Vladimir Jurowski, conductor: ‘Music cannot save lives, but it can unite people’ | Culture

todayNovember 13, 2023 3

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On October 29, 1923, Berlin Radio broadcast the first musical performance ever heard in Germany over the airwaves. It was a concert that began with an Italian andantino, by violinist Fritz Kreisler, which was followed by other pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Tchaikovsky. “The instrumentalists who participated in that historic concert were — shortly after — the founders of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. For that reason, we’re celebrating the centenary of the orchestra,” explains Vladímir Jurowski by phone. He spoke to EL PAÍS from the German capital.

The 51-year-old German conductor of Russian origin is about to start a tour in Spain at the helm of his orchestra, which he has been directing since 2017. With three concerts scheduled in Valencia, Madrid and Zaragoza, his program is focused on Symphony No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninov, the legendary Russian composer who would have been 150 this year.

Jurowski comments on the disturbing news in the headlines. “Unfortunately, concerts cannot heal the world. Music cannot save lives… although it can unite people and provide them with the healing power of its energy,” he affirms.

For him, music is an extremely peaceful and healthy activity, although it can only help those who have an ear for it. However, he’s also pessimistic. “I’m starting to stop believing that initiatives like [the project led by] Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim can change anything today. Although that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” he adds.

He recalls the famous feat of the conductor Kurt Masur, in October 1989, when he welcomed numerous protesters — who were demonstrating against the communist government of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) — into the Gewandhaus, the concert hall in Leipzig. “Masur had influence over the politicians of the time and thus prevented a massacre like that of Tiananmen [Square] from being repeated. Nowadays, on the contrary, politicians don’t hesitate to use violence indiscriminately again,” he laments.

The concert hall should be — according to him — a place free of violence and open to dialogue. A haven of peace and culture where democratic values must prevail. He demonstrated this on September 8, during a concert at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland with his other orchestra, the Bavarian State Opera ensemble. While conducting the third movement of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, two young climate change activists bounded onto the stage and glued themselves to the podium.

“It was a challenge, but also a happy experience. I reached an agreement with them. I told them I knew why they were there and that I would let them talk [to the audience]. But, in exchange, I would need them to allow us to finish the symphony afterwards.”

The audience resisted and Jurowski threatened to leave the stage if the activists were not allowed to speak. “I wanted to prevent the police from acting and a violent scene from occurring that would have prevented me from continuing [conducting], since I am radically against any violent [acts].” The incident received significant media coverage and was interpreted as a gesture of tolerance, empathy and climate awareness on the part of the director. “It’s clear that we cannot stop the weapons or prevent politicians from sending troops to kill civilians… but at least we can sound the alarms and warn of other dangers — such as climate change — by taking advantage of the visibility we have as artists,” he acknowledges.

After the invasion of Ukraine began, in February 2022, Jurowski’s militant pacifism led him to promote a collective reaction against Putin in the form of an open letter. A text where he also cried out against Russophobia in Europe. “In reality, the problems with Russian music and musicians were limited to the first months after the invasion of Ukraine. Although there are still exceptions, such as with Poland, whose anti-Russian policy has been an instrument of the populist government. Let’s hope that everything changes now with Donald Tusk,” he sighs, referring to the recent return of the centrist Polish politician to the premiership of his country, following the recent elections.

Jurowski was born and trained in Moscow, within a Jewish musical family. He later emigrated to Germany, in 1990, where he obtained citizenship. “As a German citizen, I never thought I would see the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) win so many seats in parliament. But, no matter how many difficulties German politics has, we live in a full democracy here, unlike Russia. I’m quite skeptical about a true democracy [emerging] in Russia,” he maintains.

But the director has never given up on returning to his country of origin. “In the 1990s, I couldn’t return, because I was afraid of being drafted into the Russian Army. When I was finally able to return, in 2002, I found a very receptive audience, extremely curious and eager for music,” he recalls. In those years, Jurowski had become a musical fixture in the United Kingdom, both at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and at the head of the London Philharmonic. Nevertheless, he also assumed responsibilities in Russia, first in the Russian National Orchestra and — between 2011 and 2021 — as conductor of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Moscow’s main orchestra.

The Bavarian State Orchestra with its chief conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, in September of 2023.Peter Fischli

“The last two decades have been extremely healthy and happy for the development of music in Russia. And true freedom of musical expression was enjoyed,” he says. “I remember that, with my orchestra, in March 2014, in Moscow, I conducted a program that included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, but I preceded it with A Survivor from Warsaw — the cantata that Schönberg dedicated to the victims of the Nazis. And I asked the audience not to applaud after the cantata, as a sign of respect for the victims. I didn’t have to say anything about the Maidan [Revolution] or Crimea for the public to understand and accept it,” he recalls.

Jurowski was criticized for continuing to work in Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. However, he replied that his country was sick and needed his help. “Maybe I was naive, but I felt that, with my music, I could give peace, comfort and some hope to many people. That changed drastically after the invasion of Ukraine, on February 24, 2022. I’m now aware that it will take a long time before I can set foot in Russia again,” he admits.

The program that he will conduct in Spain doesn’t have a specific political meaning, but he assures EL PAÍS that, in the three compositions, there are echoes of modern tragedies. It will open with the fantastic Scherzo, from 1903, by the Czech composer Josef Suk. “This is the first major work of [Antonin] Dvořák’s promising student and son-in-law. A piece that begins as a folkloric fairy tale, but ends surprisingly, tragically and aggressively, as an anticipation of the events of the 20th century,” he points out.

He finds a similar contrast in the Piano Concerto No. 2, by Sergei Prokofiev, from 1913. “It begins as a very lyrical piece, but soon, there’s an incredible explosive eruption that leads to the most incredible, extensive and difficult piano cadenza of the entire 20th century.” In the remaining three movements, he also visualizes allusions to demonic power, which he relates to his operas. “We know that Prokofiev was, for a time, very interested in demonic power, as he demonstrated in [the operas] The Fiery Angel and even in the satirical The Love for Three Oranges. And that satanic element found political expression in the different revolutions, civil wars and dictatorships.”

As for Symphony No. 3 — which Sergei Rachmaninoff completed in 1936 — those demonic powers are combined with nostalgia. “Unlike Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff never returned to Russia, [yet] the country of his youth is very present in this work. But demonic powers are immediately heard in the first movement, which become more prominent in the second and apocalyptic in the third. We can hear, in this music, the fears and concerns of someone who lived in the first half of the 20th century.”

The version of this symphony that Jurowski will conduct in Spain has the particularity of dispensing with the repetition of the first movement. “It was the last will of the composer, who didn’t repeat it in his 1939 recording. [The score is also cut down] when you see what he sent to [composer] Henry Wood for its premiere in the United Kingdom. In fact, it’s perfectly coherent to suppress this repetition, since Rachmaninoff describes his time in Russia in it. And youth cannot be repeated,” Maestro Jurowski concludes.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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