Cultural Question : an interview with Nikolai Lugansky

Originally transmitted on 1 March 2004 on Radio Mayak
Translated from the original Russian by volunteers

Marina Perelshina: Hello. Our names are Marina Pereleshina and Grigory Zaslavsky. Our guest is Nikolai Lugansky.

Grigory Zaslavsky: The pianist.

M.P. Yes. I just wanted to say that the reasons for our meeting are the concerts that recently took place at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Today we shall speak about future and past concerts, about the modern school of piano and the life of a pianist in present-day Russia. Before the programme we were discussing when - at which moment - we should put on the recording and listen to classical music. We felt that nowadays, a whole three minutes of classical music in an afternoon are quite ridiculous. So, we decided to talk about how - in what context - classical music should be presented in our time. Even when a special radio station is created, it tends to present the classics under a certain dressing, so to speak, with some kind of additive. What are your thoughts on it ?

G.Z. And quite recently I mentioned that at concerts of the symphonic music they use lights that flash and flicker. They say that it is a better way to show the concert on TV, that it is more interesting.

Nikolai Lugansky: Yes, it happened at a couple of my concerts, I remember. Quite annoying…

G.Z. Is this done without the consent of the musician?

N.L. You know, they really meant it as a much more beautiful way to show the concert. This is not so terrible, but I had gotten used to playing without the lights.
I think you have raised a serious question: how classical music is presented. There really is such a tendency. Of course, it is brought about by the demands of modern people, but it is the complete opposite of that process of listener-education which took place, for instance, during the 20’s and 30’s in our country. Back then, the position was like this: the listener is the main participant of the concert - and this is the truth. He takes part in creating a kind of common artistic product.
Classical music consists of the music itself, the performer and only one listener: one listener hears it this way, another - that way. This is the biggest difference between a classical concert and a rock concert. There is never only one listener at a rock-concert; there is a mass, a crowd which, regardless of the intellectual, cultural level of the people within it, will react the same way. I can tell you that, because I have attended rock concerts, and I remember myself, other people: the reaction is the same because it is induced by a physiological effect. A classical concert is quite another thing. Each person hears his own way: someone may not hear anything at all, while another may get the greatest enjoyment of his life. That is why the important thing is a relationship with a listener.
And I find that the logic underlying the promotion of classical music about 70 years ago was such: a man must educate and improve himself in order to reach the summit of listening skill. This is a kind of labour, but as a result of that labour, a person gains incredible spiritual enjoyment.
Nowadays, the position is somewhat different: we live in market economies. We have to earn money, and we need a certain mass audience that we can influence. Certainly, this is a position I like less. In this situation the listener is required to work far less, and this seems attractive to certain people. They are sitting, doing nothing and being immersed in a kind of “culture”… They are not required to do anything, and some things get into them, some things don’t get in. It’s for relaxation, for leisure. Although there is a light genre within music that fulfills that role, it is only a very small part of music. But its biggest part: symphonic, quartet, piano, vocal – requires a very strong emotional and intellectual response from the listener. The listener is required to work during the concert. And apparently, this scares the people who create new forms of classical music promotion, when they consider that the listener might not do the work and just might not go to the concert. It means that he needs to be entertained. That is why plenty of entertaining features are being created which - in the view of proponents of that genre - will help people to hear the music. I don’t agree with that. I believe in the listener. I think that he is capable of listening to a Bruckner symphony without any hints and gimmicks.

M.P. We definitely won’t have enough time to listen to a Bruckner symphony, but let’s try to achieve this through a short composition. What are we going to listen to?

N.L. I’d like to listen to the Moment Musical in E minor by Sergei Rachmaninov, probably my favorite composer…


M.P. Nikolai, when you speak of education of the public, do you mean to say that education is not a single action? When a child is forced to go to a concert after school and he falls asleep there, no progress is made. So, what must the process of education consist of?

N.L. I think that education can and must be restored, and I hope it will be. There are many methods that are known in our country and in European countries… Now I can say I spend most of my life giving concerts in European countries.

G.Z. Do you have a manager out there?

N.L. Naturally: every pianist giving concerts all over the world has an impresario.

Do you mean, it’s impossible to concern yourself with such matters?

N.L. It is possible, but this is another business – why should I be distracted? I prefer paying a percentage of my salary to a person who organizes my schedule and conducts negotiations.

M.P. Let's return to our conversation…

N.L. I can see great progress in Europe. In the last 20 years there has been great success, for instance, in France. There are several factors: the standard of living, political stability, high aspirations and amazing enthusiasts. In France, Rene Martin, who as a young man was Richter’s impresario, organizes festivals in the small town of Nantes, where, over three or four days, 300 concerts of classical music take place in one building – without any advertising, without any DJs… And attendance is almost 100%. This is a fantastic rate! The performances are held from 9 AM until midnight with 20-25 minute breaks. The tickets are not free. And our Philharmonic Society, with which I’d like to collaborate as long as possible, must look into these things.
I should no longer speak of the method that was practiced during the Soviet era, when factory workers, soldiers or noisy children were forced to go to concerts in provincial cities. Of course, a musician feels uncomfortable himself when he realizes that these people didn’t come in a spirit of goodwill and don’t want to listen. But on the other hand, I believe that among these 100 forced listeners there must have been 10, 15, maybe even 30 who would have been astounded, and afterwards they would have come to the concerts themselves. In every part of the world there will always be people for whom this will be one of the most important discoveries in their lives. We need for this to happen, and it is not so difficult to achieve.

G.Z. How do you contribute to the promotion of the classical music when you schedule tour plans with The Philharmonic Society?

N.L. Mostly, we talk about which concertos I will play. But I am speaking of the global practice. I think that it is necessary to involve as many performers as possible. There are stars – people  who are well-known after several TV shows. These people will not have the desire or even the time - quite understandably - to play on summer stages for a company of soldiers. But there are a lot of remarkable young musicians who are prepared to play in the afternoon for a small fee. These people, who are not stars yet, must be concerned not only with their own popularity, but also with the education of the generation that will attend concerts over the next 10, 20, 30 years.

G.Z. And who are the stars in your field nowadays, and do you think you’re a star?

N.L. I can’t assess this myself, and I won't give an answer.

G.Z. But pianists like to put it this way: there are many “firsts”, but I am only “second”…

N.L. To speak about numerals is quite absurd because, you see... take tennis, football and chess - I love to play all of them - and that is where we can speak of “firsts”, “seconds” and “thirds”. But pianists don’t have “firsts”, “seconds” and “thirds”. There are several “gods” – it is better to speak of the deceased: Rachmaninov, the great Michelangeli, Richter, Gilels, Nikolaeva (my teacher). And today, speaking of “first and second” is nonsense. The music sounds at the moment: it is a sacrament. And saying that this priest is first and that one is almost a bronze medalist is ridiculous. As for stars, I think the brightest ones in our country are Pletnev and Sokolov, who rarely perform in Moscow…one concert a season. But I know young students or graduates who are very good musicians and who want to perform as much as possible. And in such cases the Philharmonic Society must pay much more attention to them than to the stars. The stars can draw a full hall by themselves.

M.P. A good example of that is Nikolai Petrov. He brings the young musicians on the stage.

N.L. There are a lot of professors doing so - Vladimir Krainev, for example. I think that, in this situation, the Philharmonic Society should play the part of a supreme judge. At least, there must be something that stands above personal interests. In my capacity as a teacher, my duty and overwhelming desire would be to help my own disciples. But at the Philharmonic Society there must be people who attend all the conservatory concerts and have an objective view of the young musicians.

M.P. What do you think are the conditions that the stylization of classical music must meet to avoid spoiling musical taste?

N.L. If I hear the great music that is accompanied by a disco beat, frankly, it is annoying to me. Of course, I won’t show it in public.

G.Z. Maybe, there is a kind of musical sense in that. Do you play rock yourself?

M.P. And what about jazz?

N.L. Sometimes…I like bossa nova. I play some things by Jobim. But I mean that if, for example, a great composition by Bach is accompanied - without particular skill - by a drum and a couple of modern instruments, it makes the listener’s life easier for a moment. But a listener who is hearing this music for the first time is deprived of the chance to listen to music which is more difficult to grasp.
I think that the question of interpretation is separate. A musician’s work on a piece is a certain mutual life, which passes through several stages. This is an extremely complex process – like a relationship, or like the life of a plant. And if someone cannot think of anything else apart from audience reaction, I think that's unnatural and cannot be associated with high art. If a relationship exists between the music and the musician, then it may yield remarkable results - or it may not - but this is an organic process. But if someone is just seeking an effect - more applause from the audience or a reaction from the critics -  then I pity that person; to me, this is a kind of regression.

M.P. Where is it easier for you to live and work? Where are you most in demand?

N.L. Of course, we are more in demand in places where more listeners reside, and where they want to hear us. You see, if Amsterdam has a population of 750,000, and in the Concertgebouw, five or six classical concerts are held every Sunday (prices are higher than in Moscow), and these concerts are well-attended, then it could be said that the demand for classical music is much higher in Amsterdam that even London, not to mention Moscow. There are a lot of people on the planet, and I try to cover as many countries as possible when planning my tour schedule. In Russia I play 8-10% of my concerts. And this is normal.

G.Z. 8-10 % …how many concerts is that?

N.L. I play about 80 concerts a year, and 10-12 in Russia.

M.P. How many hours do you have to practice each day?

N.L. I would like to practice for four hours a day. But this is unrealistic, especially in Moscow. Sometimes I don’t practice here at all. It's easier to practice on tour. Life is much more regulated out there.

The Nikolai Lugansky Website