Saturday 27 July 2019

The power of culture has not lessened in its ability to forge a better relationship: Jan Latham Koenig on founding the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra

Jan-Latham Koenig
Jan Latham Koenig
Jan Latham Koenig is the founding artistic director of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, and the ensemble is very much his inspiration. Koenig is in a unique position to be involved in the orchestra, being a British conductor working in Moscow. Jan Latham Koenig has been chief conductor of the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow since 2011, the first Briton to hold such a post in Russia. I was able to find out more when I chatted to Jan after the launch of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra.

Why create an orchestra?

For Jan Latham there are multiple reasons, political, cultural, artistic and personal.

From the personal point of view, he feels that the young players gain immense benefit, getting to know each other and improving both their communications and musical development, particularly as the two traditions in the countries are so different. From an artistic point of view, there are two countries with high musical standards, and both Moscow and London are centres of classical music. Jan comments that the amount of music going on in both cities is immense, and there are four first class concert halls in Moscow with a fifth imminent. But in Russia classical music at such a level is concentrated in far fewer places than in the UK. In Moscow there are 38 professional orchestras!

Both countries share a feeling for the importance of classical music and its excellence, though they reach it in different ways, but the result is the same. Jan feels that the new orchestra will use the strengths of the two different musical systems to create and orchestra more than the sum of its parts.

Regarding the political benefits of the project, Jan commented that at a time when political tensions are high there is nothing better than the language of music, centred round young people. The intention is that the project should use music to build bridges.

Jan finds that there is immense respect in Russia and Britain for each other's culture. Russians flock to performances of Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Harold Pinter. Jan conducted the Moscow premiere Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia, and Britten's music has a strong appeal in Russia.

The intention is for the orchestra to create a wonderful synthesis of all these ideas.

The idea for the orchestra arose from Jan's work in Moscow at Novaya Opera. The British ambassador to Russia is a music fan and a keen amateur violinist. There is an annual concert at the British Embassy in Moscow, the history of which dates back to the 1970s and Britten and Shostakovich. In November 2017, members of Novaya Opera were rehearsing Walton's Facade for the concert, with Simon Callow, and the Ambassador returned from a meeting and Jan learned that in terms of the collaboration between Russian and Britain, 2019 would be the year of music.

Usually such collaborations feature each side sending its musical products to the other, and then everything is forgotten. But Jan and the Ambassador wanted a project which would be a long-term legacy, and a central part of the year. The new orchestra was inspired by projects like Daniel Barenboim's East-West Divan Orchestra featuring the coming together of talented young people, in the case of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra it will be strictly bi-lateral, with young people from Britain and Russia.

Whilst the plans for the orchestra are for this year's performances in Russia and Britain, the intention is for it to be an annual event or more. And Jan points out that 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two, with works such as Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony and Britten's War Requiem being works which would seem eminently suitable.

For the orchestra's 2019 tour it will be performing music by British and Russian composers. Jan finds that British music is received with enormous enthusiasm in Russia. Whilst Russians have immense pride in their own culture, there is also a need/want to communicate with the West. Whilst there is a desire to share Russian culture with other countries, there is also a great admiration for British culture and not just music, the 1970s Sherlock Holmes television series is most popular, as well as cultural collaborations such as director Declan Donnellan's performances of Shakespeare with Russian actors.

In 1971 a major festival was planned with British music in the USSR and Russian music in Britain. But in September 1971 there was a major diplomatic incident, with diplomats being expelled. Yet Britten and Shostakovich symbolised that culture must win, and their events were not cancelled.

Jan points out that we have a very different world today, geo-politics has changed and there is a very different world dynamic so that you cannot compare today to the Cold War. But in both situations, the power of culture has not lessened in its ability to forge a better relationship.

In creating the orchestra, they will be dealing with two pedagogical styles, but things would have been more difficult 30 or 40 years ago. 25-year-old Russians and Britons of today are far closer in outlook than they would have been 50 years ago, thanks to gobalisation, the internet and increased travel. There is also the dominance of English as a language, and many of the young Russians will speak some English.

In some superficial areas, things may be more difficult. In Russia, authority is more prevalent than in the West and Russian orchestras need/expect an authority figure in the conductor whereas in the UK things are more collaborative, but Jan feels that such difficulties will pale into insignificance once the players hear the qualities of each other.

The British repertoire being performed by the orchestra is not that familiar in Russia [the orchestra is playing Britten's Four Sea Interludes and Young Apollo, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia and Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in Russia]. Britten's Four Sea Interludes are rarely done, and the RVW and Elgar are not well known, though Jan has performed the RVW and he regards performing such music as part of his mission in Russia.

Regarding the Russian repertoire, Shostakovich's Hamlet and Jazz Suite are less well known in the UK. Jan wanted to perform pieces which reflected the UK-Russian relationship. But there were a lot of linear constraints, any work had to be satisfying for the orchestra to play and for the audience. Rehearsals will all be in Sochi in Russia, and the first concerts will be there with two in Moscow, then St Petersburg and then the UK.

Jan relates that performing Britten's War Requiem as a treble with Britten conducting had a strong effect on him and inspired him to be a conductor. He had started learning the piano at the age of four and the violin at the age of seven, progressing to going to orchestral concerts and developing an interest in opera in his teens. At the age of 19 he was a repetiteur at Glyndebourne with a cast including Kiri te Kanawa, Ileana Cotrubas, Frederica von Stade and John Pritchard. He started his career as a pianist but regarded it is as a stepping-stone to being a conductor.

His influences have included the pianist Artur Rubenstein, whom he describes as unforgettable, the violinist David Oistrach, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and conductor Carlo Maria Giulini. In terms of historical figures, these include Furtwangler whom Jan regards as a musical philosopher for his ideas about music. And in Russian music, Jan feels that Yevgeny Mavrinsky has not been bettered.

The Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra 2019 Tour
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