Viktor Fedotov

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Viktor Fedotov, conductor: born Novoalexandrovka, Soviet Union 9 July 1933; People's Artist of Russia 1977; married (one son, one daughter): died Moscow 3 December 2001.

During the last two decades, Viktor Fedotov became a star among the newer generation of ballet fans who were discovering the Kirov Ballet (now the Maryinsky Ballet) in London seasons that had resumed after a long absence.

Fedotov did not share the visibility of the dancers on stage; he was tucked in the orchestra pit, a gaunt back view in a black tailcoat topped by a head of very thick, very straight white hair. Yet for every second you knew he was there. He reminded you that a great dance performance cannot exist without great music playing. Tchaikovsky's ballet scores may be familiar to the point of near-hackneydom, but Fedotov made them swell with a drama and sing with a soul that gave them fresh life. It was a whole-heartedness that marked Fedotov out as a true Russian musician. "In my family, for 400 years everybody plays music," he told Louise Levene in a 1997 interview in The Independent. "Music is my life, not my profession."

He had come a long way from his beginnings in Novoalexandrovka, a small village in the Tartar republic where he was born in 1933, one of 12 children. By the age of four he was playing the balalaika, accordion and guitar. His elder brother Ivan, an air force pilot, musician, composer and poet, took Viktor's musical education in hand and, by eight, Viktor Fedotov was also playing the oboe, trombone and other brass instruments.

His break as a conductor came when he was 15, playing solo oboe with a military orchestra. During Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony the conductor collapsed with a heart attack and when they asked "Who can carry on?", Fedotov put his hand up. He went on to the Leningrad Conservatoire where he graduated twice: first from the orchestral faculty in 1956, then from the opera and symphony conducting faculty in 1963 where he studied with the distinguished teacher Ilya Musin. At the Conservatoire they had decided where his future lay. Fedotov recalled:

They say "You must be a conductor", but I say, "No, I am a composer." But then, seeing many, many scores, beautiful scores: Brahms, Bellini. I know that I cannot write the same. And so I am a conductor. At the Conservatoire I conduct Carmen without score, Onegin without score.

On 26 May 1963 he entered the All-Union Competition for Conductors at the Maryinsky Theatre and came first out of 57 contenders. His capacity for conducting from memory singled him out to the Kirov Ballet's director Konstantin Sergeyev and his wife, the prima ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya. "When they see me they say, 'He can conduct without score! He is very important for ballet.' " A conductor who doesn't bury his head in the sheets of paper, but instead watches the stage is ideal news for dancers. Dancers are not machines able to follow any metronome-time imposed on them. It is crucial that a conductor should accept that dancers' sex, height, physique and temperament will affect the speed at which they can fit the steps to the music.

Fedotov was not one of those rigidly uncompromising conductors who believe that ballet creates havoc on a score: "Tchaikovsky never expected a metronome for ballet. In symphony, yes. Why is rubato in opera OK and not in ballet?" Over the years he honed this pragmatic understanding to a fine art. He helped the children of the famous Vaganova Ballet Academy prepare for their graduation performances, which meant that if they were accepted into the Kirov he was already fully sensitive to their styles. It was even said that he could judge how a dancer would dance just by looking at their body.

In 1964, by now a conductor with the Kirov Theatre, Fedotov toured North America. He worked with 16 different orchestras and at one point conducted 12 performances in 10 days. "Cauchemar!," was his description. "When I went to America my hair was black, but after America I was white."

Also in 1964 he made his début with the Royal Opera House Orchestra and over the years he was to conduct the Royal Ballet's Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Bayadère, Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The richly contrasted textures of his Tchaikovsky interpretations, the craggy swell of sound in his Prokofiev readings were startling to British ears. Just as the opening bars sounded and I'd remember I hadn't checked the conductor's name, I'd sit up, realising there was an exceptional presence in the pit, different from the usual Royal Ballet roll-call.

At the Maryinsky Theatre Fedotov had over 40 operas and ballets in his conducting repertoire. This vast range owed much to his appetite for work and phenomenal concentration, abilities he learnt from his brother Ivan whose skills included being employed as a hypnotist by the Russian army. From 1974 to 1976 Fedotov was the chief conductor of the Maryinsky Theatre. In 1977 he became a Professor at the Leningrad (now St Petersburg) Conservatoire. He travelled widely not only to conduct with the Kirov but to guest with orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony, the Tokyo Philharmonic and the Barcelona Liceo.

His gave his last UK performances in 1997, playing with the Royal and the Kirov ballets. I saw him last year at the Opera Bastille, for the Paris Opera Ballet's Nutcracker. Sitting near the pit, I was thrilled to recognise that skinny back, as if I was finding an old friend. At the end I could see his genuine warmth as he thanked some of the players and his jolly camaraderie when he joined dancers for the final bows.

Nadine Meisner