Discovering the Russian masters

Rachael YoungThu 8th November 2012

Dancing to Tchaikovsky as a child led to a conducting career in the Russian school

Conductor Rachael Young will lead The Russian Virtuosi of Europe in a performance at London's Cadogan Hall on November 23, 2012. Here she explains how early ballet inspirations led to a lifelong fascination with Russian composers and the Russian school of performing.

Each of us who love music has their own story of how this love came about and, more specifically, how they came to empathise with and love certain composers or musical eras.

My love of Russian music began very early and crept up on me before I knew about it consciously. My grandmother had been a prize-winning dancer and was very eager for my sister and I to have ballet lessons, so at the age of 5, I began dancing and I loved it.

Initially, we would often be dancing to ‘folk’ music played on the piano by the grandmotherly figure of Mrs Roscoe. I realise now that a lot of this music had its origins in Eastern European and Slavic countries, and so from an early age these melodies and rhythms were embedding themselves deeply in my system.

The highlight of the year for me would always be the annual production of The Nutcracker. Apart from heralding the exciting prospect of Christmas, the other reason for my excitement was that some of us young students would have the opportunity to perform by taking various child character parts.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores are filled with the most glorious melodies and drama: seeing the grown-up professional dancers bringing this to life, the ladies dancing the glorious melodic lines of the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ or the men stamping out the folk rhythms of the ‘Trepak’, or both the ladies and the men somehow embodying the languid exotic Eastern harmonies in the ‘Arabian Dance’, was an absolute joy and source of wonder for me. These experiences I now realise were laying a foundation of relating music - harmonies, melody, rhythm - directly to movement and also to characterisation and the psychological drama, which lies at the very heart of Russian music.

Later, having been introduced to this highly expressive and rich world of Tchaikovsky as a child, I started to explore his symphonies, which in my self-perceived, all-knowing, yet in reality naïve, teenage state of mind, seemed to chime perfectly with irresolvable and unsolvable adolescent angst, the Pathétique resonating particularly with these emotions.

Moving on to explore 20th century composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev brought a more intellectual element to the foreground. I came across Shostakovich initially through his string quartets and would take the Borodin Quartet’s recordings of them out of the central library for months at a time to have on hand to listen to, but it was as though just having them around would somehow be helpful. These recordings opened the door to drama of a different kind – drama particular to both Shostakovich and the Borodin Quartet’s life and times in Soviet Russia – and were for me charged primarily with crushing despair, sarcasm and irony as well as more edifying qualities such as nobility, spirituality and humanity. An exploration of Shostakovich’s orchestral works led on to exploring Prokofiev’s cosmic fantasies.

Needless to say my career in ballet ended before it began, but my early experiences also left me with a fascination with performing. What makes a performance powerful, resonant and moving to an audience? Obviously, this is no simple subject but it seemed to me, more often than not, when I saw Russian performing artists, dancers, ballet dancers and – later in music – great soloists and orchestras, that they each brought not only an impressive level of technical stability and development but also drama, character, power and an inexplicable charge to a performance. More specifically, in the case of conductors, an impressive schooling that developed a commanding, disciplined and expressive technique that was able to influence the sound of an orchestra through the conductor’s being and gesture.

This is what led me – with a few twists and turns – to learn conducting in this ‘Russian’ school with my teacher Leonid Grin. Maestro Grin was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory in the ‘70’s, who went on to teach at the conservatory and became associate conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic before his defection to the West in the ‘80’s. It was with his help as a mentor that I came to understand something of how this drama, characterisation and psychological charge are created in performances.

In his insightful book The Composer’s Advocate Erich Leinsdorf writes with humbling expertise and knowledge about how a conductor might employ his technique, knowledge and talent at the service of the composer’s voice, who is after all the creative source in all of this. Leinsdorf explores how to learn to really look into a score and see how the composer’s voice is represented there in the symbols of notation.

To learn, as one great conductor once put it, ‘how to see with your ears and hear with your eyes’ describes somehow an element of what the Russian system helps develop in a performer. It also, in a way, sums up my fascination with Russian music and Russian music-making and this glimpse of how my empathy and love for it – strange as it may be for a little girl from New Zealand – may have come about. But then again, it may also have something to do with the fact that as well as from Scotland and Chile, some of my not too distant ancestors hale from the depths of Siberia.

Rachael Young

Rachael Young began her career as a cellist, having studied with William Pleeth and Moray Welsh, before training as a conductor. Her mentors included Leonid Grin, Neeme Järvi, Paavo Järvi and Jorma Panula.

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