10th anniversary Odessa Classics

21 March 2024

The music of great composers tells about man's love for freedom and life, it resists totalitarianism and war, pianist Alexey Botvinov is sure about it.

In 2015, he held the first festival of classical music Odessa Classics in Odessa. The event has become annual and international. Daniel Hope, Evgeny Kissin, Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell, Maxim Vengerov, Mischa Maisky, Matthias Goerne, Thomas Hampson, chamber orchestras of Zurich, Berlin and Brussels performed at the festival. Despite Russia's aggression against Ukraine, the festival is alive. In 2024, Odessa Classics will be held for the tenth time.

Alexey Botvinov, pianist and founder of the Odessa Classics festival, told Radio Liberty about how music helps Ukraine's victory and democracy.

The stars have their tours scheduled for years to come. How do you manage to gather the brightest ones for the festival?

I have been performing concerts for thirty years and I know many musicians personally. Various headliners of violin music told me that in the 20th century the violin school of Pyotr Solomonovich Stolyarsky in Odessa was the strongest in the world. And pianists immediately remember Emil Gilels and the Richter family, whose fates are also connected with Odessa. Virtuoso violinist Michael Gutmann played in Odessa. I went to his concert, he went to mine. We've been friends for fifteen years. I met Daniel Hope in Zurich, and played together for the first time in Odessa.
In 2016, Hope became the head of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra. And I've been playing with this team for many years.
In the second half of the 2000s, we had a big tour of China, playing eight concertos by Mozart and Shostakovich. Each concert during the tour of Asia ended with a standing ovation. Perhaps that's why when my wife Elena and I (she's the general director and I'm the artistic director of the festival) invited the Zurich Chamber Orchestra to Odessa, they immediately agreed.
And Misha Maisky, Vadim Repin, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn and other celebrities played with them at different times. That's how the stars aligned.
In Odessa, it has become fashionable to go to good classical concerts - artists are inspired by this.
Odessa seems to be created for festivals - a cozy centre, the Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Black Sea, a beautiful embankment, museums and musical traditions. In addition, we always have a lot of young people in our halls. I've been working on this since the early 2000s. I did various projects on the border of arts, with video and theatre, and it has become fashionable in Odessa to go to good classical concerts - artists are inspired by this. The festival connected Ukrainian musicians and the public with the world music environment. And together, for seven years, we have put our beloved Odessa and Ukraine on the European musical map. The musicians wanted to play in the city by the Black Sea again and again.

The music for the festival in 2021 was written by Oscar-winning Chinese-American composer Tang Dong. How was it?

Every major festival at an important stage of development commissions new works from leading composers. In 2020, the Ukrainian classicist Valentyn Silvestrov wrote a cycle for violin and piano at the request of our festival. We performed it with Daniel Hope and recorded it on Deutsche Grammophon.
The following year, an equally ambitious project was launched with the stunning Chinese-American composer Tang Dong, who makes intensive use of a variety of percussion instruments, nature sounds, and others. The double concert was commissioned jointly by the Odessa Classics Festival, the Istanbul Music Festival, the San Francisco New Century Orchestra and the Istanbul Borusan Orchestra.
The world premiere took place in Odessa with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and was also recorded on Deutsche Grammophon. Last year, Daniel and I played the same concert at the 50th Istanbul Festival accompanied by the Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra (BIPO). It was conducted by Tang Dong himself. He knows the practices of meditation, implants the sounds of nature into classical music. He tells the musicians, "Don't be afraid, sometimes my conducting is like a kung fu style." It was both an experience and an incredible show. It was both an experience and an incredible show. The festival stage allows you to do a lot of things that traditional classics still have to grow up to.

When did you first come to Switzerland?

Oh, it's been a long time. I played Tchaikovsky's First Concerto in Tonhalle for the first time in Switzerland in 1993 with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Fedoseyev. I remember the applause and rave reviews in the press. Three years later, Heinz Spoerli became the chief of the Zurich Ballet. He was the choreographer and artistic director of the ballet for seventeen years and was very fond of live music. And I, as a pianist, was happy to play during ballet performances: solos, duets, quartets, with orchestra.
Over the years, he has played for twenty different ballets staged by Spoerley and other outstanding choreographers. Spoerli and the Zurich Ballet's Goldberg Variations became the world's calling card. This neoclassical dance masterpiece has conquered almost thirty countries. For me, it was a unique chance to play the Goldberg Variations 327 times. Cooperation with brilliant people opens up new opportunities for a person.
At La Scala, Spurley staged eleven performances. Accordingly, I also played them on this famous stage.
It so happened that Zurich became my second home for two decades, and Odessa remained the first. In connection with work, I spent a lot of time in Switzerland, but I did not make plans to move here, because life in Ukraine was in full swing, I felt very good there. When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, began bombing and shelling Ukrainian cities, we found accommodation in Zurich.

What has happened in your life during these two years?

Who would have thought that our generation would have to go through an existential crisis. Before the war, Ukraine was actively developing. On 24 August 2021, the 30th anniversary of independence was celebrated. In the geographical center of the country - the village of Maryanovka in the Cherkasy region - the Ukrainian flag was raised. I was one of six people standing next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the flagpole.
That year, the country had the highest economic growth. And then disaster struck.
On 24 February 2022, I was between Switzerland and Germany. Daniel Hope and I recorded our second CD on Deutsche Grammophon. My wife and child were with me. And we stayed in Switzerland. On 26 February, I was probably the first classical Ukrainian musician who gave a charity concert in favour of Ukraine.
Then Daniel and I collected almost a million euros of charitable contributions for Ukraine in a month. The disc was recorded on Deutsche Grammophon in a week, which is an exceptional fact in the history of the studio, the proceeds from the sale of the disc also went to Ukraine. Then there were concerts, live broadcasts and large collections in favor of Ukraine in Germany and other countries. The concert at the Frauenkirche in Dresden was attended by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. And the previous German president, Joachim Gauck, came to perform at the Gedechtniskirche in Berlin.
Today, I am very alarmed to see among some Europeans the mood "nothing is happening at the front in Ukraine, let's end it." It seems to me that there can be no end on the part of the Putin regime. Totalitarian regimes of this type have power and brutality towards their populations and can play for the long term. They are not interested in settling the conflict; Their interest is to press and move on. It seems to me a huge mistake to think that the war can be frozen, and the humanitarian catastrophe will dissolve.
I was born in the Soviet Union and lived under the Soviet system for a quarter of a century, perhaps in its least pernicious period. History shows that bloodthirsty regimes do not stop. And I am sad and scared to hear "we are tired, how much can we help Ukraine." Ukraine, by the will of history and geography, has found itself at the forefront of the battle for the right to think and live in a certain way. You can treat the Ukrainian state in different ways, I know the shortcomings myself, better than all the critics.
It is difficult for Ukraine, but society has chosen freedom and democracy, European values. This is not about who has more Russian or Ukrainian blood, but about the civilizational choice that Ukrainians defend at the cost of blood.
I perform under the Ukrainian flag. Because we have a concert, and a very terrible and important thing is happening in Ukraine right now for everyone on this continent.
Genetically, we are very close to Russians, many families are mixed. But it so happened that the inhabitants of neighboring countries became ideological opponents: some chose freedom, others slavery. And the conflict is very deep.

What kind of blood do you have?

I have a typical Odessa cocktail: Polish, Italian, Russian, Jewish, Greek. Odessa is a special city, and all Odessa residents are very proud of it.

What is the fate of the Odessa Classics festival?

At first, my wife and I thought that the war would last no more than six months, maybe we would do one concert in Europe. And then we felt the solidarity of many musicians who performed in Odessa: in two years we had 35 concerts in Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Greece. And I am very grateful to everyone who helped on different terms. In Tallinn, twelve concerts were organised with private donations, with the help of friends and volunteers. And Greece provided state funding as a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine.

In which cities and countries will the Odessa Classics festival be a guest this year?

The festival will open on 28 March in Vilnius. This will be followed by three concerts in Zurich. On 4 April, the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, more than 70 musicians conducted by Modestas Pitrėnas, and the Lithuanian ensemble NICO will play on the stage of Tonhalle Zurich. The soloists are me and Gediminas Geligotas, the founder and leader of the NICO ensemble. Two in one: traditional classics such as Brahms and Bach and such works of modern classics on the verge of crossover as Vivaldi and Beethoven arranged by Max Richter. In addition, the NICO ensemble is minimalist music and performance. In December, they received a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall and were invited to the next season. I am sure that NICO's performance in Switzerland will be a sensation.
Traditionally, the festival presents young talents. In Odessa, we held five competitions for the best Ukrainian musicians. Now it is difficult, fortunately, there are other possibilities. Roman Fedyurko, First Prize and Grand Prix of the First All-Ukrainian Serafima Mogilevska Competition for Young Pianists, Grand Prix 2023 of the Horowitz Competition (World Federation of International Music Competitions, WFIMC) supported the holding of the Horowitz Competition in Geneva, as it is impossible in Kyiv due to the war), so, Roman will play in Tonhalle with the wonderful Swiss violinist Ylva Eigus, who also has many awards and has already performed in Tonhalle with an orchestra. They will perform, among other things, Brahms' Third Sonata. If a new duo emerges in Zurich on April 7, these young stars will be able to perform together for many years. The third concert in Zurich will be at St. Peter's Church.
Last year I already performed under these vaults with the Polish musician Janusz Wawrowski. He plays a violin made in 1685 by Antonio Stradivari. On 9 April, we will perform works by Grieg, Silvestrov and other composers. Various concerts are planned in Bremen and Bonn, in Greece, possibly in Tallinn and other cities. And there is a special Swiss concert on 25 June - a solo concert by Evgeny Kissin as part of Odessa Classics.
This is a separate story, because in 2021, Yevgeny Kissin played a historic concert at the Odessa Opera House, as the Ukrainian press wrote. The young people, who did not have enough tickets, were seated right on the stage. Kissin's next concert was planned in Odessa this year. When it became clear that this was impossible, he said, "Name the place and time, I will come." This event is important for me personally as a musician and a citizen of Ukraine. Kissin's voice today is the loudest among the tops of classical music in defense of Ukraine. Until 24 February 2022, he constantly made statements in support of democracy, and now he says: "It is necessary to support Ukraine!" Yevgeny Kissin sends money to the defenders of Ukraine every week, because good confronts evil there. I am happy to communicate with such a great man and proudly declare: pianist Evgeny Kissin will perform at the 10th anniversary of the Odessa Classics festival in KKL Lucerne.

Stradivarius, Amati, Guarneri violins are well-known. Do pianists have instruments that they dream of playing? To what extent have your dreams come true?

I dreamed of playing Rachmaninoff's piano at the Villa Senard in Switzerland. It all started with the All-Union Rachmaninoff Competition in 1983. To go to the capital of the Land of the Soviets for the main piano competition, you first had to beat your competitors in Ukraine. For two years I immersed myself in the world of Rachmaninoff, read a lot about him, and in many of the texts I remembered a special grand piano that Steinway gave to Rachmaninoff for his 60th birthday. This unique instrument is almost 25 centimeters longer than ordinary grand pianos and was made as the best in the world. Rachmaninoff loved him and brought him to Switzerland on the shores of Lake Vierwaldstätte. And I dreamed of seeing, at least touching. Dreams come true: I have already played Rachmaninoff's piano three times. Everything there is almost the same as it was under Sergei Vasilyevich.

You are called one of the world's best performers of Rachmaninoff's music. The composer's fate coincided with the breaking of epochs, a third of his life was in emigration, and his works were full of complex symbolism. Why is this close to you?

I fell in love with his music and the world at the age of 18, when I was preparing for a competition in Moscow. I think there can be a resonance between the musician and the composer.
For example, it is quite clear to me how I should play Rachmaninoff, although I cannot say it in words. As a piano teacher, I can rationally explain what needs to be done with the music of different composers other than Rachmaninoff, because he has a lot of illogical things. If you listen to and compare Rachmaninoff's own playing with the scores, you can notice logical errors in his performance: the stress is in the wrong place, the slowing down is in the wrong place, he writes one thing, feels and plays another. I feel the power and meaning of the musical image, but I can't explain why. Probably, it should be in the blood of a musician. Rachmaninoff is the most mysterious composer for me, because he is full of contradictions. Visually, it seems to be clear. And when you play the way another similar romantic would have written it, it turns out cloying – no, not that. And if it's "wrong" – the divine music that we hear from Rachmaninoff himself and the best performers.
It has some kind of mystery, a kind of paradox, I tried to analyse it, but I realised that I was afraid of harming what was in me. I guess I know all his works. And then I discover something that I haven't played for a long time, and I immediately know what I need to do. It's different with other composers.

Does Rachmaninoff invite a musician to co-create?

I also love Bach very much for that. To achieve artistic expressiveness, it can also be played in different deviations from tempo and meter, in different agogics. The performer shares his skill and idea with the author, and the music is obtained. Other composers often set a strict pattern, for example, Chopin almost does not allow flexibility, a little to the side – and sounds deliberate, unnatural. And with Bach and Rachmaninoff, you have freedom, you can do a lot, and it will be interesting, deep and according to the plan. I love creative freedom.

Your achievements are marked by the title of "People's Artist of Ukraine", other Ukrainian awards, as well as the Order of the Star of Italy and the William Tell Award from Switzerland. And what reward do you value more than others?

Everyone is dear to me. I cherish the Swiss award, it was presented to me for strengthening the friendship between Ukraine and Switzerland. Italy's award came as a pleasant surprise. I was at La Scala, probably the first Ukrainian to lead a large musical project. From Odessa, I have five awards dear to my heart. I was born and raised in this city. You know, everyone here feels like a resident of Odessa, and then a resident of Ukraine.

Does the World Council of Odessa, which was created by Mikhail Zhvanetsky, still exist?

Yes. I am a member of the presidential council there. Zhvanetsky was a powerful trigger for the concept of "Odessa culture", and it worked perfectly. During the lifetime of Michal Mikhalych, it was the most elite club in Odessa, where the quintessence of Odessa culture was concentrated.
Humor, classical music, artists, writers, theatergoers. The club continues to operate, this is an interesting phenomenon that is created by people themselves without looking back at the state.

What would you wish to the guests of the Odessa Classics festival?

I invite everyone to our concerts. When the audience comes, it is a support for both the festival and Ukraine.

(Original text: Фестиваль Odessa Classics: великая музыка в поддержку Украины -