Minimalism with a human face

A concert dedicated to works of prominent Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov will be performed by an ensemble of award-winning musicians

Sketches to Sunset (photo credit: OLGA KALITEEVSKAYA)
Sketches to Sunset
(photo credit: OLGA KALITEEVSKAYA)
A very special concert, titled “Sketches to Sunset” will take place October 13th at the Israeli Music Conservatory in Tel Aviv. An ensemble comprised of leading Russian musicians will perform chamber pieces by Leonid Desyatnikov (b.1955), who is counted among the most prominent Russian composers of our time. Earlier this year, his Yiddish Five Songs for Voice and String Quartet had its Israeli premiere by soprano Hila Baggio and the Jerusalem Quartet, but this is for the first time that the entire program will be dedicated to Desyatnikov’s music.

Born in Kharkov, Ukraine, into a family of Jewish accountants, Desyatnikov started his music studies in his native city, later continuing to the Leningrad Conservatory. A prolific, internationally acclaimed and much-awarded composer, he has operas, ballets, vocal cycles, numerous film scores and more to his credit. He also served as artistic director for the Bolshoi Theater of Moscow from 2009-2010.

Speaking by phone from his Saint Petersburg home on the eve of the Tel Aviv concert, at which he will be present, Desyatnikov confided that it is only through chamber music that he can fully express himself.

“Due to my character, I prefer listening to music alone, through headphones. For me this is an intimate experience that I cherish immensely. There are too many distracting factors in a concert hall. Granted, one can listen also to a symphony orchestra through headphones, but again, there are far too many participants in this process. True communication – and for me, music is about communication – does not suggest too many people involved. 

Among other pieces, the concert program will feature Songs of Bukovina, a set of 24 preludes for piano, loosely based on Ukrainian folk songs. Music critics have found connections between this latest opus by Desyatnikov and 24 Preludes by Shostakovich, but Desyatnikov does not agree.

“The reason probably is that at the Saint Petersburg and Moscow premieres of Songs of Bukovina, both pieces were performed on the same evening. But as much as I love Shostakovich, I can’t say that his music has influenced this particular piece of mine. Granted, when composing the Songs of Bukovina, I kept in my mind thes early preludes by Shostakovich, yet not only, but also preludes by Chopin and maybe even a hardly known cycle by Gabriel Fauré.”
Do you relate to composers of the past or enter into a dialogue with them?

“For me, managing a dialogue with composers of the past is even more natural than communicating with my living counterparts. There is a non-verbal dialogue which I find difficult to describe. But sometimes a tiny homage, just a few notes appears within my music text. This is what happens also in my Songs of Bukovina. Each prelude is based on a specific folk song, but you can suddenly hear something that clearly reminds you of Schubert, Schumann or Rachmaninov. And this is not even me – but somebody who composes music within me. 

The composer says he had “a years-long romance” with music by Astor Piazzolla. “I owe it to violinist Gidon Kremer, who took upon himself a mission of promoting your music. He achieved his goal. Nowadays, this music is often performed in the framework of academic concerts. I participated in this process, too, as arranger, editor and whatnot and enjoyed my work immensely. Tracing Astor is a part of this project.”

Desyatnikov explained that unlike many contemporary composers, Piazzolla was “blessed with a great sense of rhythm. I first heard his music at the late 1980’s and it sounded very fresh for me. It was able to bridge highbrow and lowbrow genres. A city Bohemian, coming from clubs and small restaurants, he created a Nuevo Tango genre, which was something in between, and I love it. At least four or five pieces by Piazzolla are true gems, which could be compared even to Schubert’s music.”
Do you agree that quite often Piazolla’s music sounds humorous?

“I’d rather say, ‘My music is not boring.’ I see myself among the audience and think that I shouldn’t be bored. Humor is just a tool to save the audience from boredom.”

When asked about his music identity, the composer admits that although in the past he tried hard to put himself in some category or genre, he occasionally gave up. 

“I once defined my genre as a minimalism with a human face, but I really hate myself for saying it in a wrong place and a wrong time, because this joke became viral. I am just a Russian composer.”

Speaking about the ensemble, the internationally acclaimed pianist Alexey Goribol, who will participate in the concert, says that the musicians are “among the best that Russia can offer nowadays. They have performed the composer’s music at important festivals and prestigious concert venues and as such are exclusive bearers of Desyatnikov’s music culture.”

The concert will take place on October 13 at the Israel Music Conservatory in Tel Aviv. The program will feature Variations on Obtaining of a Dwelling for violoncello and piano; Songs of Bukovina 24 Preludes for piano; Wie der Alte Leiermann for violin and piano; Tracing Astor for violin, viola, cello and piano; and Sketches to Sunset for flute, clarinet, violin, double bass and piano.
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