Friday, August 1, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

What's Russian for 'music to our ears'?

Some families get all the talent! Conductor and pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn is one of just a handful of musicians ever to double-major at Philly's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, as a pianist and conductor. The Russian-born musician, 41, has launched a career that finds him jet-setting around the globe 30 to 35 weeks a year.

His father is the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago), who was exiled under Stalin and went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature. The elder Solzhenitsyn passed away in 2008.

Ignat returns to Philly this week for the first of three separate displays of his prodigious talent. On March 20, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society brings him in to play the so-called "War Sonatas" by Prokofiev, written during the bleak days of World War II. Then, on April 6 and 7, he'll lead the Concerto Orchestra of Philadelphia - conducting from the keyboard for one selection and the podium for two. Finally, on April 13, he'll wrap his Philly triple play by conducting the Curtis Symphony Orchestra.

Solzhenitsyn lived in Philadelphia for several years after attending Curtis, working as music director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. He now makes his home in New York with his wife, Carolyn, and their three school-age children, Dmitri, Anna and Andrei.

During a teaching engagement at Curtis a few weeks ago, he squeezed in time for a late-night conversation with Daily News classical-music contributor Tom Di Nardo. They spoke just after the Sochi Olympics and just before the first reports surfaced from Ukraine about Russian troops in Crimea. Solzhenitsyn answered a follow-up inquiry about the Russian situation Thursday by phone from Moscow, where he was on tour conducting.

Q How much of your schedule is conducting, playing solo recitals and performing concertos, and how comfortable is it for to switch from the keyboard to the podium?

These days, it's about 60 percent conducting, 30 percent piano recitals and 10 percent concerti. It's very comfortable, like second nature now, though the preparation can never be compromised, and the problems of scheduling are ever-present. Learning how to say no is essential to avoid overcommitting.

Q When you come back to Philly, what are your musts?

It's such a constantly vibrant place, and there are always new restaurants to try. Of course, Parc is now an institution, just across the street from Curtis. And I always try to make time to see the Phillies in that wonderful park with the skyline, as well as the Eagles, sharing all the passion of Philly fans.

Q In your travels, how often do people ask about your father and his revelatory writing?

Very often, and I find it amazing how many people across the world have told me how life-changing his works are. It was a function of the profoundly difficult and shattering experiences that he went through in his life, and he had to address those issues and tell the truth about the camps and the evil of man, even in his fiction.

Q You left Russia at age 4. What changes have you recently seen there since your first visit back in 1994?

When I went back then, Russia was at its low point in power, prestige, wealth and confidence. Despite many problems, the most positive aspect now is the rise of the middle class that has risen out of nowhere, which will demand stability and responsive government, and a desire for leisure and culture, things which don't seem so important during periods of survival. And the success of the Sochi Games seems good for the world.

Q How do you see the current situation in the Ukraine and Crimea?

(Answered by phone Thursday, from Moscow.) Though the actual, very volatile situation on the ground in the Ukraine is definitely tense and very serious, I expect it to be resolved in the short term without major escalation or more bloodshed.

I believe western Ukraine will be fine. But, to me, the real long-term problem concerns the residents of eastern and southern Ukraine, where millions of people consider themselves Russians or are oriented toward Russia. The key to watch is whether their point of view is respected.

Q Does it become easier with experience for you to make your first appearance with an orchestra?

It's easier, but the responsibility gets greater and becomes more difficult because of expectations, both theirs and yours.

The great pianist Arthur Schnabel, whose student Maria Curcio was one of my teachers, famously said that great music is better than it can ever be performed. Without that awesome sense of an unbridgeable gulf between the possible and the ideal, why go into music to dream small dreams? Facing impossible challenges is what keeps us going.

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