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

Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Life and Style
Chen Mao recovers in BK Hospital, Seoul
health
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff