Upbeat and unbowed

The conductor Ilya Musin makes his British debut at 92. But he's not bitter - he's got time on his side. By Annette Morreau
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The Independent Culture
Conductors are renowned for their longevity, but making a debut at 92 . . ? Ilya Musin, the "maestro of maestros", has been "discovered" at the very end of his life - or rather, "discovered in the West", since his existence has been known for decades in the former Soviet Union.

Musin is that rare creature, a conductors' pedagogue. A tyrant among tyrants? Certainly not, according to one of his few Western students, Martyn Brabbins. "He's the most modest man I've ever met. He taught me that modesty and humility are the most important qualities for a conductor." Unlikely perhaps, but then what could be more unlikely than someone teaching at the same establishment for 60 years?

The Leningrad, or St Petersburg, "school" of conducting has been shaped in Musin's image: his list of successful students reads like a Who's Who of the world's conductors: Yuri Temirkanov (St Petersburg and Royal Philharmonic orchestras), Valery Gergiev (Kirov Opera and Rotterdam Philharmonic), Viktor Fedotov (Kirov Ballet), Jakov Kreizberg (Bournemouth Symphony), Semyon Bychkov (Orchestre de Paris), Sian Edwards (ex-English National Opera) and Martyn Brabbins (BBC Scottish and Sinfonia 21).

Last October, Musin came to England to give conducting masterclasses at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. This was his third visit to the Academy in as many years, but the first to arouse any wider attention. Besieged by journalists, Musin seemed quietly bemused that, at this late stage in life, so many people were fussing around him. A quiet, courteous man, Musin is physically more in the Monteux than the Mahler mould. Talking to him is rather like consulting a living history book.

No, he had not met Khachaturian - he lived in Moscow; nor Rachmaninov - he had already left Russia in 1906. But he had attended an official banquet given for Prokofiev on one of his return visits, as well as concerts conducted by Knappertsbusch, Bruno Walter and Klemperer in Leningrad in the 1920s. "They had so much to say. They were so much more expressive than today's generation."

Musin was born in January 1904 in a small town on the banks of the Volga, 350 kilometres from Moscow. He did not come from a musical family - his father mended watches, his mother died when he was six. But in 1919, at the age of 16, never having heard an orchestra in his life, he entered the St Petersburg Conservatory and there, in effect, he has remained ever since. He went in as a pianist but injured his hands practising in the cruel cold of the unheated Conservatory. By default he became the first student in the Conservatory's first conducting class, led by the legendary Nikolay Malko. A year later, Musin's rival-to-be, Yevgeny Mravinsky, also completed the course.

At the time, there was level pegging between the two of them artistically, and both became assistant conductors of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Then, in 1937, while Musin was on tour with the Leningrad orchestra, he accepted an invitation to become music director of the Minsk Philharmonic. He was not to know that, just one year later, the position of principal conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic would become vacant. Mravinsky got the job. Was it bad luck, bad timing or something else?

Musin has never held a top conducting position with a major orchestra or opera house. "I'm sure he could have been a major conductor if he'd seen the opportunities," says Sian Edwards, his first student from the West. But her remark begs questions: did Musin really have the drive required? Was being Jewish a factor? Musin insists, perhaps too readily, that his career has not been affected by race or religion; but, as his interpreter (and pupil) Daniel Boico observes, despite Musin's denial, all Jews suffered difficulties in the Soviet Union.

Among Musin's fellow students at the St Petersburg Conservatory was Dmitry Shostakovich. But beyond watching rehearsals at the Philharmonic together, they don't seem to have been special friends. Musin mentions only one occasion when he was in the apartment of Rimsky-Korsakov's nephew and Shostakovich sat down at the piano to play the first two movements of his epoch-making First Symphony. Musin "supervised" the wartime premiere of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony with a much-depleted Leningrad Philharmonic in 1941, but it was Mravinsky, not he, who premiered the composer's Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and 10th symphonies.

Sian Edwards insists that Musin is not a bitter man. Certainly, his position as a conducting mentor is virtually unique. But why are there so few? "All of them want to conduct. None of them bothered to think about the problems of pedagogy, as I did," Musin himself remarks. Undoubtedly true, but what is there to teach? Can't any musician become a conductor? "It's a very special gift. Rostropovich, for instance, is a very great musician, but his conducting is on a much lower level than his musicianship. He was very badly taught. The last time I saw him," Musin chuckles, "he said he wanted to study with me."

Edwards first heard about Musin while attending the Kondrashin conducting course in Hilversum in 1981. Neeme Jarvi, another product of the Leningrad school, was taking the course and, while Edwards admits that she couldn't really understand what Jarvi was trying to teach, she did think that his style, with its grace, fluidity and power, was very impressive. "Naturally, I practise five hours a day," Jarvi told Edwards, who was flabbergasted at the idea that conducting was something you could practise at all.

As Edwards says of her student days at the Royal Northern College of Music: "At the end of my five years, I could do all the things expected of young British conductors - fix orchestras, put on concerts and so on - but I couldn't sense the connection, when I stood in front of the band, between my hands and the music."

Edwards studied with Musin for two years from 1983. "His technique is based on circular movements; whereas, in Britain, we tend to approach conducting by beating out bars up and down, very vertically. Musin says that the only way you can show a beat is how you move towards a certain point in the air and how you move away from it. There's no point in stabbing the air - people can't get hold of that. Everything's in the upbeat. As amateurs in Britain, we would say 'How's your downbeat?'; whereas Musin would say 'How's your upbeat?' Everybody who comes through the Leningrad School has an ease and release at high points, rather than getting tighter and tenser. Certainly in Beethoven, at a big moment, Musin would be at his most relaxed, whereas I would be getting more and more wound up. It was a wonderful revelation to me that conducting could have this element of tension and release as implied in the music."

Brabbins, like Edwards a winner of the Leeds Conducting Competition, studied with Musin from 1986 to 1988. For him, he says, it was back to basics. "In my first lesson, he gave me one of his three conducting books, and at the back were pages of conducting exercises, short rhythms without pitches, like studies for any other instrument. I practised these for weeks and weeks."

As he began his masterclasses in London last October, Musin was gentle but stern: "Conducting could be regarded as simple, but it's very difficult. Something difficult is only something we don't know. You must know what you are looking for and what you want to achieve. You must show the meaningful content and connection between the beats. You must know the shape of a phrase and prepare for it. You must know the dynamics of a musical structure and the emotion. A conductor can never conduct being neutral."

So how will this admired pedagogue be received by the RPO when he makes his belated British debut next week? Sian Edwards laughs: "It will be like Otto Klemperer coming back."

n Ilya Musin conducts Mozart, Prokofiev and Rimsky-Korsakov with the RPO, Sat 17 Feb, 7.30pm Barbican, EC1 (0171-638 8891)

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