Master baton-wielder Tugan Sokhiev tells Christopher Morley how he has taken the rough with the smooth.
The much-acclaimed, award-winning combination of the Orchestre National du Capitol de Toulouse and its gifted young conductor Tugan Sokhiev visits Symphony Hall on Sunday at the end of a tour taking in several venues throughout the British Isles, including Dublin, Manchester, Reading, Cardiff and Sheffield. This concluding concert is the only one to include in its programme Saint-Saens’ ‘Organ’ Symphony, which is a huge tribute both to the Symphony Hall organ and to its player-in-chief, Thomas Trotter.
Tugan Sokhiev’s name will certainly ring a bell with followers of Welsh National Opera, who will remember his short-lived tenure as music director of the company a decade ago. Our sympathies went out at that time to someone so little experienced who had been persuaded to take on a post which had been filled by such luminaries in the past as Richard Armstrong, Charles Mackerras and Carlo Rizzi, and having to assume authority over a bunch of musos as grizzled as so many long-serving organisations are. Apparently the appointment came about after one of the WNO bigwigs of the time had seen him conduct a performance of ‘La Boheme’ in Iceland.
“I was young,” reflects the Ossetian conductor, “I had less experience than I have today. It’s one of those things where the chemistry probably didn’t work. It was a painful but useful experience at the same time. I think both parties learned a lot of things.”
But even during that painful period Tugan was already achieving great things orchestrally, including, as I remember, a wonderful concert with the Philharmonia at the Three Choirs Festival.
“I’m glad you enjoyed that concert - in fact in Worcester in 2002. It was my debut with the Philharmonia. I stepped in at very short notice to conduct Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony.
“I had heard the orchestra in concert but never conducted them – it was a revelation – to my mind one of the greatest orchestras in the world. I now conduct them every season and I’ve been back to the Three Choirs Festival with them, which is a great privilege.”
During these intervening ten years Tugan Sokhiev has achieved huge success in both operatic and orchestral fields. Does he have a preference (if he was forced to choose), or does he follow the example of many conductors, Gustav Mahler at the head of them, who have managed to juggle the demands of both?
“I continue to do both,” he replies. “Next season I will take up my job as music director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and I will work with the Vienna Phil, Leipzig Gewandhaus and Chicago orchestras.
Next month I’m conducting ‘Boris Godunov’ at the Vienna State Opera, and I conduct opera regularly in Toulouse too: earlier this season we did ‘Tosca’ together.”
In the great scheme of conductors’ life-spans, Tugan Sokhiev is still a mere stripling. In response to a question I have asked of many young baton-wielders, he tells me how he handles the tricky situation of standing up for the first time in front of a mass of musicians whose experience began before he was born. His response is a serious one.
“First and foremost I listen. With any orchestra, I must hear how they play, how they listen to each other - that’s always my starting point.
Then I can begin to work out where to shape things, to make suggestions, to bring additional stylistic elements to their performance. I studied with the late, great conducting teacher Ilya Musin (St Petersburg-based, and guru to so many of today’s great conducting talents -- the Finn Jorma Panula is the other) who taught great wisdom, as well as technique, in these matters.
“With my musicians in Toulouse, they give me energy, I give them energy… it’s a great exchange! They play Russian music with incredible style, because they are completely open and ready to accept new ideas. But other repertoire too.
“There is fierce musical enthusiasm which means we can work together to achieve some extremely memorable experiences.”
This will be Tugan Sokhiev’s first return to Birmingham since the Welsh National Opera experience, and he is thrilled to be coming back.
“It’s absolutely extraordinary! But the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse has never been here before, even though we tour internationally each year, so I am delighted to be able to show this wonderful orchestra to audiences all around the UK and Ireland.”
Would he like an invitation to conduct the CBSO?
“As for the CBSO – another wonderful UK orchestra!”
* Tugan Sokhiev conducts the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse in Berlioz (Overture ‘Le Carnaval Romain’, Rachmaninov ‘Symphonic Dances’ and ‘Saint-Saens’ ‘Organ Symphony’, with City Organist Thomas Trotter) at Symphony Hall on April 1, at 3pm. Details on 0121 780 3333.