Earlier this week we published the first part of the interview with Nikita Sorokine and now we are bringing you the continuation:
- CONDUCTING MUSIC. WHO DOES IT: WHY DOES IT MATTER?
YS: My next question is about conducting. You mentioned that you need to understand the way composers think. And how does one learn to understand how different conductors think? Could you explain to non-musicologists how to understand what the conductor’s idea is and why it makes sense to listen to different performances of the same work?
NS: It is almost impossible to explain this, because in fact there are only a few people, even among professional musicians, who can really appreciate the work of a conductor. This sounds very paradoxical, but very often even musicians who play in an orchestra can not evaluate the conductor’s skill with accuracy. Why? Precisely because they do not hear the overall sound, his or her final result. Surely musicians can evaluate competence, literacy, and other characteristics that a conductor uses when working with them. But musicians perceive music locally, from their individual positions, and they hear…
YS: Just their own instrument?
NS: Sometimes, indeed, yes. They can hear and evaluate their own sound, of course. But I wanted to say that the overall sound is more likely to be appreciated by those who are outside the process of music-making. The audience, however, can’t really appreciate it either, because they just don’t know where they hear the result of the conductor’s work at a rehearsal, where the orchestra made a mistake or conductor made a mistake while orchestra overcame it and sounded good. This is impossible to understand if you are not a professional musician. And there is no way to teach understanding this. Therefore, for the listener, this is not important, this is not the main thing. So people come and listen to different conductors. What they are probably interested in is first of all the personality. Aesthetic appearance, energy-things that are difficult to describe, but are felt instinctively by audiences.
YS: So when we are attending a Mahler symphony concert, we are not thinking about Mahler, but about specific modern people?
NS: There is an ongoing discussion about it. There are conductors who obscure the composer. And there are those who, on the contrary, are channeling their music. The difference can hardly be defined in any specific way, but the conductor, in any case, is supposed to be the composer’s advocate. The conductor protects the composer’s works, the conductor is responsible for ensuring that the music does not fail, that it sounds interesting and captivating, causes some thoughts and emotions. The conductor is responsible for what happens to the composer’s work and how it is understood by others. We can say that if we appeal to the Platonic vision of things, composer is the ideal Eidos, and the material realization of Eidos is ensured by conductor. As a matter of fact, he or she actually becomes a congenial double of the composer. The conductor must be on the same level as titans of composition, or at least try to approach their heights because he is responsible for how they will be perceived. But it is very easy to spoil this connection. You can ruin Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, anyone. You can play them in a way so that they will sound like something else. Here it is tricky as there is no higher authority that can stop the conductor. There is no one who can say: «that’s wrong you can’t do that!» The orchestra, the musicians will only do what he or she says. The director of the orchestra and the administration: they don’t understand anything about the process. Therefore, the conductor is the person who is responsible for everything. At the same time, there is a skeptical attitude towards conductors on the part of musicians. I heard the following observation from Yuri Ivanovich Simonov: «To be an average conductor, you basically do not need anything. Buy a baton and just wave your hands — and you will be an average among others». To be an average violinist, you still need to spend your entire childhood on it. This fact causes a dismissive attitude among instrumentalists. There are famous soloists who say that the conductor serves for nothing at all, and that some people (i.e. conductors) just profit from honest work, ride on the hump of real heroes (i.e. musicians). And indeed, this can happen. But real, honest, great conductors – they never do that. They show the maximum degree of responsibility.
YS: As you said, the conductor’s intellectual activity during the performance should be congenial to the composer.
NS: Yes, but here you can always divide conductors into intellectuals and those who rely primarily on musical instincts. There are conductors who know a lot. For example, nowadays one of them is Vladimir Jurowski. He is an example of an intellectual conductor. Of course, he also has feelings, there are many of them, and they are very different. Another pole in the profession – for instance, Teodor Currentzis. I have often heard from colleagues and musicians of the orchestra that Claudio Abbado had led that he did not know how to rehearse. But it only seems that way. He had the opportunity to work with orchestras of the highest level, and he could convey a lot of things through an impulse, a gesture or a succinct phrase, and nothing else was needed. Giving lectures before concerts was clearly not his thing. Another different case is Gennady Rozhdestvensky. He built the programme according to certain principles, and he was very happy to give lectures before concerts, explaining why the program was formed this way. Or Pierre Boulez – a pure intellectual. While Yevgeny Mravinsky – he would never be giving lectures or writing articles.
YS: How do you work with contemporary ensembles and composers?
NS: I have had a chance to work with Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris on the work of Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. It is an ensemble of the highest level of professionals who have personally seen and worked with many famous composers. As a student, as a person without significant experience, I could hardly tell them anything extraordinary about Webern. As people who play this music, they know it better than me. So I have to get them interested in some new musical idea that they haven’t come across yet. In St. Petersburg I had the opportunity to meet some modern composers personally, as I took part in festivals of modern music there: “Sound paths”, “From the avant-garde to the present day”. Young composers from different cities came to St. Petersburg, and I was asked to conduct their concerts. So I personally worked with each of them. All the composers whom I worked with, if not expected me to contribute, then at least were interested in new ideas that I could offer as a conductor. They didn’t have the position of “this is what I wrote and this is set in stone”, not at all. As a composer myself, I like it when there’s room for variation and experiment. I like to leave freedom for the performer. I think this is important, I don’t like it when everything is written down, because then it turns into a competition of notation accuracy. Perhaps if I come across such works and have to conduct them, I will try to find an approach to them, but I will not choose such works in the first place, as my choices are then limited.
YS: You said that you one should learn to develop one’s thinking. How does this happen during the process of conducting? How much do you stand in the shadow of previous interpretations, previous conductors? How can you avoid being like someone else?
NS: Firstly, there are orchestras that have played a piece of music many times, and it has been in their repertoire for a long time. Then there are orchestras that have played this work for a very long time and do not remember it — this is another story. The world premiere is a third story. In the case when the orchestra has already played a composition many times, you must be very careful not to ruin their relationship with it. So I would compare it to an excavation. Gradually you remove a layer by layer and pay attention to historical milestones. The orchestra, similarly to a piece of music, can also have historical milestones in its own interpretation of the piece, and you should hear it and feel it. Ruining or changing it could be compared to archaeologists who will find something and then chop the piece with an axe to see it better. Probably, if I am the Chief Conductor of an orchestra, I can only gradually change something towards my own vision. But I think it would still interesting for me to have a dialogue with previous interpretations, so that everything is not built from scratch, but rather in a dialogue with a tradition that is already alive and have been existing for years.
YS: So, you don’t come in as a new incredible talent who is about to create something unique?
NS: No way. Such approach is bound to fail. This is just not possible. Even well-known and universally recognized conductors do not act like this. There may be some proposals on their side that can be accepted – some accelerando that is done differently. We know that, say, for Mahler, interpretations of his works are very different. If we look at the timing of peformances – they could be dramatically different. We could take adagietto from his Fifth Symphony. Sometimes it is played very fast, and sometimes – almost three times slower. There have been polar interpretations. What should I do in this case? Of course, you still need to have your own vision, and use your emotions. But it is difficult to give a perfect recipe for conductor’s behaviour for each time.
YS: So, nothing is set in stone, even the interpretation is usually a result of specific intertextual interactions and a certain moment in time?
NS: Yes. Let’s take Currentzis. He has his own orchestra, formed by him, nobody has worked with them before. This was of fundamental importance for him. So in his case, it was building the orchestra from scratch. It was the same with Mravinsky. Or let’s take The Mariinsky Symphony orchestra led by Valery Gergiev: it is well known that this orchestra can not play with any other conductor. And not every conductor will dare to play with this orchestra. Because they are honed to a specific system of conductor’s signals, and they can not immediately adjust to a new one. Therefore, if the conductor is not flexible enough, he will fail with this orchestra. For example, I don’t know what would happen to me if I conducted the Mariinsky orchestra, although I would like to try.
- MUSIC AND ITS PLACE IN THE WORLD
YS: What place does music hold in contemporary world? If we exclude it from the human world, there might be the same problems and the same joys left. Climate change, wars, survival of humans as groups, families and individuals. Maybe we can read some useful literature instead of listening to music. What would change in this world if there was no music?
NS: I think that music cannot fully disappear, because even the language itself has its own set of sound instruments. In any case, music will remain. We don’t know how the music came to be around, we don’t have any documents about its sources. In my opinion, it is absolutely clear that music comprises and encompasses some universal things, that could even be attributed to physiological level – such as a sigh, a shout of despair or crying. There are some meanings and concepts incorporated in music that are independent of specific cultures. Anyone can cry, laugh, make a sound that can express their delight or other emotion. As long as there is an emotional sphere in life, these elements will exist.
YS: You said at the beginning that if there is no conscious thought behind music, a final result cannot be considered a composition.
NS: The things I referred to are not compositions, they are pre-elements. They are atoms like the ones that once formed matter after the Big Bang. In the same way, I think that after some kind of an artificial ‘blackout’ (or rather a ‘blank-out’) a human being will sooner or later discover music. Even if he or she has been living without it for a while, sooner or later its discovery is inevitable. It will be long, painful, and you will have to learn from scratch. But I think that if humanity is to press the “reset” button, the music will show up again. A person may not think about what role music plays in their life. We hear different things, but we do not think, do not analyse what we hear. Still, things we hear have an effect on us in one way or another. It is the same with architecture, by the way. You and I, coming from Saint Petersburg, understand this very well. If a person sees a certain system of architectural relations in space every day, his or her perception will be different from those who grew up, say, in the countryside. These two spaces engender different perceptions of space and time. It’s the same with music. I believe that music is an integral part of human perception of reality. And there is also music beyond what we call humanity – the famous music of the spheres found in space. Sound is at the root of everything in life, and it is amazing and great.
Nikita Sorokin was born in Leningrad in 1990. In 2008, he Graduated from the Glinka Choral School as a choir conductor. In 2013, he completed his studies at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov), where he studied music theory. Since 2013 Nikita is a PhD student at St. Petersburg state Conservatory, working on his dissertation devoted to the work of Mahler. Research interests: stream of consciousness, interdisciplinarity, analysis of drama and interpretation. While studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he was a concertmaster in the conducting classes of professors Yu. Simonov, V. Sinai, A. Titov, and V. Altshuler. Collaborates with the Russian Institute of Art History in preparation for the academic publication of A. Borodin’s Second Symphony. Since 2016, he has been a student of the Paris Conservatory of Music in the class of Symphony conducting (Prof. A. Altinoglu). Participated in master classes with the national orchestra of Lyon (D. Tsinman) and The Philharmonic orchestra of Radio France (M. Frank). N. Sorokin’s works were performed in the Concert hall of the Mariinsky theater, the State Singing Capella, and the Union of Composers (Saint Petersburg).