Vakhtang Jordania

Soviet conductor who dramatically defected to the US

The escape of the Georgian-born conductor Vakhtang Jordania to the West at the height of the Cold War had all the ingredients of a Harry Lime thriller: KGB heavies, love-story, family turmoil, high art mixed with intrigue, danger laced with farce - the very stuff of Hollywood melodrama. Instant acclaim in the United States should have led to the prestigious appointments his talent merited; that they were slow to come meant that at his early death from cancer - he was 62 - Jordania's potential was only partly realised. He did, though, have the satisfaction of being welcomed back to his former Soviet fiefdoms as a conquering hero.

Jordania, born in Tbilisi, began his musical training at the piano as a five-year-old but an orchestral concert at the age of nine convinced him he wanted to be a conductor. After graduating from the Tbilisi Conservatoire, he continued his studies - in orchestral and operatic conducting - at the Leningrad Conservatoire, where the conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, the tough Yevgeny Mravinsky, was impressed enough to appoint him his assistant, a post he held for three years.

International acclaim came in 1971 when Jordania carried off the first prize in the Herbert von Karajan conducting competition in Berlin. The Soviet authorities were delighted when their citizens came home with gongs snatched from under Western noses. Jordania was granted the music directorships of the Leningrad Radio, Saratov Philharmonic and Kharkov Philharmonic orchestras; with guest appearances elsewhere, he was conducting well over a hundred concerts every year, appearing with soloists of the calibre of Emil Gilels, David and Igor Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan. He also worked with Dmitri Shostakovich and Kirill Kondrashin.

But he was soon to find the life oppressive, despite the creature comforts. Unable to communicate with Western colleagues, circumscribed in his musical diet (even Stravinsky scores were frowned upon, he felt imprisoned. A chink appeared in the Iron Curtain. In 1980 he had been asked to prepare the violinist Viktoria Mullova for the Sibelius Competition in Helsinki - and she won it. Mullova and Jordania began a relationship, and often talked of defection, even though he would have had to leave his second wife and the children of both his marriages. When the KGB gave Mullova their approval for a tour of Finland in summer 1983 - but banned her usual accompanist from travelling - their opportunity had come. Jordania, no virtuoso pianist, somehow managed to get himself accredited as her accompanist, and off they went.

Predictably enough, the critics shouted Mullova's name and lobbed insults at Jordania's pianism - which played into the hands of the would-be escapees. In a hotel near the Swedish border, Mullova explained to the KGB minder that Jordania was "very depressed" by the adverse reviews and would he mind leaving them alone. They then hurried out of the hotel, took a taxi over the border and a flight to Stockholm.

This is when the plot takes on a touch of farce. It was Sunday when they arrived, so the American embassy, where they had intended to ask for political asylum, was closed. And it was then 3 July, the embassy stayed closed for the Monday holiday, too. The Swedish police had the answer: lying low in blonde wigs until the embassy opened its doors again.

Musical America did not throw itself at Jordania's feet, and there was also a language barrier. He made an early appearance in New York, conducting the American Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall that November. The New York Times reported that "the full house leaped to its feet". None the less, he had to take whatever freelance dates he could to fill his diary, criss-crossing America, travelling across Europe and on to Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.

An appointment as the first music director of the relatively modest Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra and Opera in 1985 gave him a base. He earned local affection (one of the musicians described him as "a sort of Russian Sean Connery"), he improved standards, pulled in soloists of the standard of the violinist Itzhak Perlman and flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and gave a platform to promising young musicians. He remained in Chattanooga until 1992, after which he made his home in Virginia.

By now, the Soviet Union was no more, and Jordania was free to return. He conducted widely there, especially in opera. And it was back in Kharkov - Kharkiv in Ukrainian - that he made a particular impact, to the extent that the Vakhtang Jordania Conducting Competition was set up in his honour in 2001. Michael Mishra, the British, Illinois-based, conductor who won the Grand Prize in 2003, was struck by the fact that, even 20 years since his departure from the Kharkov Philharmonic, Jordania seemed to be very much the "principal mover and shaker in the city's musical life". Mishra found his conducting had

a sense of total control and alertness all contained within a technique and personal demeanour that on the surface looked almost casual. His ability to galvanise and electrify an orchestra with deceptively casual gestures reminded me of certain other Russian/Soviet conductors - Temirkanov, or the idiosyncratic Svetlanov on one of his better days.

Jordania's recording career got off to a spasmodic start but had already earned him three Grammy nominations. He died at an age when most conductors are merely getting into their stride.

Martin Anderson

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - Scotland

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - North East Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - South West Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas