The former music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, Ignat Solzhenitsyn is the son of Russian activist and Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
On his way to Arizona to conduct the Phoenix Symphony’s performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Bartok’s Viola Concerto and Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea” and “Prosperous Voyage,” the conductor shared his thoughts on the performance and reflected on his life and dual career as a conductor and classical pianist.
Question: Do you find that conducting and playing piano complement each other?
Answer: Absolutely. They inform and complement each other very well. It’s the same challenge. It’s the same work. It’s the same joy in the end. Making the sound oneself or cajoling others into doing so, it’s two sides of the same coin, if you will.
Q: How old were you when you started studying piano?
A: I was 6. And then 9 when I really began proper lessons.
Q: You were initially attracted to piano when your family moved into a house that came with a piano. What was the allure for you?
A: It was just there. It was there and I wanted to play it. I enjoyed making the sound, enjoyed trying to make something happen. But I was attracted to music from a very early age, just listening to records and the radio that my parents had playing.
Q: Primarily classical?
Q: Did you go through a phase of listening to more contemporary music?
A: When I went to high school, I listened — or in some cases tried (laughs) — to listen to whatever was popular at the time, what my friends were listening to and so forth.
Q: Did your father encourage you to pursue your musical ambitions?
A: He was very supportive. He loved music. He never imagined or expected one of his children to go into music. But when my love for it became evident, he was very pleased.
Q: Did something in particular inspire you to move into conducting?
A: I loved that repertoire, that literature, from the beginning. In fact, the first piece of music I remember making a really profound impression on me was a Beethoven symphony. Sadly, I don’t know which one. But my father told me that it was a Beethoven symphony. I walked into his office and was struck by this music he was listening to. He stopped writing and we both listened for a while and I said, “What is that?” So it was this love for that literature.
And others told me — my teachers and colleagues — “You need to go into conducting.” So I figured “I’m already at (the Curtis Institute of Music), the finest music school in the world. Let me see if I can audition for the conducting program as well while I’m here.” And fortunately, I was accepted.
Q: Was it a challenge for you to conduct when you first started doing it?
A: Very much so. A great challenge. It remains a challenge (laughs). Conducting is an extraordinarily elusive and mysterious art. I’ve always thought it ironic and very amusing that so many people say, “What do you really do?” There’s this suspicion that conductors are not really necessary, that we’re charlatans of some kind. And of course, it’s understandable, because you’re up there and it doesn’t look like you’re doing very much. Except, perhaps, beating time. And of course, beating time is the least important, you might say, of the 10 or 12 or 15 huge areas that the conductor has to master (laughs). It’s hard to know where to begin to explain all the years of preparation and study and thinking really hard and really deeply about everything.
Q: Could you talk a bit about the program you’re conducting here in Phoenix.
A: The Bartok concerto was set because they had the soloist in place and she wanted to do the Bartok. That’s a very important piece, one of the jewels of the viola repertoire. The other two pieces, I believe I suggested.
The Mendelssohn overture is an extraordinary work. It’s not done very frequently, even now, after 200 years. I think that’s partly because it’s so difficult to really capture what Mendelssohn conceives of here. These are twin poems by Goethe, “Calm Sea” and “Prosperous Voyage.” And they go together. But I think the fascinating thing is that without reading the poems, one might think that the calm sea is a prerequisite for a prosperous voyage, a good thing. Not at all. In Goethe’s case, he summons a terrifying, oppressive stillness that is the proverbial calm before the storm, the calm that makes sailors awfully nervous — an oppressive, menacing calm. So that’s the first thing people miss in thinking about this overture. The beginning is not at all peaceful. And then, of course, “Prosperous Voyage” is much more straightforward, but it’s difficult to execute because Mendelssohn was such a virtuoso. Everything he did was at the highest level. It’s difficult for an orchestra — even with modern orchestras being so technically advanced — to execute well.
And then, of course, one of the masterpieces really of the 20th century, the complete ballet, Petrushka, is a piece that is as popular, in the best sense, as any Stravinsky. It’s a piece that sort of perfectly combines a very daring modernism with total accessibility. Very few people who’ve never been to a concert, who don’t know anything about music, would go to the concert, hear Petrushka and say, “I didn’t know what to make of it” or “It was too long or too difficult.” People are captivated, entranced and really swept off their feet, if you’ll pardon the pun, with this magical world Stravinsky weaves. It’s amazing how clearly one can see those figures — see the Moor and the ballerina embracing, see the blinding white snow on the freezing January day with the perfectly cloudless sky and the sun. One can see it in the sound, and it’s extraordinary.