Vladimir Jurowski. On searching, meditation, the therapeutic effects of music and the importance of silence.

30.01.2017Ольга Егунова

Vladimir Jurowski is a man of mystery. One of the most sought after and unusual conductors of our time, he is always searching for new directions in music. He often selects unconventional works, constantly broadening the orchestral repertoire. His interpretation is always original and stylistically objective. When a musician of this calibre talks about music, it seems as if its secret, its illusion, becomes tangible for a second, and to come into contact with it is a real pleasure.

Introduction. War and Peace

I remember your performance of Shostakovich’s eighth symphony made a very strong impression on me. You conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra here, and then performed it in Moscow…

Yes, in Moscow it was with the Svetlanov State Symphony Orchestra. We closed the Festival of Second World War Music with this symphony. Over the four days we had played various pieces of music, but in general it was all quite formidable. Shostakovich’s eighth sounded like a philosophical conclusion, and a warning. His eigth symphony is, I think, a very timely piece of music, for our time as well. Mikhail Prishvin wrote after its premiere that it seemed people hadn’t understood the symphony, but that wasn’t surprising because they were still asleep. But there would come a time when they would wake up.

A very modern idea.

I played the symphony in Cologne for the first time last year, and a woman came up to me, quite elderly, and said: “This symphony should be sent as a recording to every politician in the world, and to every arms dealer. Maybe they can understand at least a little of it.” But they wouldn’t understand anything.

Are you afraid to live in our time?

I am not afraid for myself, but I am afraid for our children. I am very afraid for our children, on every level… What kind of world are we leaving for them, on a political, an ecological, a moral level?

But you can’t live your life in fear.

No. You see, I am to some degree a religious person, and to some degree fatalistic, so either way I believe that everyone’s fate is already written. If they’re trying to scare us, trying to sow fear into our hearts, what does that mean first of all? That we should stop being afraid.


Part one. On power and responsibility

You come from a family of four generations of musicians, if I am not mistaken? How do you relate to your musical and creative roots?

They are the kind of roots, without which a tree can’t grow, or even stand upright in the ground. I owe everything to them in that respect, I was very lucky to be born into such a family.

Do you feel the burden of responsibility at the same time?

That too, although it has become easier, because at some point I felt that I had at last found my own path, not just the path of my father and grandfather, and that they were different things. When you walk someone else’s path, you are carrying the responsibility of that person’s weight, so to speak, and you need to be responsible, first of all, for your own. Now I feel I am carrying my own.

What was it that gave you the impetus for this change?

I think it was just the normal process of growing up, becoming a man, some changes in my life circumstances, naturally. But it didn’t happen in one day, or suddenly, like an epiphany. It simply crystallized at some point and became unequivocal. There was a period of rejecting tradition, a belated adolescence I would say, when I was trying to free myself internally from a continuation of the family history. But that was also to do with the fact that at the age when these revolutionary, teenage impulses usually occur, I was still very occupied learning my profession, and then our lives were also completely turned upside down at that time. I was 18 years old when we left Russia. I wasn’t at all up to rebellions or revolutions: I had to start a new life in Germany, in a new culture, with a new language. For that reason, it all happened much later for me. But all the same, it was essential. I tried to divorce myself from everything, almost deliberately do everything wrong, to do it my own way. And then the desire passed, and not because the fire had gone, but simply because I felt the futility, the vanity of it, when done purely for its own sake. You need to live for life itself, and to work for your work itself. At some point, you need to become your work; to root it so deep inside that you can hardly see the boundary between it and yourself.

That’s the highest level, it’s absolute unity.

Yes, that’s what they say about the highest form of love. When we are one whole, but each remains a single unit… On the whole, it is spirituality of the highest order, mysticism of the highest order. I’ve tried all sorts of different experiments and I keep coming back to the conclusion that of all the things I could be doing, this is at least the purest. It’s the mystery of sound, the mystery of spiritual transformation through music.

And nevertheless, I continue the tradition of my family with what I carry in myself, and actively pass on to others – not just when I am conducting, but also when I am teaching, or even just interacting with people.

Even now, in our conversation…

Even now. I still believe, all the same, in the charge of that almost romantic idealism that was present in my grandfather, and in some ways in my father, although they were completely different people, and I am even more different again. It reminds me of the main idea in Mikhail Romm’s film, And Yet I Believe, with the music by Schnittke.

You have started teaching now. Do you have a particular methodology?

I do not teach on a permanent basis, more on the level of master classes. I don’t have any one particular school that I was brought up with, I had a mixture: the Moscow school of Ginzburg, through my father, the German school of my Berlin professor and assisstant work with Gennady Rozhdestvensky. I have a methodology, but I haven’t yet risked formulating it in writing, I carry it out purely by ear. And my principle is, “Don’t do as I do. Find yourself.”

That is the hardest thing to do.

It’s for that reason I hardly ever demonstrate anything in my master classes. I want the students to work it out for themelves. By showing them, you are basically taking the weapon from their hands. Showing them is the easiest thing to do, because the student can just copy you.

So you just go straight to the music. And the way to express it has to be found by everyone for themselves?

Yes. There has to be an absolutely reverent attitude to what you are doing, because it is something higher than us: both the teacher and the student. But of course, after that everything depends on the individual wisdom of the teacher.

Were your teachers strict?

I was lucky in that my Russian teachers at the Moscow Conservatory – Viktor Frayonov, Dmitriy Blum, Valeria Bazarnova, Elena Anikienko – had on the one hand a reverent and very strict attitude to their work, almost religious, but at the same time they remained human, they didn’t turn into concentration camp overseers. But conducting is a very particular profession, which is associated with the potential problem of power over others. Even if…

…Even if it’s only through the prism of creativity?

Yes, but even so. We know how unstable the boundary is. It is necessary to be extraordinarily strict, extraordinarily exacting, and very serious in your selection. Again, all these esoteric comparisons keep coming to mind, probably because I have worked on this so much… In any order of the devoted, once you reach the highest level, you have to face impossibly difficult trials, and if you can pass these, you attain higher knowledge, and higher knowledge can be a serious weapon of influence on other people, in spiritual disciplines just as in the military arts. In this sense, I think a conductor’s profession is similar.

It is better to discourage someone early from an occupation he is not suited to, than to knowingly push someone incompetent towards an orchestra, thereby enabling the future destruction of music and its devaluation.

We know how terrible the cynicism of orchestral musicians is, and we often forget that one of the main reasons for this cynicism is an unprofessional, negligent or simply untalented attitude in their director, which colours the attitude of his team. In all other professions, I think, a softer, more human approach is possible, but conducting is really not a job for everyone. Although I would introduce conducting into music school on the level of general education.


Part Two. Ways out of a crisis: Body and Spirit

Have you ever found yourself on the edge, as a conductor, when it seemed that just one more step and you would cross the line, holding power, but going in the wrong direction?

Yes, there have been moments. When the conscious unwillingness of people to co-operate has brought me to an impasse, or when someone deliberately throws a spanner in the works. Especially in my youth I was guilty of giving way to anger. It was justified anger, of course, but in my opinion those outbursts were nevertheless inexcusable. In the end they simply demonstrated my own inadequacy and weakness.

Perhaps it was those belated revolutionary tendencies you mentioned?

Perhaps… A lot probably came to a head simply because I started everything so young in life. I was already married at 22, at 23 I became a father, and in the same year started working seriously in my profession, and at a fairly high level. Around 28 I had my first midlife micro-crisis. It was then that I understood I had to do something with myself.

It was then that you turned to yoga?

It was then that I turned to yoga, and to a different form of spiritual discipline, although I had been interested in that since my early adolescence. When I was 15 I entered the academy and received my first scholarship, and with it I bought a Bible, which we had never had at home. At that time, books were starting to be sold on the streets, and those incredible Moscow book stalls of around 1987-1988 started appearing… It seemed imperative to me that I should have a Bible, and that I should read it.

And how did you transition from the Bible to yoga?

I strongly believe in predestination. Just when I feel I really need something, it’s like I grow an antenna, and I can just open any book, to pretty much any page, and I’ll see the answer to my question. That’s more or less what happened to me. Incidentally, it has happened to me once or twice that a book I needed has simply fallen off the shelf and hit me on the head in a bookshop. A few times that has happened.

So yoga hit you on the head just like that?

A small, Russian book fell into my lap, Soviet actually. It was an edition from 1989 or 1990, when they were still trying to explain yoga from the perspective of Soviet medicine, because of it’s health benefits, but already some of the esoteric knowledge had begun to creep in. I was at first entirely self taught, I did everything by myself. It was only after a few years that I met my first teacher in New York, and then another teacher, and then for many years I had one teacher in England, which is where I made my biggest breakthrough in this area. Then at some point I stopped, because I had to decide how I was going to continue. To be a yogi and live in this world, even more so one like ours, an artistic one, is difficult, and at a certain stage you have to make a choice.

Do you practice now?

Yes, of course. I meditate, but again, I don’t find enough time, only early in the morning or before I go to sleep. I use the meditative state deliberately to learn scores, and more importantly, when I come to perform the music.

And how do you achieve control?

That is such a technical question, I would rather not go into the details now.

Have you found the balance between meditation and concentration?

I work on it every day. But the best moments of a performance happen when I am with my own people. It’s then that I feel complete trust, and I can throw myself off the edge without a safety line.

Have you ever entered a meditative state during a live performance?


That must have been incredible.

Yes. At times it was a little frightening.

Were you afraid that you wouldn’t be able to leave that state? That you would have to be rescued?

It would seem that my own mechanisms of self-preservation worked, but sometimes you come out of it with scars. Although it’s true that they only appear later.

How do you rehabilitate yourself?

I find the best way is with any kind of nature, especially being near to trees and water. It only works to a very negligible degree, of course, but my daily practice helps me a lot. I have to struggle against laziness (that is our worst enemy in the practice of any discipline), but if you practice every morning a particular exercise or ritual that you choose for yourself, it lasts you the whole day.

And what about diet?

When I am very overloaded I try to drink more fluids, but not alcohol of course. Water, for example. But you have to be careful what kind of water, because tap water, even if it is officially drinking water, is charged with god knows what. It has to be recharged.

With a silver spoon, or some kind of mantra?

With your hands is enough, with your own hands.

Interesting! And what about sleep? That is also an important element of a healthy lifestyle.

On that count I can only agree with you and hang my head in shame. But I am a very bad example in that respect. I am constantly sleep deprived.

Part Three. Music Therapy

Can music be therapeutic?

Music can be, yes, but the problem is that if you work with music and heal yourself with music, then you never have silence. For a musician, the best therapy is silence. It is for that reason that I try to switch off all electrical appliances at home, especially at night, I just pull everything out at the socket.

Or if I do listen to music, it is mainly music that I don’t come across as a conductor. A few favourite rock groups, or jazz, or sacred choral music.

Most of our readers are not professional musicians. If you were an all-powerful healer of both mind and body, what kind of music would you prescribe to our readers as a remedy for our times?

I think that at all times it’s always the same. Any kind of choral music, written for the church – it doesn’t matter which church, whether it’s western, eastern or Byzantine. But particularly choral music, not instrumental.


Why choral music in particular?

It has to do with the structure. There are no cure-alls. But choral music always works really well. Also Bach, Mozart – they are based on universal harmonic laws. And I am not referring to ethics here, purely aesthetics. It really is what Pythagoras formulated in his time about the harmony of the spheres. About how the universe is also a resonant harmony, in which the planets are in tune with each other. Although the science of it has been somewhat disproven, there is still certain music that allows us to return to a state of resonance with the surrounding world. Both Bach and Mozart have the ability to bring a person back into harmony, in any situation.

And would you recommend any modern music? Or is it difficult to find something spiritual in the eclecticism of modern music?

Again, it’s not to everyone’s taste: the music of Arvo Pärt has a particularly therapeutic effect on people, it has been proven. It’s precisely because he returns to that primordial understanding of harmony. There are other minimalist composers I could recommend as well – Steve Reich and John Adams. They are already more complex than just minimalism, but their music, without a doubt, is very harmonious.

In principle, I would advise anyone seeking harmony to avoid any music that is loud or too vivid, with dazzling orchestration, because it is more likely to cause agitation, and even some works of genius, such as the symphony by Shostakovich we were discussing, can just as easily drive you into depression. It isn’t music for relaxation. On the contrary, it is music of intense contemplation and emotion. So it depends what you want to get out of the music.

On the other hand, I still remember the feeling of ecstasy I experienced when, still a teenager, I heard for the first time the final adagio of Mahler’s third symphony. It is fairly complicated music, but I am convinced that even someone who is not a musician, if he has the stamina to withstand those 30 minutes of rapture, will feel like a different person after he has listened to it. You could also listen to the slow movements of the symphonies of Bruckner and Prokofiev, although the latter is not the most harmonious of composers. His Fiery Angel is one of the most fearsome pieces of music there is. But at the same time, he has music that is absolutely pure, celestial.


Part Four. Cities and Living Spaces

You were born and raised in Moscow, then you moved to Dresden and Berlin, and you travel a lot around the whole world. Does London have a special place in your heart?

Yes, and actually it had a particularly important place in my life even before I first came here, 22 years ago. I always had the feeling that I was once an Englishman. Or even a Scot, more than an Englishman. And London, of course, is one of the capitals of the world, a Moloch with an absolutely furious energy, but it’s a city which manages all the same to endure, despite everything. Despite the awful process of globalisation, it maintains its unique character. Clearly this has something to do with the devotion of English people to their traditions, which has already become the object of such admiration in other nations that their slogans, such as “Keep calm and carry on,” are sold practically all around the world. I think that the nation’s surprising resources of spiritual health come precisely from that islander’s isolationism and a certain obstinacy.

And yet, London is not England. England is different. I now also know this other England well, because I spent many years in Sussex, and before that I was quite closely involved with the Welsh National Opera and worked a lot in Cardiff. I have travelled around the country and have been to Ireland and Scotland as well. In any case, London isn’t England, and London isn’t Britain. London is some kind of eternally pulsating centre, simultaneously repellent and attractive.

Of course, for someone in the arts, for a musician, London is without a doubt the navel of the world. It is such a Mecca, and right now I wouldn’t exchange it for New York, Paris or Berlin, although I continue to live in Berlin and am even about to start working more there. But London for me is still the litmus test for a lot of things. Maybe it’s not true. The Germans, for example, would certainly disagree, because of course the centre for them is Berlin, or Munich. And then there is Vienna — although for me, even with all my love of Austrian music and admiration for its traditions, Vienna is horribly provincial, and London is not.

You have just renewed your contract with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, you are working in Moscow and you are starting to work in Berlin in 2017. I can see that it’s the demand of our time, to be everywhere at once. Has the necessity for a conductor to be associated with an orchestra, with a relationship that develops over a lifetime, become a thing of the past?

Yes. Unfortunately that is something that in today’s world is practically impossible. The world is moving very fast, and people get tired very quickly. You can put yourself for a while on a diet of one orchestra, so to speak, of one city. It turned out that my life initially became established in Berlin: my children are there, my eldest daughter grew up there, my youngest is growing, and I don’t want to uproot them. We thought for a while of moving to London, but it’s still a tough life here, especially with children. And on the other hand, Berlin is also interesting for me because it’s my city. I have nominally lived there now for 25 years already, I studied there. A lot is changing there now, and it would be interesting for me to attach myself somehow. My relationship with the London Philharmonic will continue either way, even after my contract ends. It is completely clear to me that even when I leave in 2020 or 2021, I will continue to conduct here regularly, as often as I can manage. The same goes for Moscow: if I ever leave my position as artistic director of the State Orchestra, it won’t mean that I would cease all creative collaboration with them.


Conclusion. Talking to the audience

You talk a lot about music. Doesn’t it seem to you that talking about music (if you’ll excuse the cliché) is like dancing about architecture? Because music can only be understood by the subconscious?

I used to think that too, that it was unnecessary to talk about music. Yes, to a certain extent it is possible to enchant an audience, to hypnotise them with your presence alone, with nothing but your own energy and your attitude to the music you are performing. But I think, especially these days, when the average level of education is much lower, when many people know very little about music, listening, and especially listening to unfamiliar music, has become a lot harder. This is especially noticeable in Russia.

In 2004 I performed Sylvestrov’s fifth symphony in Munich, and I had a very difficult relationship with the Munich Philharmonic. They were practically boycotting the music, and would have been happy if the work had flopped. It was the German premiere. And I said to them, “You’ll see, it won’t flop.” And to spite them, I took the microphone, and in my opening words I guided the audience into the right frame of mind to listen. Three nights in a row it was a huge success with the audience, and then with the critics as well. Marina Nesteva, a fantastic musicologist and critic, was there at one of the concerts, and said to me, “Volodya, why don’t you do that in Moscow?” I said, “Marina, that would be impossible. What could I possibly have to tell the audience of the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory about music?!!” And she answered, “You don’t understand, the people are completely different! That audience hasn’t been there for a long time, it has either died out, or simply doesn’t have enough money to go to concerts. And those who go don’t know anything, and they will not learn anything unless you tell them about it.” That gave me something to think about, but still for a couple of years, I kept silent, saying nothing… And then, “the dumb man spoke”. I said a few opening words at a concert, and I could feel how people were listening differently.

It is also, perhaps, a particularly Russian characteristic: the general public trusts the person on the stage, they want, even expect him to enlighten them, they want to be told something from the stage that they didn’t know before…

But I also think that you shouldn’t abuse this trust, you certainly can’t abuse it for any kind of political announcement from the stage. You can say something to help people understand a piece better, or at least somehow prepare them to receive it. All you need is to guide people to the point where they forget about their everyday concerns, relax and open their ears and their hearts… The music does the rest. For that reason, you need a sense of tact, you need a very good sense for your audience. You need to relate to your audience respectfully and seriously, not as a crowd, but as a collection of individuals.

I think that our readership is just such a collection of individuals, so as a final question, what would you like to say to our magazine and our audience?

In the market-driven farce that is contemporary life, I can wish you only one thing: stay true to your identity, and don’t forget why you started all this. In general, to quote, George Gurdjieff, “remember yourself.”

Words: Olga Jegunova
Photos: Benjamin Ealovega, Karen Robinson, Drew Kelley

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