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Conductor Igor Blazhkov – about Stravinsky, about modern music, about Shostakovich and about himself

Mravinsky’s pupil Igor Blazhkov, who recently celebrated his eightieth birthday, is known to a whole generation of Soviet music lovers as one of the main propagandists of “new music” in the USSR. He conducted the first performances of Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, Varez, Volkonsky, corresponded with modern composers from all over the world, from Boulez to Stockhausen. As a student, he entered into correspondence with Igor Stravinsky and the first in the Soviet Union to play his music after a long break, and later participated in the preparation of his arrival in 1962.He played a special role in the fate of Valentin Silvestrov and other representatives of the “Kiev avant-garde” – without his lively participation and support, their creative biography would have been completely different.

He was one of the first to take an interest in the library of the Kiev Conservatory with “cabinets with Bach”, a bicentennial archive of old manuscripts of the Berlin Singing Academy, which was transported to the USSR during the war. The foundation included, in addition to the personal archive of Johann Sebastian Bach, and works by other composers of that time. Blazhkov studied it for many years, performing and recording unknown works of the 18th century with the Perpetuum Mobile orchestra.

In 1963-1968 he worked as a conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, from where he was fired for his excessive enthusiasm for the avant-garde. Then he headed the Kiev Chamber Orchestra (1969-1976), the Perpetuum Mobile orchestra (1983-1988) and the GSO of Ukraine (1988-1994). In 2002, he emigrated, lives in Potsdam, where Alexey Munipov met with him.

Below is an interview conducted by Alexei Munipov

– How did it happen that you were so carried away by “new music”? How easy was it in Kiev in the 1950s?
– I was a student of the conducting faculty of the Kiev Conservatory and at first, like all my peers, I listened to Russian romantic music – Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky. But he constantly turned on western radio stations – Warsaw Autumn festival programs were broadcast from Warsaw, there were interesting programs from Zagreb. There they turned the classics of the 20th century – Hindemith, Stravinsky, Onegger. Gradually, I moved from them to the vanguard – Nono, Boulez, Xenakis, Stockhausen. And, naturally, to the New Vienna School. Then, by the way, I became interested in modern painting. There was a new vision in all of this. But most of all I was shocked by Stravinsky, and first of all, “The Rite of Spring”. Which, however, amazes me today. He shocked me so much that in 1957 I tried to conduct a suite from the Firebird at the conservatory. Actually, Stravinsky was then forbidden to perform in the USSR, so I decided to promote this business through the NSO, a scientific and student society, since it encouraged all kinds of independent work of students and was quite independent of the administration. We found the score in the conservative library, together with my first wife painted the voices, a poster was drawn by hand, rehearsals have already begun. But the orchestra musicians – and it was the orchestra of the opera studio – made a terrible noise: what are we playing like that? They ran to the directorate, and the concert was canceled. And I was expelled from the conservatory. Mom saved me by walking around the stations for a long time. They didn’t want to restore me, but they still restored me – they took into account that I was the son of the deceased at the front.
In 1959 there was a state examination for conducting, and I again volunteered to conduct the same suite. I was 23 years old then. For two years, politics softened a little, then every year there was a kind of warming, so this time they allowed me to do what I wanted.

“So you were a very stubborn young man.”
“Yes, not without it.” And, in general, it turned out that I was the first to play Stravinsky in the USSR after a long break. I think the last time he sounded in the Union somewhere in the early 1930s, and by the end of the thirties he was completely prohibited. So his music did not sound in the country for twenty years. After me, I know, someone played one of his little suites in Leningrad, but closer to his official tour, his works began to be performed in many cities. Just at that time, Ukrainians from Canada were studying at the conservatory. I was very friendly with one of them and handed him a letter to Stravinsky, without an address. He asked – find out the address, write it and send it. Which was done.

– Did you have the feeling that you were doing something revolutionary? And at the same time dangerous – after all, you have already been expelled from the conservatory for Stravinsky?
– Neither one nor the other. In general, then, I must say, I was an absolutely fearless person. I do not know why. There was no danger for me, or rather, I somehow did not take it into account – I simply did not feel it, I did not imagine it. Played, performed, that’s all. Of course, I understood what I was doing. Stravinsky is an emigrant, everyone around is watching: both the Ministry of Culture and the Union of Composers. I remember Kabalevsky’s absolutely outrageous articles in “Soviet Music”: supposedly, Stravinsky is a catholic old man pushing decadent ideas in his writings. I remember all this very well. But I’m not that … There was no special challenge.

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