Interview: Tugan Sokhiev

As part of our Ones to Watch series of concerts we’re putting the spotlight on seven of the brightest emerging conducting talents in the world in a series of interviews. We’ll be finding out what makes our up-and-coming conductors tick, what they think makes a great conductor great, what a baton is for and what can go wrong when you're on the podium!

This month we caught up with the Ossetian maestro Tugan Sokhiev in anticipation of his Ones to Watch concert with the LSO on 30 April 2015. He will be joined by soloist Baiba Skride* in a programme featuring works by Messiaen, Bartók and Tchaikovsky.

What would you say is the main job of the conductor?
Apart from the obvious, beating the tempo, and showing the dynamics, a conductor tries in general to communicate the message the composer tried to express in the score, and that’s sometimes not very obvious, not always on the surface. I think many orchestras, especially the ones in London, are perfectly capable of playing without a conductor, so if you get on the podium you need to make sure that you really have something to say about the music. You must blend your ideas and the orchestral forces, and create a musical character out of the orchestra. I think that is very much the job of the conductor.

What are the skills and what is the personality of a great conductor?
I think you can only talk in those terms retrospectively. For example you can say Karajan or Kleiber were great conductors. I think some of today’s leading conductors are great conductors but it’s very difficult to give a definition of what makes them great. Maybe it depends on their relationship with the orchestra. Karajan had a fantastic relationship with Berlin Philharmonic and that’s what made him great. Then again, Kleiber never had a relationship with like that with any orchestra - he never had a post like Karajan - but he was still one of the greatest. So maybe its charisma, presence and immense devotion to music. Completely dissolving yourself into what you do.

How did you get into conducting?
Well, I started as a piano player, but it was only when I was 15 that I started attending concerts and studying with my first conducting teacher Anatoly Briskin. He introduced me to his teacher, the famous Russian professor of conducting Ilya Musin, who taught many of today’s great conductors: Gergiev, Turnakov, Bychkov, and British conductors like Sian Edwards, Martyn Brabbins – there is a big Musin legacy! At 17 I went to study in St Petersburg with Musin and that’s how it all started.

Was it a burning ambition?
I think so! It fascinated me to watch one man standing in front of an orchestra waving his arms with extraordinary musical results. I started asking a lot of questions to try and really get into the psychology of conducting.

Was there a particular work that made you want to be conductor?
Tchaikovsky’s symphonies have always been something I love to listen to and conduct. I think Symphony No 4 in particular is particularly inspiring, it is the first symphony I heard in a proper concert hall when I was very young. It is also one of the works I will be conducting for my LSO debut in April.

What else is on the programme for your LSO debut on 30 April?
It’s a very interesting programme, one I think perfectly suits the LSO, and one that I feel very passionate about. We’ll be opening with Messiaen’s wonderful Les offrandes oubliées. I think Messiaen is one of the most important composers of the 20th century. He was a pivotal figure in the transition and transformation of French composition into what we have today, so he is a vital part of 20th century contemporary music. There are some truly breathtaking and unique colours and characters in Les offrandes oblieés.

Then we have the wonderful soloist who will be playing Bartók’s Violin Concerto No 2, of course I don’t need to elaborate on Bartók’s role in musical history in 20th century, he is such an essential composer. Finally we have Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4. It opens with the most tormenting, tragic melody and climaxes in the finale with festivity and joy. The andante second movement is very lyrical, tuneful and in a way very Russian. I think it shows the orchestra at its best. I think this symphony showcases all the LSO’s best qualities. It’s a wonderful and varied programme, and I’m sure that this first collaboration will be very special.

What is special about working with the LSO?
Well, I heard the LSO in concert and I was blown away by the virtuosity, sound quality and extreme agility of the musicians. They really follow the conductor and they are very flexible to change during the concert if necessary, it’s a first class orchestra. Of course historically it is considered one of the greatest orchestras in Europe. Personally I’d say it’s one of the top five orchestras of the world. It’s a great honour to be working with them.

How would you convince someone who is new classical music to come to this concert?
I think if you don’t know Bartók or Messiaen, come with a very open mind and open heart. Allow the music to enter your soul and mind, and experience this fantastic orchestra playing wonderful music. I think that’s what makes this concert special - the combination of one of the greatest orchestras and some of the greatest music ever written. It’s not an experience to be missed! It will be very exciting!

Are there any musicians or conductors in particular who guided you or who you idoloise?
I wouldn’t say I idolize any great conductors or musicians, but I think there are certain people who I have learnt a great deal from. I had a wonderful decade working at the Mariinsky Theatre with Valery Gergiev. Talking to that man and watching him conduct and rehearse is something I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot, it is wonderful to see him working and to hear the fantastic musical results .

Of course I also look back to, and learn from the great conductors: Kleiber, Georg Szell, Bernstein, Karajan… the list goes on. There are so many big names that inspired me, I couldn’t possibly list all of the conductors who really deserve to be mentioned!

Do you have any funny moments/stories from the podium? Have you had any embarrassing moments or disasters?
During the inauguration concert when I became Music Director of Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse I was conducting Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. For some reason there was a miscommunication with the librarian who thought I knew it by heart and had asked for the score not to be there - I think that was my command of French which wasn’t good then! But I didn’t know the score. It was only when I went on stage I realised it wasn’t there! Because it was inauguration concert I couldn’t say ‘sorry I have to go backstage to get my score’ so I had to somehow do it without. I’d conducted it many times by then, but I had to use a lot of my memory just to remember the order. That was a nightmare scenario!

Are there any works you’ve not conducted yet which you really want to?
Gosh, hundreds, thousands! Well, there are some Mahler symphonies I haven’t touched yet. Everything from number seven up. This is something I’m looking at doing in three, four years time. I would also say Wagner operas, and some of the Bruckner symphonies.

All the biggies!
Yes, it’s something you need to be ready to do because these works have so much emotional information in them, you have to be ready to do that sort of thing. You shouldn’t perform them too early, it just doesn’t look natural and I don’t feel comfortable doing it yet. It’s not just a question of conducting it. I can go and conduct anything, especially with a good orchestra, it’s just, what’s the message? You have to have something to say about it. So, lots of music. And not enough years or lifetime to do them in.

Do you have a special baton?
I get through them quite slowly and I tend to be attached to one baton and change it only when it breaks so I try and be careful. They get broken if caught on the stand, they are wooden, you see. I buy them here in London. It has to be right length and weight and the more you conduct it becomes like well-used leather, like a vintage leather bag: the longer you use it the better quality it becomes.

Do you have any rituals on the day of the concert?
I try to get a decent amount of sleep. If there’s a general rehearsal in the morning I’ll still try and take a nap in the afternoon because I think it’s important to rest a little bit, even if it’s not a proper sleep - just closing your eyes for a little bit, helps reset the whole body for the concert. Also be careful what you eat and no alcohol before the concert.

Maybe after the concert?
Possibly! It depends what’s happening the next day!


Tugan Sokhiev conducts Messiaen's Les offrandes oubliées, Bartók's Violin Concerto No 2 with Baiba Skride and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 4 on Thursday 30 April as part of the LSO's Ones to Watch series of concerts and the International Violin Festival.

*Please note that Midori, who was originally scheduled to perform the Bartók Second Violin Concerto, has been advised by her doctor not to travel and has been forced to withdraw from the LSO’s concert at the Barbican on Thursday 30 April 2015. We are extremely grateful to Baiba Skride for agreeing to step in at short notice to play Bartók’s Violin Concerto No 2. The programme for the concert remains unchanged.