The interest in Russian classical music hardly ever declines. This year BBC Proms feature an astonishing amount of Russian masterpieces and the tickets to the Bolshoi theatre tour in Royal Opera were sold out in a matter of a few days. Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev are the household names in any part of the world and each of us has listened to their music on numerous occasions. But how much do we know about those pieces and how well can we understand them except of admiring their undeniable beauty? Russian Art + Culture met with Yulia Chaplina, Russian-born London-based pianist and curator or musical programmes, to talk about the upcoming evening of Russian classical masterpieces in Southbank Centre and the importance of knowing the context around each piece.
Could you tell a bit when did you come to London and how did you get into curating musical events?
I have been living in London for 9 years already. I here came to study in the Royal College of Music, where I first did my masters and later became the fellow. Since then I had numerous performances and organised many concerts, but in the last few years I became more engaged in curating. What I mean by it is development of a solid idea which would bind together all the elements of the programme. Quite often you have diverse pieces, each of which is an important work, but they do not make sense together and their combination does not produce any new meaning. What I am trying to do is to establish a very strong theme which would come from the individual pieces and their interconnections.
To give you an example, I have curated a number of festivals. For example, in 2017 I organised Music of Russian Revolution Festival, which included a wide range of works composed either just before or after the 1917 Revolution from Scriabin to Shostakovich. Despite their proximity in time, they are very diverse in their mood and style and it was an amazing chance to present all the variety. This year I organised Prokofiev festival, a curated all-Prokofiev weekend in London which came from my close relationship with the Prokofiev family. The programme features his lesser known works and was an exploration of his practice, an attempt to show the viewers what is so special about his music.
My next big project is Russian Masterpieces programme which will be held in Southbank Centre on 1 October. It will be a fascinating combination of works by 4 Russian composers – Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Tchaikovsky. All of them are interlinked. Rachmaninov adored Tchaikovsky and written a trio in memory of Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky in return very supported young Rachmaninov. Scriabin and Rachmaninov studied together in Moscow in Zverev’s class and at the Moscow’s Conservatoire and later when Scriabin died Rachmaninov played a lot of his works in the west. Stravinsky adored works by Tchaikovsky and actually Stravinsky’s father, the baritone at the Mariinsky Theatre and sung many Tchaikovsky’s operas at the theatre.
Moreover, we have an amazing team working on it. There will be 10 artists from 6 different countries, so it is a truly international endeavour. I will play piano solo, bit there will be also a septet (7 people playing together), duos and a trio. This project is supportedby Rossotrudnichestvo, the Russian cultural organisation which promotes Russian art and culture in the UK. This project is part of Russia-UK Year of Music and will celebrate the International Day of Music.
Russian music is of course very popular in London? What trends can you identify and how are you contributing to further development of this interest?
There is of course a steady interest in the classics which we know inside out. It is always great to see the popularity of Russian music at Proms or the Bolshoi tour among the London audience. The response to my programmes has also been very positive. The very fact that I had a chance to collaborate with Southbank on two all-Russian programmes in a year is very promising. And both of the projects include lesser known pieces. I was very anxious about the Prokofiev weekend. A lot of the works we included were not the most popular once and could have seemed more complex and challenging. However, tickets for both days of the event went very fast. We had full house on both nights, and it demonstrates that public here in London is eager to learn more.
On 1 October the programme will feature the well known pieces by Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, that I know people are very familiar with. I also have included works by Scriabin and Stravinsky which add something a bit more edgy and reflect other facets of Russian musical scene especially for people who don’t know Russian music very well.I am always very excited about creating such programmes as I feel I have a lot to say and share in this musicwith the audience. I won’t claim to be the expert, but I have been brought up in the great tradition of Russian musical school and have lived with this music for so many years that I am really keen to share my understanding of it.
The issue of upbringing and education is very important. You studied both in Russia and London? Are the systems of education different?
It was great to experience music education here and there and I have also studied in Germany. It was a very important decision to me as I wanted to experience the ‘German’ way of teaching Mozart, Beethoven and other European composers as so called ‘Russian school’ has a slightly different approach.However, comparing all three countries and the education as I see it today, I think the approaches are becoming more and more global. Now one can listen to a workshop from anywhere in the world using all the possibilities which YouTube gives us. What I think defines Russian system was its rigidity and I definitely benefited from its strict approach. characteristic for the strict Russian system. Today I do a quite lot of teaching in the UK. I collaborate with Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and Trinity College to select the syllabus and make the records for the examination boards. There a lot of gifted students, of course, but what I noticed is that they sometimes do not want to push themselves to much. I don’t want to insist as ultimately it is their own decision. But music is like sports, you need to push yourself hard to have certain techniques by the certain age, otherwise it will be very very hard.
Do you often perform in Russia?
Yes, of course, I often work both in Russia and in Germany and lots in East Asia. But what I like about my position in London is that it gives me more opportunities to collaborate and work on something more substantial than just a concert. Here I find more possibilities for curating themed programmes, which I value the most, and more chances to work with others. I have done so many concerts soloso now I am very happy about the opportunity to collaborate with other people under my ‘main theme’ for the concert.
Could you tell be a bit more about what you are doing for Proms this year?
3 September is my Proms debut. It is not the big one as it is not in the Royal Albert Hall, but in the Imperial College. However, it is also an amazing venue. They do presentations and young artists showcases there and it is a great privilege to playthere. Generally, this year has been great in terms of working with BBC.I have done three BBC interviews and it was a great pleasure to collaborate with the wonderful team there.
Who is the audience of your festivals? Is classical music still a bit elitist and aimed at the older viewers?
I think by definition the percentage of older people is bigger and they constitute the core of the audience. It is especially true of some music venues, such as Wigmore Hall. It tries to attract the youth but it’s a long way to go.It does absolutely amazing concerts, but I think there branding is a bit old fashioned. But there is a great interest in classical music among younger people as well. Southbank, King’s Place and Barbican are doing great job in expanding their audiences. I think they have more diverse programmes, support younger artists and feel slightly more accessible. Although of course Wigmore hall is still among the top venue for classical music.It is very important for me to reach younger audience as well and I hope my programmes will attract varied groups of people. I have also started producing creative videos which might help to generate more interest among the youth.
In our previous conversation you mentioned that Russian music is often difficult to interpretand there is sometimesthe danger that the interpretation mightbe too “fluffy” and over-sentimental.Could you explain what you mean by it?
I do not want to generalise and argue that it happens all the time, but what I find is that Russian music can sometimes sound just very beautiful. Of course it should sound beautiful,but it is so much more than just beauty. For example, take Rachmnaninov – there is is depth, suffering, struggle, mental power behind the beautiful tunes… And the same can be applied to many Russian composers. I don’t find that playing something beautiful is enough. Often hear people say “Oh, it is so beautiful so harmonious”. It is of course great that they enjoyed the piece, but there are so many layers beneath the simple beauty. I am trying to be different in this sense. I always want to think beyond the sound, to try and get inside the meaning of the piece.
It of course requires a lot of research and reading about the era and the composers, but I grew up learning history and theory of music. After all these years of education you develop some sense of what music actually means. Let’s, for example, take Scriabin, whose music will be performed as part of Russian Masterpieces on 1 October. He was a not a straightforward person. He thought of himself as a ‘hero’ who could re-structure the world. If you read about his philosophical ideas, his understanding of cosmos, it is absolutely fascinating. He had very complex concepts behind his music. If you do not know his background his music might sound a bit strange but when you study his process of thinking it becomes completely different experience.
I believe that it is the task of an artist to get into the composer’s sole and mind and try to recreate the piece in a very accessible way. It is the artist who should make people interested in what they are playing. When the audience feels like they cannot understand the music, it is most likely the fault of the performer who did not explain it well enough. For me it is very important to help people learn the language of music. No matter what your level is it should be quite easy to realise whether you are gripped by the music piece or not. And with the experience you will be able to uncover more and more layers behind it. That is why for the October performance I selected such a diverse programme. There are lighter piecesby Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov and more complex works by Scriabin and Stravinsky. But the fact that there are so many of them means that you won’t be stuck with one composer but will have a chance to experience all the diversity of Russian masterpieces. I think this programme will be interesting for people with different level of knowledge, both the connoisseurs of Russian music and those who are only starting to explore this field.
What are your next projects? Are you planning to work with Russian music, or do you think you will focus on wider range of composers?
I have great interest in French Baroque, and the absolutely gorgeous music by Louis Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Last year I created the programme devoted to Debussy and his friends to commemorate 100 years since the death of the great composer. Next year the world will be celebrating 250 years since Beethoven’s birth and I might curate a programme for this occasion. It would include not only Beethoven’s pieces, but also music by his friends and contemporaries, such as Mozart,Haydn andmaybe Carl Czerny to give a bit of context.
But Russian music remains the priority. I am very interested in promoting such composers as Scriabin, and possibly Nikolai Medtner, Rimsky- Korskakov, Glinka. We have so many!I am looking forward to organising the next Prokofiev festival in London next year. We are planning to hold it next year in King’s Place which is a bigger venue and will allow us to bring his music to even wider range of people.
Are you also planning to promote historical knowledge of Russian music and would you consider lecturing?
Yes, it is a very important part of my work. I enjoy doing introductions to my concerts. Even if it is just a couple of sentences it gives a bit of a context and a smoother start for the listeners. Also, it is very important for me as a performer. I feel quite confident talking on the stage unlike many artists. In fact, this opportunity to talk to the audience, to catch their eye, to see them and explain what you are going to play gives me more self-assurance. There is a lot of pressure when you are stepping on the stage and straight away start playing having all the eyes on you. Establishing the contact with the listeners is very important. Our performance on 1 October will also include a few short introductions to the pieces we will be performing and I am looking forward to seeing everyone in the Southbank Centre.
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