Conductor  Yuri  Temirkanov

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Since 1988 Yuri Temirkanov has been the Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he regularly undertakes major international tours and recordings.

Born in the Caucasus city of Nal’chik on December 10, 1938, Yuri Temirkanov began his musical studies at the age of nine. When he was thirteen, he attended the Leningrad School for Talented Children where he continued his studies in violin and viola. Upon graduation, he attended the Leningrad Conservatory where he completed his studies in viola and later returned to study conducting, graduating in 1965. After winning the prestigious All-Soviet National Conducting Competition in 1966, Temirkanov was invited by Kirill Kondrashin to tour Europe and the United States with legendary violinist David Oistrakh and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.

Temirkanov made his debut with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra (formerly the Leningrad Philharmonic) in early 1967, and was then invited to join the orchestra as Assistant Conductor to Yevgeny Mravinsky. In 1968, he was appointed Principal Conductor of the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra [shown in photo of LP below] where he remained until his appointment as Music Director of the Kirov Opera and Ballet (now the Mariinsky Theatre) in 1976. He remained in this position until 1988 and his productions of Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades have become legendary in the theatre’s history.


Maestro Temirkanov has appeared with leading European orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Dresden Staatskapelle, London Philharmonic, London Symphony, Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome and La Scala, Milan and others.

After making his London debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1977, he was appointed Principal Guest Conductor, and then in 1992 named Principal Conductor, a position he held until 1998. From 1992 to 1997 he was also the Principal Guest Conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra and from 1998 to 2008 Principal Guest Conductor of the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. A regular visitor to the USA, he conducts the major orchestras of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He was the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2000 till 2006, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre until 2009. In 2010 – 2012, he was Music Director of Teatro Regio di Parma.

His numerous recordings include collaborations with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestras, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with whom he recorded the complete Stravinsky ballets and Tchaikovsky symphonies.

For twelve days over the Christmas holiday, Maestro Temirkanov hosts the annual International Winter Festival Arts Square in St. Petersburg, Russia. Unique in its concept, the festival gathers artists of the highest caliber, confirming the status of St. Petersburg as one of the cultural capitals of Europe. The 15th festival in December 2014 featured Jonas Kaufmann, Ian Bostridge, Olga Peretyatko and Christian Blackshaw, among others.

Maestro Temirkanov has received many distinguished awards in Russia. He has been awarded the Order “For Merit for the Country” of all the four degrees (1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 (shown in photo above)). In 2003 and 2007, he received the Abbiati Prize for Best Conductor, and in 2003 was named Conductor of the Year in Italy. Recently, he was made an Honorary Academician of Santa Cecilia. In 2012 he was awarded “The Commander of the Order of the Star of Italy”, in 2014 the Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli Prize, and in 2015 the “Order of the Rising Sun” (Japan) and “Una vita nella musica” Prize (Italy). In November 2015, Yuri Temirkanov was made the Honorary Conductor of the Academia Santa Cecilia Choir and Orchestra.

--  From the website of IMG Artists (text only, with slight corrections; photos and link added)  

--  Note that names which are links throughout this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In July of 1997, Temirkanov was at the Ravinia Festival to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  He was gracious enough to arrange a time for this interview, and my thanks also go to Marina Stokes for providing the translation for us.

Portions of the chat were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, along with some of his recordings.  Now, as the maestro approaches his 80th birthday, I am pleased to present a transcript of that conversation on this webpage . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You conduct both opera and symphony.   Aside from the very obvious, what are the major differences between conducting an opera performance and a symphonic performance?

Yuri Temirkanov:   In principle, there is no difference.  Opera just demands more kind of fuss, more little things for the conductor which have nothing to do with music, but technically may be more complicated.

BD:   More things to pull together?

YT:   Yes, and more people.

BD:   Too many people?

YT:   Too many people
choir, soloists, orchestra...

BD:   ...stage hands, costumers...

YT:   Yes, yes.

BD:   As the maestro, are you really in complete control?

YT:   I must be.

BD:   Are you in control, or is the composer in control?

YT:   In opera and in the symphony, the control is in the hands of the conductor, but the composer and the desires of the composer are always present with the conductor.

BD:   How much is the composer and how much is the conductor?  I trust you put some of yourself into it as well?

temirkanov YT:   Yes, whether you want it or you don’t want it, it’s inevitable that part of you is there.  But the main aim is to do what the composer intended to do, or at least what you think he intended to do, in your own opinion.  This is the ultimate aim.

BD:   Have you done some works of composers who were there to supervise?

YT:   Shostakovich, for example.

BD:   Is it easier to work when the composer is there to help, or would you rather the composer stay out of the way?

YT:   His being there makes it a bit more difficult because it restricts inevitably.  subconsciously, it restricts, particularly when you have someone who is there and you know that he’s a genius.

BD:   There are some genius-composers?

YT:   I think Shostakovich is a genius.

BD:   Without mentioning other names, are there other composer geniuses?

YT:   I think Shchedrin is a genius.  I did his opera Dead Souls in the Bolshoi Theater.  I think it’s one of the best operas of the twentieth century.  [Box-cover of the three-LP set is shown at right]

BD:   Did you do the premiere?

YT:   Yes.

BD:   It is special to bring to life a brand new work
either opera or concert?

YT:   Yes, of course.  This is something special because there are no good or bad traditions that can influence you in any way.

BD:   [Articulating the obvious]  That puts a huge responsibility on you to get it right the first time!

YT:   Yes, it’s an enormous responsibility.  In my case, Shchedrin was present all the time.  He controlled it some ways.  I could always have his advice and his consultation.

BD:   Did he like what you were doing with his work?

YT:   I hope so!  [Both laugh]

BD:   After working with a composer, does that make you look at older works differently?

YT:   Yes.  Most conductors conduct works without the presence of the composers.  When the composer is present, it’s just a new experience but it doesn’t change your approach or your way of working.  It’s just a new experience that the composer is present.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you come back to a work after many years, do you get a clean score and start afresh?

YT:   Yes, usually I do, even if it’s not that long.  But when there is a substantial gap, I try to start from the beginning.  This is one of the rare moments when I understand, or realize that I am growing up.  When I look at myself in the mirror every day, I don’t notice this process.  When I look at a work which I’ve done a long time ago, I don’t know what it is, but there is something in this that tells me I’m older now.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Older and better?

YT:   The only thing that I know for certain is that I’m older, but it’s not for me to judge whether it’s better or not.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

YT:   I don’t think that any artist, even one with a lot of confidence, ever can say that it was a perfect performance.  I would probably say that if an artist will ever say that it is perfect, it means that he has to stop working because he’s finished.  That is one of the characteristics of our profession
that you are never completely satisfied with what you’ve done.

temirkanov BD:   But you always strive for that perfection?

YT:   Yes, otherwise our work loses sense.

BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

YT:   Probably you can’t articulate it.  It would sound very primitive if you say directly that music has an aim.  If you look at the general purpose of culture, you can say that music is the nearest one to the spiritual achievement of a human being.  Maybe it supports the spirits of a human being and prevents it from sinking.  It goes to supporting your inner spirit and your spiritual state.

BD:   You can decline to answer this question if you wish.  Was music something that helped keep the Russian spirit alive during the years when the Soviet system preached atheism?  [Remember, this interview took place in 1997, after the disillusion of the Soviet Union.]

YT:   Yes, of course.  It’s the culture which played the main role that during those seventy years, most people remained human beings in spite of everything.  Of course, we’re all sick in our heads and in our mentality, and psychologically it’s the two generations.  But if there is anything left in us which enables us to communicate with the rest of the world which didn’t go through this experience, that is the culture which helps us, and our art, to remain human beings.

BD:   Let me commend you for being part of the system and working within it to maintain that spirit in spite of everything.

YT:   [With a big smile]  All of us did whatever we could.

BD:   What is it that we in the West still need to learn about Russian music?

YT:   I don’t think that the Russian music is anything special which the West should learn about.  To me, there aren’t any national borders, whether these are in music or any other form of art.  I don’t believe in borders.  Culture is the achievement of humanity, not nations, just like great discoveries in science can’t belong to these nations.  They belong to the whole world.  You can’t say that Mozart or Bach belong to Germany.  Their music belongs to the whole world, and that is the happiness, the joy of it all.

BD:   Does it please you to bring Russian music to the rest of the world?

YT:   Yes, but I conduct other music, also with pleasure.  I am not a Russian conductor... I am a conductor.

BD:   Do you not have a special pride in Russian music?

YT:   I’m proud of music, but not particularly Russian music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re conducting an orchestra, is all of your work done at rehearsal, or do you leave something special for the night of the performance?

YT:   Of course, you try to do all the technical things during the rehearsal, and for the concert, maybe five per cent should be left which will distinguish the live performance from a first-class recording.  During the concert, a little miracle should happen.  I’m not talking about myself.  By a miracle, I mean that the audience should feel that what they hear now was born this minute at this concert, and that it never existed before, and the public sees how it is born and how well it’s done.  The public feels and sees how the musicians work.  If the public sees that musicians are working during the performance
and it is work for themit means there haven’t been enough rehearsals.

temirkanov BD:   So it should be free?

YT:   Absolutely free.

BD:   Does it surprise you when this happens?

YT:   It’s not only for me, it’s for everyone, and when you see it’s just been done this minute, it’s not quite what we’ve done at the rehearsal.  There is very little difference, but there is something there which has not been done during the rehearsal.  Then, it’s live music and it breathes and lives.  If I am telling the public to listen to how well we rehearsed this concert, then the music follows technique of those performing it.  The concert it should be the other way around.

BD:   So, the artistry leads?

YT:   Yes.

BD:   Is there any way at all to bring that to a record?

YT:   Practically never.

BD:   Despite that, are you pleased with your recordings?

YT:   [Laughs]  I never listen to them!  I am so nervous when I listen to my recordings.  I have to listen sometimes when the master tapes are played and I have to do corrections, but I get so nervous and upset.  If I were to listen to the published record, I’d be reminded that you can’t change anything.

BD:   [With a wink]  Then why do you do it?

YT:   Very down to earth reasons
the orchestra needs it.

BD:   They need the exposure and the income?

YT:   Yes.

BD:   Does it not please you that your ideas are carried all over the world?

YT:   It’s not quite my ideas, not in the end.  I would prefer live recordings, even if they’re not as perfect as the studio recordings.  There is something in the live recordings.  Studio records are like food in a tin.

BD:   As opposed to fresh food?

YT:   Yes.  But in spite of that, I usually listen to other people’s recordings, and pay some attention.  It gives me pleasure to listen to Furtwängler’s recordings, or those by Karajan.  Somehow, these people could do the recordings and keep their artistic personality in their recordings.  Probably they have their own secret, but I don’t know that secret!

BD:   So, you do the best you can?

YT:   Of course, I try.

BD:   What advice to you have for younger conductors coming along?

YT:   [Wistfully]  It’s useless to give any advice to young conductors!

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  Why?

YT:   Because conducting is a profession of the second half of your life.  In the first half of our life, all of us are capable conductors, talented conductors, but just conductors.  What we do in the first half is just waving the stick, and only afterwards do we begin to realize what this profession is all about.

BD:   So there’s nothing you can say to encourage the younger conductors?

YT:   I would tell them that their attitude toward the profession must be the same as the Buddhist attitude to life!  [Smiles]

BD:   Oh, I see, just be very calm?

YT:   Exactly.  No fuss.  If God gives you anything, then it will be open.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   From the huge repertoire available to you as a conductor, how do you decide what you’re going to play, and what you’re not going to play?

temirkanov YT:   The last indication is when the music begins to turn into production.  Very few people can afford to conduct what they really want to conduct, or play what they want to play all the time.  In one way or another, there are so many people around the programs who are involved in making the concert, or making it happen.  There is always a compromise that you have encounter.  It’s not like a hundred years ago when the artist would come and play what he wants to play.  Now, it is like you are in a restaurant... the promoters and the management come, and they actually order your music.  Most of the time, you can’t really refuse because you have behind you an orchestra which plans these concerts, and their tours.  So, it’s difficult to answer this question.

BD:   [Waving his hand officiously]  Okay, for the next moment I make you dictator!  How do you change it?

YT:   [Laughs]  I would let the artist and the conductor play what they want to play, even if it was already performed this season.  It would be very interesting for the public, for the real music lovers, to compare the orchestras and compare the artists with the same pieces.  That would be interesting.

BD:   You wouldn’t try to expand the repertoire to include more different pieces?

YT:   If you’re a real artist, of course you always want to expand and try new things.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

YT:   I would hesitate before saying just yes or just no because of what has happened recently.  What I’m saying applies for the whole world.  The governments started treating culture and music not as well as the last century and before then.  The whole world is being gradually taken over by a mass culture.  In one way or another, this mass culture fills all the gaps, and the real culture has to defend itself now.  Like the environment, we have come to the point where we have to defend it.  We have to defend our spiritual culture.  The governments seem to understand the environment, but they don’t understand the culture.  They understand that nature has to be protected, because if it’s not protected, they will lose material things as the result.  But when you talk about the spiritual values, they think that those are always present, and always will be present in some way, but it doesn’t work like that.

BD:   So, you are one of music’s defenders?

YT:   I wouldn’t put it about myself with such lofty language!  It is just that I hope that with my profession I am able to contribute.  It’s for others to judge how much is my contribution.

BD:   Do you have any advice for the audiences of today?

YT:   [Pondering a moment]  I don’t know... I don’t want to give advice to anyone, but I’m just talking about a human being, a person whether he’s a listener or not a listener.  I want to say to any human being that if he has any kind of culture or spirituality inside him, he has to protect it and value it the way he protects his health, so that other things
these mass and popular cultures and valueswon’t gradually poison his own values.

BD:   So, like we have health-food and non-healthy foods, we have health-music and non-healthy music?

YT:   That’s right, yes.

temirkanov BD:   Do you have any advice for composers?

YT:   Composers???  [Laughs]  I don’t like giving advice in general because I hate it when other people advise me... particularly when I don’t ask for this advice!

BD:   [Daring to pursue it just one more time]  You have watched singers and helped them for a long time.  Can you give some advice for singers?

YT:   This I will say.  If you have a wonderful voice, were born with a wonderful voice, it doesn’t mean that you are a singer or a musician.  First of all, you have to know music very well.  In order to use your voice, you really have to know music.   If your knowledge of music on the first or even second level, you have to learn much more.  If that’s all you know about music, then you’re not an artist and not a singer.

BD:   So, it’s a rare combination for a singer to be an artist?

YT:   Yes, quite a rare combination.  Fortunately, sometimes God gives not only a voice, but some sort of incredible intuition to these people, so the way they sing, how they sing, you forget the theory of music and all that.

BD:   You just listen to the incredible sound?

YT:   Yes.

BD:   Over the years that you have been conducting, has the technical prowess of instrumentalists gotten better and better?

YT:   Oh, yes.  I watch the young performers, and unfortunately very often the technique, which is so incredible, is overtaking the meaning and the meaningful part of the performance.  So many young performers all play the same.  They play wonderfully, but you never remember who is who.

BD:   Do you like conducting all over the world?

YT:   When I was young I really loved it.  Now it’s less and less.

BD:   I hope it still brings you some joy...

YT:   Not very often joy.  Now I’m old, so I’m not very joyful about this myself.  [Quite a statement from someone who was 58 years old at the time...]

BD:   I hope the Chicago Symphony brings you a little joy!

YT:   It’s a great orchestra.  It’s among the first rank, but even with all the greatness, I don’t think that two and half hours of rehearsal for two symphonies is enough, even for this orchestra.  That refers to your earlier question, and I said that we can’t control things.  Life and circumstances control our work.  We know in advance it’s a compromise, but for some reason or other, we take it, and orchestras know it.  I know it, and we all know it, but we pretend that we don’t know it.  [Both laugh]  As Pushkin said,
“Ah, it is easy to deceive me!...  I long to be deceived myself!  [Much laughter all around]

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.  I hope you’ll come back again.

YT:   Thank you very much.

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© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Highland Park, Illinois, on July 17, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.