‘Everything is in the conductor’s hands’

Most know him from his recordings of the symphonic works of the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli or from his collaboration with Jan Garbarek. Many believe that under his direction the Athens State Orchestra is showing a potential that would otherwise have been difficult to imagine. Jansug Kakhidze, permanent conductor of Georgia’s Tbilisi State Orchestra, is a regular visitor to Greece and appears to be an inspiration to Greek musicians, bringing the best out in them. His faith in people, his clear beliefs and solid technique all help, as his interview with Kathimerini reveals. How does a conductor communicate with the orchestra? The hands of the conductor must transmit all the dimensions of a work to the orchestra, and not be limited to beating time accurately and giving the instruments their cue. Music begins after this: It is in the character, the style – those things which are difficult to express in words. What the orchestra plays, what the audience hears, must be in the conductor’s hands. This is why rehearsals are important; this is where the conductor works on the music with the orchestra. Just think, a group of people sit on stage for two hours and play music. It’s important for the listener to be able to understand what he hears. A pleasant sound is not enough. Just as the pianist shapes the work with the help of a musical instrument, so for the conductor the instrument is the orchestra. Good and bad music After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the schools of many of the former republics became prominent. What would you point to as the musical characteristics of your own country, Georgia? It’s very difficult for someone to define what is Greek, Russian or Georgian music. For me, there is just good and bad music. Of course, one can identify a mentality, tones or characteristic harmonic structures. The music school of Georgia is no more than 90 years old. By contrast, we have a rich traditional music, of a very high quality. But this is another subject. I believe that it is a mistake for a composer to imagine that he is making national music because he uses traditional music in a very obvious way. Popular music is rich and strong in its own right. Some composers want to combine traditional with European music, a trend which reached Georgia via Russia. Western music thus reached us through a filter. It was only after 1956 that we were better informed; we could listen to Stravinsky, for instance. This was the time when things started moving, and which produced many interesting composers, the most well-known of whom is Giya Kancheli. You have supported Kanchelli’s work. Kancheli and I were together from the beginning, in 1961, and we are still very good friends. The basic characteristic of his music is its soul, its spirit. His music transmits the mentality of our people but at the same time it is international, just like Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Bartok. He doesn’t compose using references, as is common; he is all soul. He has found his own language, something which is extremely difficult for any composer. In harmonic terms, his works are very simple, but they have great depth. His orchestration is excellent and he creates very interesting structures. Someone listening to his music might think the composer is constantly repeating himself. But no, he is simply enriching his language, which he constantly develops with new ideas. How do you select the repertoire that you play in Athens? After interesting negotiations with the Athens State Orchestra! One criterion is to add to the orchestra’s repertoire. A second is to help raise its level, through the pieces: In this case, I am acting as a musical educator, something which interests me especially. For this reason, I often choose a classical repertoire. Personally, I prefer the Romantic composers: the major symphonies of Brahms, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and, of course, Beethoven. But you also play many contemporary works. I did when I was younger. I only choose them today if they are really interesting. Most of them are simply experiments, and not very successful ones! Many contemporary works are a very interesting as experiments, but they are not – in my opinion – great art. So do you believe that this is the end of the history of classical music? Music is an art form directed at the emotions. It should stimulate the listener, positively or negatively, and make him feel joy, sorrow, anger. As I understand it, it addresses elementary emotions. People haven’t changed so much: Love, even our biological needs – food, sleep – have stayed the same. Of course, our lives have changed greatly, they are lived at a much faster rhythm and the world is smaller. At this pace, people don’t have much time in which to think. There is also laziness. Stravinsky said that people want to be informed, but they don’t want to learn. Classical music, then, must be accessible. It has great depth, but it is very simple. Kancheli is very simple. Many composers are returning to simplicity and by using a polymorphic style they attempt to give their works a condensed intensity. Experimentalism is good and has produced many interesting things. But what is their purpose? For me, they should address the person. By listening to them in a certain way – positively or negatively – a person should participate in some way, not remain indifferent. That’s what’s important. Have you ever conducted the works of Greek musicians? Unfortunately, no. Only Xenakis, and I was very young. Very interesting, but too dry for my taste. What do you think of the Athens State Orchestra? I like it a lot. Sometimes there is tension, but I truly love them. They are very good musicians and they enjoy playing well. They enjoy rehearsals less. But they have a lot of problems. They don’t have a rehearsal space, despite all that Aris Garoufalis has done to improve the situation. It is also very important for an orchestra to work with a good permanent conductor. In the large metropolises, such as London or Paris, the orchestras play with a different conductor each week. This might be interesting for the public, but it’s dangerous for the orchestras themselves; they don’t have a point of reference and it is tiring. Of course, the conductor is an artist, but he’s also an educator. Discography Jansug Kakhidze’s discography includes works from the time of Mozart up to today. But he concentrates on composers from the former Soviet Union. Here are some selected works, with the performers and the record companies that produced them: – Jan Garbarek, «Rites,» ECM. – Giya Kancheli, Symphonies Nos 3 & 6, Georgia State Symphony Orchestra, Olympia. – Giya Kancheli, Symphonies Nos 4 & 5, Georgia State Symphony Orchestra, Olympia. – Giya Kancheli, Symphonies Nos 6 & 7, Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, Sony. – Giya Kancheli, «Lament,» ECM. – Giya Kancheli, «Magnum Ignotum,» ECM. – Mozart, Symphonies 40 & 41, Tbilisi Chamber Orchestra, K-Tel. – Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, Nouveau. – Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 «Emperor», Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, Nouveau. – Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 2, «Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini,» George Vachnadze (Piano), Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, Sony. – Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 3, Nata Tsvereli (Piano), Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, Nouveau. – Schubert, Symphony No. 9, Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, K-Tel. – Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4, «Marche Slave,» Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra, Nouveau. – Aram Khachaturian, «Gayane,» USSR TV and Radio Symphony Orchestra, Melodysi/BMG (2 CDs).