To celebrate what would have been Evgeny Svetlanov‘s 90th birthday today and look ahead to the final rounds of the Evgeny Svetlanov International Conducting Competition (streaming live on medici.tv starting tomorrow!), we’re honored to publish an excerpt from a collection of essays dedicated to the maestro and edited by his close personal friend, impresario, and founder and director of the competition, Marina Bower.
In addition to sharing her beautiful tribute, Marina was also kind enough to sit down with us to talk about the hidden sides of the imposing figure many were afraid of…
On how they met
London, 1982. Marina went on tour with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. “Somehow everyone was very much afraid of him because his stature was so imposing and he was not very communicable with a lot of people. Everyone could hardly knock on his door to ask questions! And from the very beginning, I didn’t understand why people found him so difficult to approach.” Marina didn’t have the same experience and quickly developed an easy rapport with the maestro and his wife: “He somehow adopted me as his daughter in his heart… The more we communicated, the more I realized that actually, somehow, I understood him on a human basis.”
On his wisdom and humanity
“He was a very simple person. He liked the simple things in life, which is also a kind of extraordinary wisdom… For example, he could spend hours on end by the sea fishing. Fishing for him was like a Buddhist reflection because he could just think and concentrate.”
“Me being 30 years younger than him, I would always go to him about no matter what kind of intimate problem in my life. He was there to listen. He would never comment in a way that I would feel uncomfortable; he would always be very supportive and so human, with his wonderful sense of humor as well.”
On his unbridled generosity
For Svetlanov, generosity was a code of life. “To music, he gave his entire life. He approached each concert as though his life depended on it. And he was the same in life. When he liked someone, he could give everything to that person… He didn’t count his time when he met someone. ” He also ensured that this generosity continued after his death through those who loved him, for example, through the conducting competition he urged his loved ones to establish.
On witnessing his uncanny powers of communication first-hand
“During the rehearsal, he stopped the orchestra, put his hands up, and said: ‘Philadelphia.’ What happened, I didn’t know, but they started playing completely differently. And on my way back, I asked him: ‘Maestro, could you explain this miracle? What does this word mean to them? Why did they start playing differently?’ He laughed and said, oh, of course you don’t know… but they know. When I said Philadelphia, they immediately heard the Ormandy sound. And Ormandy, he was the greatest conductor of Rachmaninov. I wanted to convey that to them, but not with words, just with the image. This is something that’s very important in the maestro’s character: not talking much, but talking in exactly the right way.”
On trying to sum him up in just a few words
“Genius. An absolute visionary. Human. A guide. Funny.”
Read on for Marina Bower’s intimate portrait of maestro Evgeny Svetlanov…
Those tears hidden from the world
By Marina Bower, translated into English by Michel Bower
We were in Sweden on the shores of the Baltic Sea. “What do you treasure most in nature, Evgeny?” “The sea,” he said. He had just undergone a major operation and was on crutches. His left leg was encased in a prosthesis. He carried on: “You know, if I go back on stage I may lose all my strength and my heart will stop… That is my greatest fear.” “How can you say that? You have boundless energy!” I was right. A few months later, we met in Saint Petersburg. Evgeny Svetlanov had been invited by the Philharmonic Orchestra to conduct a Wagner programme: arrangements of opera music such as the suites of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal. He was still using a walking stick and continued to wear his prosthesis. It was impossible to remain standing for hours on end. I asked him whether he wanted me to help him onto the stage and whether he needed a chair. He was astonished: “Svetlanov sitting on a chair? No, I shall remain standing!” And indeed as if borne by some miraculous force he went on stage where he remained for over two hours. It was an unforgettable concert as indeed were all of his concerts.
A journalist who attended his rehearsal asked him why he ended the programme with Parsifal since the music was more difficult for a broad audience than Tristan. He replied: “What can be done after redemption?”
Svetlanov is no longer with us but the light of his talent is everlasting. His art certainly reflected his inner world. He also had a very inquiring mind. He was delighted to be able to choose his own programmes in France and included works that were rarely or almost never performed. During the celebration of his 70th birthday by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Parisian audiences were able to listen to Salomé by Florent Schmitt, Hugo Alfven’s 4th symphony, “the most erotic” according to Svetlanov!
1992: the USSR Symphony Orchestra was on tour in France. We arrived in Cannes. We spent most of the first day of our Mediterranean trip in different shops that sold fishing tackle. We were looking for bait for the Maestro whose cherished dream was to fish on the pier of the Palais des Festivals. He was delighted that we were able to find “good quality worms” and went fishing. However he was most disappointed to be driven away from the private quays. I can still remember how angry and sad he was because of “unacceptable French laws!”
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.
I think he realised the end was near. His intuition never failed him. The fact that he had lost his orchestra in Russia clearly left a deep mark on him. This led not only to his moral distress but to a deterioration in his health. Orchestras and artistic directors in France worshipped him. It so happens that Evgeny Svetlanov spent the last years of his life in France.
René Koering who was the director of the Radio France Festival and also the Montpellier Opera invited him to conduct any opera he wished. He chose Madama Butterfly. He said: “when I was five I myself was the son of Cio-Cio-San when my mother performed this opera at the Bolshoi. These were my first moments on stage.” Svetlanov was fond of drawing together the strands of his artistic life. For example his first performance at the Bolshoi was The Maid of Pskov. It was to be his last opera in the same theatre. I think that he chose Madama Butterfly for the same reason and followed the same intuition. He conducted this opera in Montpellier ten days before he died. Those who were in the hall will never forget the last scene where Cio-Cio-San awaits the ship that will bring back her only love. It was a very slow interpretation full of sadness and great hope as though his very life hinged on that particular moment. On the day of his departure from Montpellier the sun was shining:
“Look at the wonderful weather,” I said to him. “I hate the sun,” he said as he put on dark, hippy-style sunglasses from the seventies. The wheelchair was drawn up for him at the airport. His back pain was so great he could no longer walk. “My wife thinks I am suffering from sciatica,” he said.
“And you?,” I asked. “Of course not,” he said, adding: “Svetlanov’s life will end on the stage of one of the major capitals.” He left for London, his last concert destination.