Mr. Alexey Botvinov is not only a People’s artist of Ukraine, the best interpreter of Rachmaninows music, the first Ukrainian to be invited to the best world theatre La Scala as an artistic director and musician with his project of Bach‘s „Goldberg Variations.” At the beginning of June he is, first of all, a president of the International music festival ODESSA CLASSICS, which takes place in Odessa for the 4th time from 1st till 10th June. Opinion has talked with Maestro about his childhood, hobbies and career, about audience and theatres, about reasons of him not emigrating, about his primary life mission and, of course, about the main events at the biggest classic music festival in Ukraine.
Scientists say that the first memories of children are connected with events, which were a routine for a baby. What do you remember about your childhood?
I remember me waking up every day at 8 a.m. to the sound of the piano. My mother started to play; she began with exercises of Hanon and then continued with classical compositions. She was a concertmaster for singers at the conservatory.
I remember the first sounds in C-major, very simple exercises which everybody hates because they’re routine and boring. But for me it is still very pleasant music. It reminds me a positive beginning of the day.
I don’t remember how old I was but music is the first thing I remembered.
Do you remember lullabies your mother sang to you?
When did you sit down at the piano for the first time?
Quite late. I was almost 7 years old. My parents weren’t very excited about me being a professional musician, they wanted me just to study music. At that age, I could read and write well and when I went to school for the first time they were ready to take me to the third year at once. I had a strong potential for studying and my parents considered it more interesting and promising. Music was on the second place. That’s why I started to study music rather late.
I wasn’t accepted into the school of Stolyarsky (music school for gifted children in Odessa) because I had to sing at the exams, but my vocal skills are still poor, however I have got an absolute pitch. But they didn’t let me demonstrate my sense of pitch, they just dropped me out, saying: “No, thanks, enough.”
And this is despite the fact that your parents were famous musicians in Odessa?
Yes! My father was a prorector (deputy principal) of the conservatory at that time. Mother was a concertmaster and worked with Mr. Ivanov (famous opera artist and professor at the conservatory). Indeed, they were famous people, but I wasn’t allowed to enter the next stage of the exam. However, my grandmother couldn’t put up with it and in a week tested my skills by herself. She found I had a perfect pitch but exams were over, the ship has sailed. I went to the musical school at the conservatory. We were taught by students, they were controlled by professors. This was also a musical school but not of such a high rate as the school of Stolyarsky.
Was your grandmother also a musician?
No, she wasn’t. She just couldn’t reconcile to the verdict because every member of our family was a musician. My uncle has an absolute pitch as well as my mother’s sense of pitch is great and it’s only from my mother’s side. From the other side there is my father-composer. She just couldn’t believe and she was right. I just didn’t have a good voice.
She found out how to test my sense of pitch. Turned out, it was very easy: I was standing back on the piano, she pressed some piano keys and then I had to repeated. I found the necessary keys without a mistake. She couldn’t believe at first, she thought I was peeping and cheating. But it turned out, I really had a perfect pitch.
How did football come to your life? I know you dreamt about a professional football career in the childhood.
Frankly speaking, it was just a fun. We lived then on Pirohovska street and our yard was spacious for such games with no garages yet. We had matches between yard teams. All boys of the yard played football. It was very exciting. Far more exciting than playing piano. It is a common thing for 7-8 year children. However, it was impossible to join “Chernomorets” (professional football club in Odessa). It is possible now but not at that time. That’s why it was only about amateur enthusiasm.
Musicians of your level are said to have no childhood at all, because they spend all their time practicing. But you played football, perhaps you had time for other hobbies?
I had time for all my hobbies. It didn’t take much time for me to complete anything. I was an A student at school. I started to write music at the age of 12 or 14. I wasn’t a swot that’s why I had plenty of time for friends, cinema, books. I was reading quite much. Besides, I could read very fast – a book in a day or two. I had enough time for everything. Perhaps because I couldn’t travel then (which now I adore). As for hobbies, leisure and friends – I had an excellent childhood. Maybe my parents should have been more strict, but they weren’t.
That’s interesting. A person is believed to gain skill and mastery due to routine long hours of practice. Isn’t it so?
Well, it is. I practiced hard 2 – 2, 5 hours a day, however not 5-6 hours as many say. I was even doing sport for several years, for example, fencing when I was in the year 7. I had enough time even for that. I gave it up because a sword was too heavy for my arm and it wasn’t good for my piano classes. I was practicing for many hours but I was motivated by the result. I had a result everywhere I was involved.
When did you start to enjoy by realizing that a true music was bearing under your fingers and you were moving the right way?
Quite early, at the age of 9, I guess. Something snapped, I felt a great desire to play piano and suddenly realized and even believed that I could become kind of a solo pianist. I was just sure. But I didn’t have any result at 9 yet, only a desire.
The first results appeared in the year 7. The point is that I came to my teacher Serafima Leonidivna Mohylevska only in the year 5. Till that time my technical mastery teachers were good but not strong enough. She changed my technic in 2 years. She played and taught differently, in her own. She is an incredible teacher. I performed a big concert with a very difficult program. Since that, I started to get good results. So, I must haven’t been a wunderkind, who played ingeniously from the age of 7… I did it gradually.
Apart from the perfect technic and mastery of the instrument a pianist has to perform well in public and overcome his or her fears, doesn’t he or she? When did you gain these skills and started to enjoy performing in public?
It happened exactly when I got some progress. From my year 7, it means I was 13 then, I started to enjoy and feel the desire to share my emotions and ideas towards music with audience. I had many arguments with teachers at that period; I wanted to perform my own pieces of music.
And till that time I had got very scared before any exam. It was a true stress for me. I started to be afraid in a month before the exam, but then I overcame that fear and everything was OK. After the concert, I gained some confidence that I owned a necessary technic and I could be on the stage with no worries, and then I got the concert enthusiasm. But I still worry when I go on a stage. Of course, it’s not a panic fear, I just worry and crave for performing. And there is a world of difference between these two feelings.
Do you feel the audience, which listens to you? Does the audience influence your performing?
The audience can motivate, give more inspiration, excitement, when you feel audience, you’re very thrilled. If you don’t have a contact, it gets more difficult. But it doesn’t influence my interpretation at first hand in any way. Every concert is a different in its own way. It depends on the audience whether it’s harder or easier for you to play.
When was the hardest time for you? Have you ever felt that people don’t perceive your music?
Yes, I have. Long time ago when it was common in the USSR to play concerts at health resorts. I began to work in the philharmonic at 19. There were famous concerts where many musicians took part. Every two days we performed at new places – most often – at different health resorts.
Frequently these establishments had very bad instruments – sometimes even some keys were out of order. That’s why it was impossible to impress everybody by performing. Consequently, when we were playing, someone was listening, someone was chatting. But I did my best to play well. Of course, I couldn’t get any joy of that.
My friends and I have recently been to the Kolonist Winery (the village of Krynychne, Odesa Region). In one of the halls, I saw a gorgeous grand piano. I was very surprised and asked a host Ivan Plachkov what such a luxurious thing was doing there. He answered that had bought it intentionally for Alexey Botvinov. He told that he offered you to impress an unprepared audience with your mastery. He offered to play for simple shepherds from the southern plains of Odesa region.
I managed to do that, anyway I could see in their eyes that they were enjoining. They had a fantastic reaction. At first, I had to make people listen at least for 10 minutes. The grand piano was excellent as well as acoustics, in such conditions music usually has its effect. It doesn’t influence only reserved people. Those people are nice, simple, but unfortunately are not connected with arts. I performed there several times for them.
Was it a challenge for you? Usually you play for people who know what they want to hear.
In some way, of course, it was. Because the audience wasn’t prepared at all. But the instrument is excellent there indeed. The most interesting thing is that this piano is a brother of the piano I have at home – the same model, brand and year. When I was looking for the piano in Odessa I was astonished when I saw this one – it is the twin of mine! Germane, 1935 model by Hoffman. The same size, excellent sound.
How were you preparing for wining over the La Scala audience? Indeed, you are the first Ukrainian who became a director and a performer of a musical part of the best opera in the world.
La Scala audience is one of the best audiences in the world! Obviously, they’ve heard the best pieces of music, they are very demanding. They are famous for not fussing over the musicians: if they don’t like anything, they express it right up front – they can even whistle at opera. What is more, if they don’t like, they just leave. That’s why it is very responsibly and exciting to play there. They wait for top-level performance; they want you to do your best. For me it was a success.
Overall, Milan gives a great attention to La Scala. The whole downtown, every restaurant has posters of the theatre – it is a proper brand. It is interesting that most of the audience is local people, about 3\4th. And they all often visit theatre. Usually they have a subscription. Even children go to the theatre constantly.
The performances for children have impressed me in a great extent. In fact, our ballet is abstract (Bach’s “Goldberg-Variations”), it has no story, this is philosophical – dramatic composition to the Bach’s music. And it’s very difficult. And it lasts without a break – 1,5 hours.
2000 seats of the hall were seated by children from 8 to 16 years. It is a daytime performance. Schools distribute tickets. We thought children would make much noise. But there was a silence during the whole performance, and applause was louder than at the first night.
It was incredible I hadn’t seen anything like that in any other country. Love to classics seems to be passed down there at a genetic level and be brought up since childhood.
I saw those children after the performance, they were truly thrilled. If it had been the “La Traviata” ot the “Carmen”…. But this one is very difficult for perception… Indeed, my hat’s off. A theater for them is really a shrine. I’ve seen things, but it has impressed me a lot.
Obviously, the audience in Milan is brought up since childhood. And this is a good example. From you side you do your best to make Odesa such a cultural center of Ukraine by creating the festival which, without a doubt, can be called the best.
Considering the level of the musicians we host – absolutely.
As for the level of the musicians, there’s even a joke telling that Mr. Botvinov have musicians’ relatives as hostages. Otherwise, how do you “tempt” musicians? Please give some tips on how you manage to bring the best musicians of the world to Odesa in such tough times.
The first year was a challenge. Only a few came. The next year saw those who came due to their friend’s guarantee that they can come here and not be afraid. Then they told that to others and it got easier.
For example, Matthias Goerne, a German superstar, after visiting our festival said to others that everything is good here and they can come as well. Since that, it is easier to persuade others.
The problem is another. We call stars and they have their schedule for years to come. As far as we don’t know our budget in advance, it’s a struggle every time. That’s why we agree beforehand but formally – only one year before.
They don’t work that way, they have everything settled – that’s why we need to persuade and ask, so they can find time, maybe postpone some plans, maybe do something inconvenient for themselves, but come to Odessa anyway. Of course,a my own reputation works out as well as their concern for Odesa. It is because many musicians know our city as legendary for classic music.
First of all – it’s pianists and violinists. For violinists Odesa is the school of Stolyarsky, it’s a real brand worldwide. For pianists it’s Gilels and Richter who are still in the top 5 best world pianists. Therefore, they’re really eager to come. If they have a choice to come to Odesa or Kyiv, they would rather choose Odessa due to our history and heritage. We can use this heritage to build many new things. If I arranged the festival in Kyiv, I wouldn’t succeed so fast. Not speaking about other cities in Ukraine.
I know that insurance instalments can be disturbing because of the war in Ukraine. Are musicians often afraid of the situation?
Yes, insurance is a necessary expense. Of course. It’s not Iraq, but it’s till a war. I don’t want to speak about money, but it’s not simple. The thing is it’s truly harder to bring musicians to Ukraine than to Poland, because it’s a risk, and risks involve expenses.
By the way, before the war you had an incredible in its power and beauty performance “A writer. Elegy” about relationship between a man and a woman during a war. Why have you taken it out of the repertoire? It is quite irrational. It was very far from us then, and today thousands of couples experience this situation… It is now when it’s necessary and you take it out.
After the beginning of our war, I made this project in Switzerland. I perform on the stage, and I couldn’t see keys, I was crying. It is my big pain and I can’t bear it emotionally. When the war is over, I’ll return this project. Now I can’t imagine someone else sitting there on a stage. And I can’t do it. It hurts much. Everyone cried in the hall when there was no war, and now…
I understand that it’s important, but it’s very difficult for me. This project is close to me and as soon as everything ends, I’ll return it. I believe, it is an excellent work – at least sincere.
However, it is vice versa with the festival – when a war starts, such projects are often paused till better times, but you initiate a new musical festival and make it annual and the best in the history of independent Ukraine. How are you going to impress the audience this time? What is essential for visiting?
I’d advice to come for all 10 days (1st-10th June) to those who can or at least for 5 days. Every project is aimed to bring its special message, every day there are engaging events.
Speaking about the main program, I’d advice to attend an interesting, modern program in Urban Music Hall. Some projects will involve more performance and communication with audience. Some projects will leave no one indifferent. There also be some educational events.
For example, Invogue will host the meeting with Sonia Koshkina and Oleh Verhelis – it is always entertaining. There also will be 4 lectures by young impressive musical experts from Kyiv. These lectures are very popular in Kyiv.
As for the price, I must say that tickets are available. There are free performances as well as tickets for 50 hryvnia…
There aren’t many of cheap tickets, but there are some for every concert. It’s cheaper than anywhere, and you only have to come to Odesa, not somewhere to Europe. It is a common experience for Europe to increase prices when there’s a higher demand during the festival. It is much cheaper here, so if you’re keen on I’d truly recommend you to attend the festival.
You have clearly defined the mission of the festival, but you add something new every year. What is this year conception?
Last year we focused on the vital projects. This year it’s about a fresh look at classics.
Several projects show an extraordinary perspective on classics. The project of Daniel Hope and Berlin Chamber Orchestra, all three days will go down in history: June 6th, 7th, 8th.
Berlin orchestra comes to Odessa, and this is an outstanding event because orchestras of high level come to us very rarely. The Vienna Orchestra, which plays a New Year program – is a qualitative product but more for tourists. I can’t even remember when a famous European orchestra came to Odessa last time. This year the orchestra will play 3 days in a row.
So, on June 6th you can’t miss Daniel Hope’s performance with his flagman-project of the last 2 years: Vivaldi classic version and a modern Vivaldi recomposed – it is a matter of a separate talk. It is an attempt to open a brand new direction in the classics. It is kind of remake of Vivaldi. There’s a version of Max Richter with original pieces made in Vivaldi style, no one hasn’t done anything like that before.
This interpretation has brought to the musician many awards and a great recognition in a professional community as well as in unprofessional one. I mean it is a true brand now.
A similar project with Bach is presented by Sebastian Knauer. The program includes a piano, a vibraphone (one of the best vibraphonists in the world Pascal Schumacher from Oksenburg) and a chamber orchestra. You will hear a modern version of Bach. Mr. Schumacher is also multi-awarded for “making classics and bestsellers without borders.” They have recently had concerts in a big hall in Barcelona for 3 days in a row. He’s been performing this program every week for the last 1, 5 year in the best halls of the world. I mean these 2 projects are the hottest new trends.
The third concert of Berlin Orchestra will be held at the Potemkinskaya Staircase. Michael Guttman will be there, Zakhar Bron will play solo. I will play there as well. Free entrance. I believe the audience at the Potemkinskaya Staircase might be entertaining.
On June 2d, the Opera House will host Burhan Ochal with his “Reloaded 2.” It is our joint project. The first part of it we’ve performed in many countries, we’ve had more than 20 concerts, 6 of them in Ukraine. In 2014 and 2015, we performed 2 concerts in Odesa. They were a great success, which was a surprise for me. This program is absolutely new, and I believe very interesting. It was an attempt to make new versions of Mussorgsky, Bach, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov music with an eastern percussion.
Another project is an entertainment by Roby Lakatos. He is an outstanding musician-violinist with a classic higher education. He received awards together with Vengerov and Repin. 15 years ago, England hosted a festival with a bright name “3 greatest violinists in the world.” There were Vengerov, Repin and Lakatos.
Now he plays only entertainment version. He is a representative of Roma dynasty Lakatos, known since Franz Liszt times. The leaders of this dynasty are the main representatives of the Roma violin in the world. He is a fascinating virtuoso with an incredible mastery. His work in pop music is just unbelievable, it impresses even classic stars, what is rare. As a rule, my colleagues take with a mistrust or look down on all the representatives of pop or entertaining music. But when they listen to Laktos, their hats are off, because he is a genius. You can’t miss it!
Let’s move on. Stefan Vladar. Ukraine doesn’t know his name. But he is a leading pianist in Austria. He is also a conductor and artistic director of Vienna Chamber Orchestra. He’s just turned 50 and he has a series of concerts in Vienna this year: 14 concerts in a season where he’s played solo with the orchestra and also conducted. This is incredible that one person has played 14 concerts in one of the best halls in the world. I mean his authority is huge, he is an outstanding well rounded musician. But he isn’t known in Ukraine.
However, I want to present his art to our people.
Dmitri Ashkenazy – a clarinetist – will also perform. He hasn’t played in Ukraine yet. The program is entertaining, I will also take part. There also will be the quartet of hornists. You wouldn’t hear anything like that on our big stage. Wind instruments and a piano have never been together on a big stage. You wouldn’t hear such music nor such a genre. It must be very engaging. It might be more interesting for professionals, but anyway, it is new for our stage.
Andrei Tarkovsky Jr. will present the project in memoriam of his father Andrei Tarkovsky. It will involve video, reading, poems, memories.
It is very special for me. Tarkovsky is a master. He is one of those who impressed me when I was just a teenager and is still very important. As soon as I found out that his son keeps an archive of Tarkovsky and heads the Insitute of Tarkovsky, creates different projects, musical ones in particular, I contacted with him immediately and talked him into coming to our festival.
He has already had a negative experience in the former USSR countries, people let him down there.
Was he afraid of coming exactly to Ukraine?
He is a European, he’s been living in Florence for 30 years. He understands the reality. Vice versa, he wanted to come very much. The problem was whether we could manage to arrange everything at the appropriate level, fulfill the conditions etc.
He lives in the center of Florence in the apartment the government of Italy gave to his father when he had emigrated from the USSR. He has been promoting his father’s work all his life.
The biggest star is Zakhar Bron, isn’t he?
Zakhar Bron is a really special guest. He is a leading violin teacher in the world. He studied at the school of Stolyarsky, here, in Odesa. He is a teacher of Vengerov, Repin, Hope, David Garett and as much as 100 of solo players. I mean he has been number one for 30 years, and there’s just no number two. The number two is far from him. He is a legendary man, who represents Odesa school. For the last time he was in our city 10 years ago, if I’m not mistaken. This year he’s turned 70. We couldn’t fail to invite him. Thanks God, he’s come!
He’ll be playing at the Potemkinskaya Staircase just for free. The next day he is having a meet-the-artist-event and a master class at the school of Stolyarsky for free as well. It is a great event. He is an absolute master.
You present your mission as “Organizers of ODESSA CLASSICS are sure that after every held festival Odessa appears on the map of the leading musical cities of the world with a brighter contour. And formation of new generation of the listeners and audience, who understand and appreciate true art, gives a chance to our city to become the cultural capital of Ukraine.”
A European festival for a European city. Developing a European vector. And what does it mean? It means, first of all, to follow international trends and take this experience. We do love our region. It’s good. But saying that we have all the best can lead us to the boondocks.
For subjective and objective reasons we have lost many things in a cultural sense during the past 20-25 years. We’ve are quite far from Europe. And we should catch up. We should offer the same cultural supply as in Europe. We have to do it in any way. It is very important because we seem to be keen on culture, music, art; our children are also keen on it. But or blood circulation with all the civilized world has been interrupted. It is because we were guided by Russia. Russian stars came to us, people didn’t know others. Now we don’t have it, we’re in a vacuum. I try to show a European vector, to explain that it’s important and we must go there. I hope that my colleagues as well as the government go towards that direction. It is of highly importance.
What prevents people to do it now? What will boost the changes?
I think that the government as well as business must understand the importance of this. We now get on well with the governor of the region. He understands the importance of our festival for Odesa, the region and the country. It’s splendid. I wish it were at other levels as well. It is also important for business elite to understand it.
We have the business community here in Odesa, which supports us and understands the importance of culture. But the most of the business elite representatives aren’t interested in it. They don’t understand that it’s not only for people who come to the Philharmonic. It’s important for the whole community. They just don’t.
We have to change it somehow because it’s highly important for a healthy society. This is what we don’t realize yet. Only some individuals do.
Do you see any positive changes?
Speaking about what I’m very familiar with – about classical music and my native town I can say that the audience has changed: classical concerts attract many young people. By the way, it impresses not only me but absolutely everybody. When our guests-musicians look from the Opera stage and say: “Wow. So many young people – we don’t have so many.” This is beautiful. And very important.
More and more people have been leaving Ukraine these days despite the positive changes. You’re the person who could live in any place in the world you’d want and you’d be in a demand everywhere. Why do you still stay in Ukraine, in Odesa?
It’s my personal, my ideals… I would say idealism. I just think that what I do here is important and the society needs it. I think so. I know that I can do much dependently on circumstances. And this is important for both people and society. Europe, America and Australia could offer me far more comfortable and wealthy living. Without a doubt. But it’s OK with culture there, it’s vivid there.
And as for Odesa, there’s so much to do here, because I realize a powerful potential of the city. But the development really depends. It can develop positively and fast but can also go down to the boondocks. And I, as a person who was born here, want to influence these processes. It is purely my idealistic desire. We’ve been working really hard last 3 years arranging these festivals and etc. It doesn’t make any sense financially. But we believe we can change a cultural climate in the country and it motivates.
The musicians of your level consider work and art the crucial thing. You create a lot of social projects. Don’t you regret your time and strength that solving of ordinary problems takes?
What am I a pianist for? First of all, for myself, I enjoy playing, but also for influencing the community with my playing. I bring my ingenious colleagues to the festival and I’m so excited that some ingenious pianist will come and play due to me and people will get pleasure, enlightenment and so on. This is a very powerful tool for influencing the society. I’m fond of it. I want to change the world for better. These might be posh words, but I do believe that culture is able to change the world for better.
I see how it’s happening abroad. And it has been not less interesting for me than playing my concerts. But of course, it’s absolutely another activity and I haven’t ever thought I would be involved in that but the result is me craving for affecting and making the world better.
Either I play a concert or I create a project. Overall, playing for myself or for my family and friends is good, but I was keen on that when I was teenager. And now I want something more. I want this process of improving.
The biggest festival of classical music in Ukraine – the international music festival ODESSA CLASSICS will last 10 days in 2018 (June 1st-10th). It will introduce to listeners the most famous musicians of contemporary classic stage. A famous Berlin Chamber Orchestra will come to Ukraine for the first time! It will give 3 concerts. Moreover, there also will be performances by headliners of world violin stage – Maxim Vengerov and Roby Lakatos, leading Austria pianist Stefan Vladar, the most famous Brazil- Switzerland cellist Antonio Menses, a Swiss clarinetist virtuoso Dmitri Ashkenazy. As for the violinists Daniel Hope, Michael Guttman and the pianists Sebstian Knauer and Polina Osetinska, Ukrainians know them well. Their concerts at the previous ODESSA CLASSICS festivals were a huge success.
Moreover, the program of the IV ODESSA CLASSICS festival includes exhibitions, literature and cinema events and of course a major open air at the Potemkinskaya Staircase.
Interview by Svitlana Bondar
Photo by Maryna Bandeliuk