Tugan Sokhiev reflects on Russian tradition | Music | DW | 26.04.2012
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Tugan Sokhiev reflects on Russian tradition

Conductor Tugan Sokhiev now heads the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester (DSO) Berlin. He talked with DW about learning music at the end of the Soviet era, and how his past finds its way into his work.

Berlin's Deutsches Symphonie Orchester, known for its unusual programs, is headed for a few seasons heavily spiced with music from Eastern European composers from Romantic to modern, including some discoveries somewhat off the beaten track. That thematic focus, the programs of the 2012/13 season and the orchestra's new principal conductor were introduced in Berlin in April 2012. Conductor Tugan Sokhiev "speaks the language," having been born in Vladikavkaz, capital of the southern Russian Republic of North Ossetia. Sokhiev studied in St. Petersburg under Ilya Musin, founder of a Russian school of conducting. Apart from his activities with the DSO and other major orchestras and operas, the conductor in his mid-thirties is currently at the helm of the Orchester National du Capitole de Toulouse. Sokhiev spoke with DW about his background and plans in Berlin.

DW: You came of age around the end of the Soviet Union. Did you profit from the absolutely stellar music education that they had?

Tugan Sokhiev: I was studying at the end of 80s, beginning of the 90s. And I absolutely benefitted from this wonderful education. Education is free in Russia: it was, and it still is. With a concentration of fantastic teachers, and people are very passionate about it. As long as you wanted to study something in music or in anything else, you had the chance of getting the best education in that area.

Conductor Tugan Sokhiev

Sokhiev: the DSO takes a broader view of the standard repertoire

What do you bring from those studies into your current activities?

I think the basic thing that I learned when I was a student and very young was that the music and the composer is what you serve first, before you look at yourself. You serve music, and you are there for music and for composers. And for the public.

Was there or is there a specific Russian tradition? Is it something that you carry with you today?

I started travelling outside of Russia at quite early stages, so I didn't have a lot of influence from Russia. I mean, I'm aware of Russian traditions. There is a good tradition, and there is a bad tradition, and sometimes what people consider tradition is just a collection of bad habits.

But what we can talk about is a cultural tradition in Russia: the tradition of musical upbringing and the tradition of musical culture overall - the greatest composers who came out of pre-revolutionary Russia, and the Soviet period with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, et cetera. I'm very much aware of that tradition, and it is something I try to champion.

How does that tradition enter into your plans in the next few years with the DSO?

That's one of our directions that we want to take in terms of the repertoire.

There are many interesting composers that people know here in the West. Apart from their most famous works, even the very famous composers wrote some lesser known music which deserves to be performed and heard as well. So this will be one of our missions: to present this "new" old music.

When people think of Berlin and music, they think of the Berlin Philharmonic, which you have also conducted. What role or voice does the DSO have in Berlin's musical scene?

The DSO has a very unique place in Berlin. First of all, it's an orchestra with a particular type of audience - who always expects to be artistically challenged in how you present the repertoire and which music you present.

It's an orchestra that takes very brave steps towards presenting the music and that thinks outside the box. We perform the standard repertoire, but we try to broaden our vision a bit. And we try to widen our public. We also need to think about future generations, about people who are maybe not so educated in this musical field. How do we attract the younger generation, and how do we bring more new audiences to this? By doing a very wide range of repertoire but in a very good quality, that's one of the key elements.

We have a series of casual concerts. The tickets are very cheap at 10 euros ($13) per ticket, and anybody can come - there is no dress code. The concert takes about an hour, and the conductor who is performing does a little bit of explanation, making the music more accessible. I think we can attract more audiences this way.

The DSO on stage at the Berlin Philharmonie

The DSO on stage at the Berlin Philharmonic

Is it possible to say there's one or several composers you feel particularly passionate about?

It's difficult to say because I love so many composers. It depends on the period of my life, on the particular season. I think Prokofiev will be the highlight of my next season with DSO. I think something as strong and powerful as the oratorio "Ivan the Terrible" will show the best of Prokofiev and why I really love this composer.

Mentally, Prokofiev challenges you. You really need to work hard, to turn your brain on to understand his music when it goes very serious. On the other hand, Prokofiev is one of those composers, like Rachmaninoff, who could write very beautiful music. Sometimes people say that Prokofiev was not very lyrical, but he wrote some of the best lyrical music. I think it's just a question of having a habit of listening to his music and getting accustomed to his language.

Interview: Rick Fulker
Editor: Greg Wiser

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