Marina Bower
© Elia Kuhn

I am speaking to Marina Bower, President of the Evgeny Svetlanov International Conducting Competition, named after the most prolific conductor in Russia’s history. “This year will be the 20th anniversary of Maestro Svetlanov’s death,” she tells me. “When I go to concerts, and I represent a lot of artists, I meet different journalists, they will come to me and always say: ‘Do you remember Scriabin, Poem of Ecstasy, of Svetlanov? Do you remember Mahler number six, in Colmar? Do you remember Rachmaninov’s second symphony? When his concerts ended, people would not go away; they would stay for some time simply to digest the power of his interpretation.”

Bower is of Russian origin. She started working for Svetlanov when she went on tour with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra in 1984 during their tour in the UK, became an artists' agent in 1985 and represented Svetlanov until his death in 2002. She became a close confidante, so much so that towards the end of his life, he made the decision to entrust her with the care of his musical legacy. It’s a responsibility that weighs heavily on Bower because of the passionate respect that she holds for Svetlanov as a person and a musician and because he was specific in his will as to what he wanted done.

Svetlanov’s legacy as a conductor (leaving aside the works he composed) only has a meaning if his values and musical understanding are passed down to a generation of younger conductors. The chosen vehicle for this is the competition, now into its fifth edition, whose finals will take place in Monaco in June.

Evgeny Svetlanov
© Svetlanov Competition

Bower is clear that the purpose of the competition is to help launch the careers of young conductors who will carry forward Svetlanov’s approach to music and conducting. Formulating that approach in mere words, however, isn’t easy. It can’t be understood, she says, without listening to the recordings and she prefers to point me at an image of the man conducting – an intense stare born of absolute concentration, the jaw firmly set, the left fist clenched and the baton-wielding right hand mobile. Looking at quotes from Svetlanov shows that Bower’s difficulty in verbalising his approach isn’t an accident: “The conductor should be dumb, but not deaf and dumb. A conductor should convey his intentions to an orchestra in other ways, using gesture, glance and mimicry. Finally, he should transmit an impulse of strong will and energy. The fewer words are spoken the better.”

Anna Rakitina at the 2018 competition
© Svetlanov competition

A lack of words, however, doesn’t imply a lack of attention to detail. Svetlanov was diligent to the point of obsession about the extensive hours spent studying every last corner of a score and determining the interpretation he wanted. And he had utter conviction in his ability to convey that interpretation to his musicians. “The conductor must provide as much detailed information as possible. However, he should not impose his interpretation on the musicians - this will not produce good results... my job is to communicate to the musicians my passion for music, to instil my interpretation of music in the orchestra, to ensure they become my loyal allies in the performing process.”

It follows that one of Bower’s key tasks in running the competition is to select jurors who buy into this approach and can spot it in the candidates. “I try to actually visualise who maestro Svetlanov would like on the jury. And of course, we have this philosophy of somehow transmitting the traditions as well. For example, this time, Neeme Järvi will be the president. He’s a great musician and also a wonderful professor; his two boys are extraordinary musicians. But at the same time, he had a very special link to maestro Svetlanov. Those who knew him can convey so many things, because the road is still there: they can give so much of the experience to those young musicians. Neeme Järvi knows exactly what values should be kept from the past; at the same time, he’s always looking towards the future: he has his academy, he helps young musicians.” Another key juror is David Whelton, who worked with Svetlanov during his 29-year tenure as Managing Director of the Philharmonia, and who Bower “trusts 100%” to make the difficult job of identifying true talent. This year’s jury has other big names, including Daishin Kashimoto, leader of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and the Boston Symphony's Anthony Fogg, director of the Tanglewood Festival.

Fuad Ibrahimov at the 2018 competition

There are many kinds of conductor, all of whom have a passion for music: dictatorial, collegiate, nurturing, precise, intellectual, even devious. What kind of conductor was Svetlanov? Bower points at his ability to do two things concurrently which might appear incompatible: respect each musician as an individual and get the best possible quality of playing from each, but at the same time make the whole body of the orchestra respond to his demands of interpretation. She keenly remembers his ability to completely change the Philharmonia’s sound in Rachmaninov, with a single word, spoken quietly: “Philadelphia”. The Philharmonia musicians had known exactly what he meant, a desire to emulate the sound of Eugene Ormandy’s classic recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and were flexible enough to take that one word instruction and transform their sound into exactly what the conductor wanted.

Winning prizes at a competition is all well and good, but Bower is far more interested in the extent to which the competition can help young candidates in their careers, win or lose. What really matters is exposure and, to that end, she tirelessly exploits her many connections with major orchestras, forming partnerships with as many as she can. “Just making a phone call” isn’t enough to help an aspiring conductor: what Bower is looking for is that the partner orchestras take part in the competition and establish a relationship with the winners – or, because each orchestra has its own set of particularities, with other entrants to whom they take a shine. The Radio France Philharmonic, the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic, National Orchestra of Belgium, the Hamburg Symphony and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse are just some of the partners, effectively turning the competition into a good-sized shop window even for those entrants who don’t win one of the three prizes.

Mihhail Gerts conducting Svetlanov's Poème  at the 2014 competition

At least the winners and those awarded a diploma receive conducting engagements as a result. Bower points at Robert Trevino and Domingo Hindoyan, both of whom won diplomas in the 2010 competition but did not win the main prizes and both of whom have moved on to major conducting careers: Trevino has conductorships in Spain, Italy and Sweden while Hindoyan is Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Principal Guest Conductor of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Andris Poga, first prize winner in 2010, is now chief conductor of Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and of the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra. 

At this point in history, it’s impossible to hold a conversation with a Russian about a Russian musician without the subject of the Ukraine war coming to the surface. Svetlanov himself was a loyal servant of the USSR for many years, but ended his life as an outcast, having been fired by Putin for reasons that were never made totally clear. For Bower, the war is a devastating tragedy not only for Ukrainians but for Russians also: she believes it’s now inevitable that Russia will return to being the closed society as it was in the Cold War era.

Wilson Ng at the 2018 competition
© Svetlanov Competition

None of which is relevant to the memory of Svetlanov as a musician or to the sheer volume of his legacy. Idagio lists recordings of 454 works by 38 composers with 23 orchestras across the world, 297 of them with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, including the most complete collection ever made of recordings of Russian music. Svetlanov championed many composers, Nikolai Myaskovsky chief amongst them, whose orchestral works might perhaps never have become known outside Russia. 

Bower is categorical that “what Svetlanov did cannot be surpassed.” But that’s not going to stop her helping her young conductor protegés from rising to the challenge.

This article was sponsored by the Evgeny Svetlanov International Conducting Competition
Details of the competition, including rules, jury and past winners are available on their website.