10 Dinner Party Facts about Evgeny Svetlanov

Next week, we’ll be celebrating what would have been Evgeny Svetlanov’s 90th birthday and streaming the last two rounds of the 4th Evgeny Svetlanov International Conducting Competition. We’re kicking off our special Svetlanov in the Spotlight series with a fun list of things you may not know about the imposing Russian conductor…

1. He rose through the ranks remarkably quickly. Just two years after conducting his first public performances while a still a student, he snagged a coveted assistant position at the Bolshoi Theater. A few years later, he became principal conductor and led the orchestra’s first international tour in Italy. By age 37, he had taken over the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, which he would go on to conduct for 35 seasons.

Young Evgeny Svetlanov with his piano teacher Maria Gurvich and his fellow students

2. Rachmaninov is his “desert island music”… or as he’d rather, his “solo star” music!

[What music would you want with you on a desert island?] “A desert island? Never. My colleague Yuri Temirkanov will tell you that he would gladly take a copy of Mozart’s Requiem… Personally, I would rather be on a star! With the score of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances.”—Evgeny Svetlanov

3. He was deeply philosophical and enjoyed exploring a variety of subjects from geometric forms to politics to, of course, the art of conducting…

“The conductor stands before a living, breathing orchestra made up of individuals… However, when they’re playing, they should be working towards a common goal. When rehearsing, they should immerse themselves in the piece in question. Manifestly, this is perhaps the conductor’s main task. Getting mute notes on a page, left there by the composer, to ring out. Playing music born in the composer’s mind, conveying this music to other people—this is what the conductor does when he conducts an orchestra.”—Evgeny Svetlanov


4. Rimsky-Korsakov‘s The Maid of Pskov, one of his favorite operas, was both the first and last production he conducted at the Bolshoi Theater.

5. He had strong artistic visions and didn’t like to compromise, which had an impact on the types of music he preferred to conduct. As he said in a 1970 interview in Gramophone magazine:
“Opera is a very complex medium in which the conductor only too rarely is a true interpreter of the music. Too often he is merely a glorified repetiteur or an accompanist. You are so dependent on other people and factors — the producer, designer, artists. If anyone happens to be feeling ill or off-color, your own performance is bound to suffer. On the concert platform, I hardly need to say, the conductor is really in charge.”—Evgeny Svetlanov

6. He played an instrumental role in defining what Russian music and musicians sounded like to international audiences, thanks to the monumental and exhaustive, 120-disc anthology of the repertoire he recorded with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, and to the prolific 3,000 recordings he completed throughout his career.

Evgeny Svetlanov and Dmitry Shostakovich at a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15 in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory

7. He had a strong need to disconnect from the bustling world around him, whether through fishing (which was for him nearly a meditative activity) or escaping into a detective novel. Close personal friend Marina Bower recounts that Svetlanov was particularly militant about sleeping in complete darkness and even claimed that he would be happy to sleep in a cell with no light or sound!

Evgeny Svetlanov fishing

8. He changed Evgeny Kissin‘s mind about Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony No. 3. As Kissin—who Svetlanov said reminded him of himself at a young age—writes,
“Of all of the projects we worked on together, I’ll always remember our concert with the State Orchestra in Toulouse… The second part of the program was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3. As a child, I remember internalizing the old cliché that the third was the least interesting of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. Before that concert in Toulouse, I didn’t really think much of the work, but Svetlanov conducted it with such brilliance and inspiration that I fell in love with it and I continue to love it to this day.”—Evgeny Kissin

Let’s watch Maestro Svetlanov lead the State Symphony Orchestra in an excerpt…


9. He was a passionate sports fan. As Marina Bower describes,

Svetlanov loved sport. I once asked him what was his favourite sport. He immediately answered: “football.” I should add that Svetlanov was a great connoisseur and admirer of basketball, tennis, gymnastics and sumo wrestling. He was invited to the  Colmar Festival during the World Cup and regarded this as a personal disaster. He was constantly looking angrily at his watch as rehearsal time approached. He spent the whole of his free time in his air-conditioned room with the temperature set at 15°C whereas the outdoor temperature was close to 40°C. He was extremely critical of the referees who he felt were unfair and corrupt. He even wrote a letter which he intended to send to FIFA in order to voice his dissatisfaction.—Marina Bower

10. Puccini‘s Madama Butterfly was a cornerstone of his repertoire from the very beginning to his final days. As a child, the work held great significance for him: not only did his mother perform the lead role, but Svetlanov himself first took the stage performing the role of Cio-Cio-San’s son. The opera remained close to his heart at the end of his life as well and even brought his career full circle when he conducted it in Montpellier one last time just days before his death.

Don’t miss the rest of our Svetlanov in the Spotlight series leading up to the exciting final rounds of the 4th Evgeny Svetlanov International Conducting Competition next Friday and Saturday. Click here to learn more!

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