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
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk