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“In Italy to Maestro Muti I came with my travel tent and the score of Verdi’s Falstaff”

26 February 2016

With Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra

Vladimir Ovodok: “I arrived in Italy to Maestro Muti with my travel tent and score of Verdi’s “Falstaff”. Unbelievable and almost sensational news was received at the end of summer: young Belarusian conductor Vladimir Ovodok became an assistant to one of the most renowned conductors of the 20th century Maestro Riccardo Muti, who headed “La Scala” theatre for about 20 years. Vladimir won a challenging competition, there were only 4 places and over 200 applicants from all around the world.

This news was instantly shared in social networks by Vladimir’s teacher Vyacheslav Volich, a well–known conductor of the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet theatre of the Republic of Belarus. The teacher was very proud and excited which was natural: he rose such a musician!

This information was immediately spread by the mass-media, and incidentally “Narodnaya Volya” (Belarussian newspaper) was the first one who wrote about a new name – Vladimir Ovodok. But to write a detailed interview the hero of the day was needed. Vladimir lingered in Ravenna (Italy) at the Opera Academy of Seignoir Muti while the mass-media craved for general information and personal, emotional and subtle details of his staying under the wing of the iconic Maestro Riccardo Muti. As they say, our expectations were not deceived: Vladimir appeared a charming and thoughtful conversationalist.

– Why a trip to Ravenna to Maestro Riccardo Muti was so essential for you? Was it a solid milestone for a future career?

– Studying with Maestro Muti was necessary for my personality. Here are my thoughts:  at first, you develop yourself in the profession, and after that your level automatically develops the speed of your career growth. Riccardo Muti is one of “the last of the Mohicans” of the famous Italian conducting school. Many people from across the world came to hear the great Maestro creating Italian Opera and to learn how an outstanding conductor achieves the result: how he keeps the balance between orchestra and singers, how he thinks, how he feels the music.

I was constantly looking for interesting contests and masterclasses. When I saw the announcement about Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy in the Internet, I sent the documents, recordings and CV to the organizers.

– Were travel and accommodation at your own expense? And besides that did you have to pay for the masterclasses?

– Yes. International conductor’s masterclasses with Yuri Simonov, where I managed to participate twice after a large pre-competitive selection, were an exception. They were covered by the Ministry of Culture of Russia, Russian generous soul! Europeans like to count money, so the terms were as follows: if Maestro had chosen you as his assistant, you didn’t have to pay for the masterclasses. If he had left you in a passive group as a listener, you had to pay up to 800 Euro. Quite a number of people stayed there! The hall was filled to one third at each rehearsal and that was just to listen to the Maestro.

– You told me that you lived in a tent outside the city near the sea. Certainly it was cheaper than a hotel but quite hard physical wise. I hope you didn’t have to walk to the rehearsals, did you?

– I like to test my limits. I tried to walk once but realized that it was too hard and took a lot of efforts. I thought: “If I win the competition, I will move to a hotel in the city, if not, I will combine the passive part of masterclasses with some rest”. But when it became clear that I’d passed I decided to stay near the sea. I really enjoyed my life in nature’s lap – when you come after classes and dive into complete aloofness from the busy world… After a rough day at the theatre it was much easier to switch and rest when you are alone with nature. There was a completely different atmosphere at the camping site by the sea, usually in the morning I had a long swim… All-in-all, there were more benefits. Later on my colleagues-conductors came to visit me there. Modern European camping sites have a very high level of comfort. You can find everything you need there, even a swimming pool! That’s not what we usually imagine: just a tent at a forest opening.

– So are you saying you received a tent at the camping-site?

– No. Why? I arrived in Italy to Riccardo Muti with my own tent and Verdi’s score in hand.

– Excellent outfit! Getting back to our artistic story. In your opinion what are Muti’s features as a conductor?

– Conductor grows up from various range of talents and under the influence of a certain culture. Maestro Muti has an amazing personal charm together with cheerfulness. But at the same time he has the austerity and sense of dignity for the great cultural heritage. Actually, Italians are very sceptical about foreign productions of their classics. They feel natural jealousy regarding this matter, so to say.

– And what about his human drawbacks?
– I don’t know… Well, as an aged signor, he might pinch his companion’s cheek… But it’s a traditional thing, kind of an encouragement for younger people. However, I noticed that not all Italian women like this tradition. But Muti – he’s like a godfather or patron, he’s allowed a lot.

– Signor Muti chose you out of a large number of applicants: first – out of 200 and then out of 10. There is an opinion that Belarusians and Italians have common mentality. Do you think it worked in your favor at that moment?

– Italians are very emotional. I think Belarusians, with all their tolerance, are also natural and emotional. I had a chance to compare and saw: Maestro treated me with piety and addressed as to a representative of a great culture: “You have to promise that you will stage this opera (we rehearsed Verdi’s “Falstaff”) in your “Bello-Russi”!” The fact is that in Italian “bello” is beautiful, and the word “Belarus” he pronounced a little differently, with a mark on the first syllable, to emphasize his respect.

– Tell me, please, does the young conductor have more opportunities to build a career in Europe?

– You can always find opportunities everywhere, but you need support. Just because all places are occupied and you need a push. It is clear that ambitions must be based on hard work and talent, but still a conductor can’t build his career alone. It is difficult to reach out without the patronage even here in Belarus, not to mention the European community… For this reason we need an organisation, a sort of “mafia” or “family”, which will actively promote their members. We need “The Belarusian Institute” – a powerful international organisation that would introduce Belarusian workers of culture worldwide.

– Do we have a chance to see you at the Bolshoi theatre of Belarus some day?
– Not yet… Though we communicated well with the chief conductor Victor Ploskina in Italy – he attended Riccardo Muti’s dress rehearsal.

– Is it possible to come to Maestro Anissimov, for example, and ask him for a concert? Does it happen in your community?

– I was introduced to Alexander Anissimov. But every conductor needs a particular approach.

– So you must bear in mind that every Maestro might feel professional jealousy?
– It’s natural when the leader, chief, professional selects the team as he sees fit for himself.

– Is conductor a well-paid job in Europe?
– It is. However, it depends on the conductor’s professional level and on his position in “table of ranks”. There is a book “Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power” by the British music critic Norman Lebrecht. He believes that conducting is a form of heroism. At the same time he acknowledges that conductor’s fees became much too high during the twentieth century and lost touch with the musician’s general salary level. But very few rich this level. It has nothing to do with Belarus, the overall situation here is different.

– Do you remember your first emotions when you heard your name among the four assistants of Riccardo Muti?

– Announcements of the final results after the interview with Maestro was, of course, in Italian and my Italian was still not perfect at that time. I got the overall context but in Italian the words “winner” and “looser” (vinto and vincitore) sound very similar. My name was called among the winners but I was sitting and thinking “What does that mean?” In fact, not only I was speechless.

– The day before you had a personal interview with Riccardo Muti, after which he, in fact, chose his four assistants. What were you talking about? What made such an impression on the great conductor?

– At first he asked about Verdi’s “Falstaff” composing process trying to understand my education level.

– Was it an exam?

– Amongst other things. After that we had a dispute about how accurately Verdi followed the idea of Shakespeare. We began to talk about good and evil, to argue whether they exist in pure forms. So we had a philosophical discussion. The panel of judges, as I was told, were impressed, they didn’t expect that I will dare to take a strong stand. Perhaps this also influenced Maestro’s decision, as there were a great lot of truly talented young conductors, including Italians, who took part in the competition. Apparently, the outcome was determined not only on a solely professional conducting level as the task of the conductor is to think and not just to perform the score.

– Have you already experienced sweet hypnosis of the audience’s attention, hypnosis of applause?

– Pretty much, and it’s very pleasant. Any person appreciates attention to himself. But we should clearly understand that a musician has a much more important mission than just to get applause from the audience. First of all the question comes up: “What for?” Who do you serve and what do you give with your performance? It is clear that you have to be responsible for your action.

– I read about your performing in Bonn once at the FRG president’s villa. How did you get there?

– The Lyceum under the Academy of music, where I work now, received a proposal to perform at the Bonner Summer Festival with symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven in a piano transcription by Franz Liszt. I was entrusted to perform one of the symphonies as a pianist. It’s not easy to play Listz’s transcriptions, they are very difficult. But this is very prestigious as Bonn is Beethoven’s home town.

– They say that the best conductors are string players. And you are a pianist…
– It’s quite the opposite in Italy: if you do not play piano at the appropriate level, you’re not a conductor, especially in opera. They believe that the piano players feel texture and have global thinking… But it’s good to practise a string instrument as well. I’m practising.

– How did you and your colleagues celebrate the masterclass graduation?
– It coincided with Maestro’s birthday. Our team was invited to a luxury restaurant in a quiet place where only conductor’s close friends and associates were present – so to speak, the Maestro’s cortege. We sat at the table which was headed by his wife. Everything was to a very high standard though simple at the same time, no frills. Italians love Muti, he is a legend, their national brand!

– Did you make a present to the teacher?

– We had a serious thought about it… But we conducted the final performance at the Ravenna theatre that day. Hope we did well. So we decided that our success is the best present for him. On the other hand, I’m not sure that Riccardo Muti needs our Belarusian souvenirs. He is interested in other things…

– Vladimir, what is your family background? Musical?

– My father is a conductor of Russian folk orchestra at the University of Culture, my mother is a piano teacher at a music school, and my sister graduated from the Gnessin Academy of Music in Moscow. I’m surrounded by music.

– Clearly, a “direct heir”. But you could rebel and become a diplomat! Or was everything predetermined?

– In this sense, I am a happy man – I do what I like. Another thing is that problems of many talented people in my profession, as I see it, is that they get hung up on the profession. But we should understand that though music is the language of God, our life is not only about music, we should live in harmony.

– Do you have an ultimate dream?

– No. But I have goals in life and I know what I want to achieve. I am not going to announce anything in particular now, but in any case, my mission is to Serve. To Serve the Art. And transformation of our life wherever possible.


Author: Elena Molochko
8 october 2015

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