of Facce d’Amore, scheduled for November 8, 2019. Also Jakub Orliński gives a single concert with Il Pomo d’Oro in London on 14th December, but alas, the tickets have been long sold out – I.K.).
It is impossible to do without assistants in this case. I know that Jakub has a pianist friend, who scours libraries and archives for new manuscripts. However, in my opinion, the best and surest way to acquaint the listener with ancient music, is to combine in reasonable proportions, the works by ancient composers with famous, recognisable musical pieces, in order to keep the public interested. Unfortunately, many listeners take more interest in Verdi’s Requiem or Beethoven’s symphonies – in other words, those familiar works that have already entered the approved and well-established musical canon.
Does old music go well with modern or contemporary pieces?
Yes, in my opinion, old music goes well with modern or contemporary pieces. The main point here is to arrange the musical programme in such a way, that the aesthetics, sound volume, character and structure of the pieces from different musical epochs would roughly overlap. Then they would be received well. Sporadic inclusions of contemporary music into the programme can also be very successful. For me, conductor Vladimir Yurovsky and the way he selects and combines the works of the 20th and 21st centuries with ancient music, have always been exemplary in every way.
Talking of contemporary pieces, do you plan to collaborate further with contemporary Russian composers?
I do not perform contemporary music that much, but sometimes such collaboration may turn into an interesting project. For instance, in May 2018, together with my wife and chamber orchestra Soloists of Nizhny Novgorod we performed an absolutely stunning work, named the Seasons, by Russian contemporary composer Sergei Akhunov.
Recently, in late November 2019, we gave a performance in Moscow at the Chamber Hall of the Philharmonic, with Valentin Uryupin — an absolutely fantastic conductor and clarinet player. We began with Brahms’ Trio for clarinet, cello and piano (Op. 114), continued with Brahms’ and Weinberg’s sonatas and concluded with the work by young Russian composer Alexei Retinsky that we commissioned especially for this performance.
Undoubtedly, it is very important to support contemporary composers and perform contemporary music. And what counts here is not just only the performance, but also the ability to present this music to the audience, because the public must understand the work, in order to accept it. Unfortunately, general percentage of those who understand and appreciate contemporary music is very small.
And finally, in January 2020, with the chamber orchestra Soloists of Nizhny Novgorod we will perform in Zaryadye Concert Hall in Moscow. Among the works by Haydn and Mozart, we will also play Green DNA composed by Pavel Karmanov.
Well, this is quite impressive! I understand that now we are going to see more of you in the UK because you have settled in Scotland? Please, tell us a bit more about your appointment as the Principal Conductor for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
This happened quite unexpectedly and arrived as a last-minute offer to replace the chief orchestra conductor. Fortunately, I had no other engagements at that time, and I accepted (otherwise, both myself and the orchestra have very busy schedules). The whole week, when we were performing together, was an amazing experience. We immediately clicked with the orchestra: it just felt, as if we were simply playing music together. And this was a very an unusual feeling, because joint rehearsals are frequently hard work, where musicians and conductor are trying out various options, looking for possible ways of working together. And here everything went very smoothly, of its own accord, and everyone really liked the result. I enormously liked working with them and, what is more important, our very first programme, when we were just becoming familiar with each other, — the performance of the Ninth Schubert Symphony, — became our first joint project. Immediately after our public performance the orchestra decided that we should record a disc. And this disc was released this November (Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C major, release date November 15, by Linn Records – I.K.). And it goes without saying that we are also planning further projects with the choir of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
And how do British orchestras differ from the Russian ones?
I think one should not generalize: each orchestra is different. I can only say that musical students in Europe and in the UK, know from the very start that they would become orchestra musicians, so they receive specialised training and dedicate more time to orchestral performances and orchestral difficulties. In Russia, all conservatoire graduates gravitate towards solo performances. What I can also add about the UK is that students here have to work to very tight deadlines and have fewer rehearsals (unlike in Russia where one can rehearse whole week full-time). Such situation causes the musicians in the UK to be more focused and professional from the orchestral point of view. However, I still insist that each individual orchestra deserves a separate consideration.
Do you and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra plan to perform with full Russian programme or include more Russian music in your performances?
Yes, I hope we will perform more Russian music. Well, the orchestra performs it, anyway, but I would like to include more pieces. We toured Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen with our first programme in November that alternated works by Russian and Western composers – the practice I would like to continue. For instance, the UK premiere of 5 Pièces by French composer Philippe Hersant was followed by Prokofiev’s much-loved Second Violin Concerto, with stunning German violinist Carolin Widmann making her SCO debut. We also have extensive plans for the next season: in 2020 we will celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary and will perform his symphonies Eroica, No 6‘ Pastoral and No. 7.