Soviet conductor who dramatically defected to the US
Monday 31 October 2005
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.
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