Karine Georgian  cellist

Musings and interviews:
Interviewed by Tim Janof for International Cello Society, www.cello.org, April 2004

Born into a family of musicians in Moscow, Karine Georgian began her cello studies at the age of five under her father, later studying at the Moscow Conservatoire under Rostropovich. After taking the First Prize and Gold Medal at the Third Tchaikovsky International Competition, she launched an international career that has spanned all the countries of the former Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, the Far East, and the United States, starting with the American premiere of Khachaturian’s Cello Rhapsody with the Chicago Symphony conducted by the composer (her recording with the composer and the Moscow Bolshoi Radio Symphony Orchestra has recently been reissued by Melodiya/BMG Classics).

Today, Karine Georgian is a seasoned performer with a vast experience on concert platforms across the world, having appeared with many of the leading orchestras and conductors of our time. Her repertoire encompasses more than forty concertos and a huge range of instrumental and chamber music. She has been associated with many leading composers of our day, many of whom have worked with her and written works for her. These include Alfred Schnittke (of whose First Cello Concerto she gave the US premiere in Carnegie Hall in 1989), Edison Denisov, Tigran Mansurian, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alexander Goehr, Dmitri Smirnov (Cello Concerto, premiered with the BBC Philharmonic under Yan Pascal Tortelier in 1996), Howard Skempton, and Elena Firsova (Chamber Concerto No. 5). In 1994 she made her first visit to Australia to give the Australian premiere of Britten’s Cello Symphony. Among last season’s more enjoyable engagements was a major UK tour with the Moscow Philharmonic under Yuri Simonov, and a gala concert celebrating the Festival of the August Moon, televised live from the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.

In 1980 Karine Georgian settled in London and two years later succeeded André Navarra as Professor of Cello at the Musikhochschule in Detmold in Germany. Much in demand as a teacher, after more than 20 years at Detmold she has now moved to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. She has given master classes in England, Italy, Germany, Japan and Austria, and annually since 1989 (except for 1998) has taught and played at Dartington.

TJ: You started playing the cello when you were only five years old.

KG: Yes, and my father, Armen Georgian, a distinguished cellist and teacher in Moscow, was my first teacher. He was born in Baku in 1904, which was an important cultural center at that time. Baku is also where Rostropovich was born. My father’s family was persecuted in the 1916 massacre of the Armenians and they fled to Moscow just at the time when the Russian Revolution was heating up. These were turbulent times.

My father studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Anatoly Brandukov, an important cellist and conductor who had studied with Cossmann and Fitzenhagen (who made the most commonly played version of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations). He was a great friend of Rachmaninoff too. He was best man at Rachmaninoff’s wedding, and the dedicatee of the Sonata and the Trios. My father was fortunate to study with such an illustrious cellist.

After studying with Brandukov, my father became a soloist, formed his own trio for Moscow Radio, and was for a time the cellist of Armenia’s leading string quartet, the Komitas Quartet. Then he joined the faculty of what is now the Russian Academy of Music in Moscow, formerly known as the “Gnessin Institute”, which is where I studied. He ended up teaching there for over fifty years. He was totally dedicated to music and the cello, and he had a hard time seeing life outside these things, for better or worse.

He was absolutely determined to make a cellist out of me. He gave me a lesson practically every day. From a cellistic standpoint, I was very lucky to have this opportunity, but it was complicated studying with a parent. He was a very systematic and serious man. He made sure I practiced two or three hours every day when I was 5 years old, even in summers when we were in the country. I have a picture of me sitting on a stump with my cello, but I wasn’t just posing for the picture. He made me practice outside because sunshine and fresh air were supposed to be good for me. Unfortunately, there were lots of mosquitoes too. I hated practicing outside because nothing sounded particularly good in open air.

When I was seven years old I went to the Gnessin School, part of the Gnessin Institute, where my father was teaching, and I continued my studies with him. The school emphasized music, of course, but we also studied standard subjects, such as literature and history. We basically had a normal education, but with an emphasis on music courses, including music theory and history, as well as instrumental lessons. I stayed there until I was eighteen.

Was your mother a musician?

Yes. Her name was Galina Sakharova. She was a wonderful soprano, and a completely natural talent. Other than bass singers, Russians weren’t exactly known for their bel canto singers. When one thinks of Russian musical gods, other than Chaliapin, instrumentalists such as Rachmaninoff, Elman, Heifetz, Rostropovich, Koussevitsky, Oistrakh, Richter, Gilels, Neuhaus, come to mind, not singers. My mother had great success in Russia but she never appeared in the West, so her name is relatively unknown outside Russia. My father’s sister had married a Swedish diplomat, and this link to the West disqualified my mother from being allowed to travel abroad. Instead, she was a soloist on Radio Moscow. Apparently one can download from the internet some rather enchanting duos she recorded with another great Russian singer, the mezzo Zara Dolukhanova.

Were you identified early on as somebody who might have a strong music career?

I believe so, yes. I was already playing concertos with my school orchestra before I entered the Gnessin Institute. I used a 1/4-size cello back then and my father had a special small chair made for me. I was too young to be nervous, so performing was a pure joy. Later, while still at the Gnessin Institute, I played all the major concertos, including Schumann, Dvorak, and Rococo.

After the Gnessin Institute, you studied with Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory.

Rostropovich came to one of my concerto performances at the Gnessin Institute. Afterwards, a meeting was arranged with me at his home. This was very exciting because every cellist’s dream was to be in Rostropovich’s class at the Moscow Conservatory. I played the second movement of the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto (Sinfonia Concertante), completely terrified to be playing for the great maestro. After I played, he ran me through some interesting exercises in order to get a sense of how my mind worked. He had me play some sort of duple figure on one string and a triple figure on the other, simultaneously. I must have done okay because he took me on as his student in 1962. I ended up staying until 1969.

Though I was in his class for many years, there would sometimes be long periods between lessons with him, since his international career had taken off at that point. He would tour in America for several months and we’d take lessons from his teaching assistant. But the real point was that we were supposed to work on directing ourselves; this was an important part of our training. When he was in town, he would use the master class format for lessons so that others could listen in and so he wouldn’t have to repeat himself as much with students that were or would be studying the same piece. The lessons were always packed with spectators, and not just by his cello students. Others, including teachers from out of town, came too.

Were you encouraged to do lots of scales and etudes while at the Moscow Conservatory?

Not really, since I had already done so much of that with my father. Scales were not emphasized in Rostropovich’s class, since our technical level was generally very high. I had to keep them under my fingers, though, since it was required that we play scales and etudes for a committee twice per year, at least for the first two years of school.

What did Rostropovich emphasize with you?

He felt that my technique was good, so he talked a lot about producing different kinds of sounds, both in terms of quantity and widening my palette of colors. One of the first things he did was to assign me five or six contrasting miniature pieces. My assignment was to bring out the unique sound of each piece, using different vibrati, and so on.

Playing for him was an event that was not to be taken lightly and we had to be very well prepared. If we dared come with the sheet music on Tuesday, we had to be sure to memorize it by the next lesson on Thursday. He seemed to take his own legendary memory for granted at times.

He wanted us to know the music inside and out, and not just the cello part. He would stop us while we were playing a concerto in a lesson and ask us which instrument was playing a certain accompaniment. One time he asked me to play the piano part — on the piano — of the slow (fortunately) movement of the Shostakovich Sonata. Another time, he started playing the other “implied” voices on the piano as I played the fugue in the first movement of the Fifth Suite. He became so involved that he drowned me out, which may have been for the best at that time.

Who were some of your fellow students when you studied at the Moscow Conservatory?

There were a number of fantastic cellists in my class — Natalia Gutman, David Geringas, Mischa Maisky, and Jacqueline du Pré. That was quite a competitive class.

What do you recall about du Pré?

She was there for less than a year. I still remember her electrifying playing in the Haydn C Major Concerto in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The hall was so packed that there was a crowd behind the stage too. Her radiant personality and her expressivity made us all a sit up and take notice. She made an enormous impact on the music scene in Moscow.

None of us had yet been outside of Russia, and it was if she was from another world. I remember a party at Rostropovich’s house where she was dancing with a complete lack of inhibition. The rest of us stood around and watched her in amazement. We had grown up in the Soviet system, in which one was very careful about what one said and did, and here she was doing whatever she felt like. We weren’t sure what to make of her.

You were awarded first prize in the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition. Stephen Kates and Arto Noras shared the second prize. Did you know that you were going to win ahead of time?

No, I didn’t, but my preparation was such that my odds of success were very high. I had won the All Union Competition about six months before the Tchaikovsky Competition, which required much of the same repertoire. This meant that I had already worked up the repertoire to a high level and that I had already been battle-tested. I also kept refining my performances in lessons with Rostropovich. The downside of this kind of intense preparation, however, was that I had to make a special effort to maintain a sense of spontaneity in my playing.

A couple of days prior to the first round of the Tchaikovsky Competition, I had a lesson with Rostropovich. I went in front of the class and sat down to play. Just before I put my bow to the string Rostropovich stopped me and said, “No you don’t. Go out and come back in again”. He was trying to teach me how to come on stage with a projected sense of confidence and purpose. I tried again and he said that it still wasn’t good enough, so I had to come back in again. Though I was extremely frustrated by the end of this experience, which was the longest fifteen minutes of my life, I grew to understand that even the very first step on stage is important. It’s not about showing off, it’s about creating just the right atmosphere for the music that is about to come.

Did the government put any pressure on you to win?

Not particularly, though there was a strong social pressure because all we Soviet musicians knew that we were seen as representing the Soviet Union. Success would bring glory to our way of life, at least in certain people’s eyes. In essence, pressure to succeed was built into the system.

The pressure must have been quite intense, though, because I had a dream ten or fifteen years later in which I had to enter another competition, not as a student but as an established professional. You might say it was more of a nightmare. The pressures of the Tchaikovsky must have had quite an effect on my psyche for the feelings to re-surface after so many years.

What did the Tchaikovsky Competition do for your career?

It opened a lot of doors for me for the next few years. I played the Shostakovich 2nd Concerto in Germany, which was a fairly new piece at that time. I collaborated with Khachaturian on his Rhapsody, and he and I toured around the world with him as conductor. I soloed with the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and played a recital in Carnegie Hall. I also toured throughout Europe. My career was progressing nicely after the Tchaikovsky.

What do you think of competitions now?

Competitions are an extreme situation in which one literally checks everything about one’s playing: instrumental ability, preparation, mental and physical endurance, psyche, and so on. But there are so many wonderful musicians who don’t do their best in competitions that, although I understand why young players have to enter them, I want them to understand that there is a world of music beyond winning or losing on the day. Even though these days it is hard to flourish without having won a competition, there are always exceptions, so it is legitimate to question their value from a career standpoint in the long term. At the very least the competition system gives people opportunities to appear before the public they might not otherwise have. I certainly benefited, but not everybody is so lucky.

Once you go through a competition like the Tchaikovsky, your perspective on certain things change. For instance, the first round began at 8:00am and my turn was around 8:30am. I had to start with the Prelude of the Sixth Bach Suite, which was quite a piece to be playing first thing in the morning. Now when students complain about 9am lessons I can only smile.

Did you notice a difference between Eastern Bloc players and Western players in terms of technical or musical approaches?

I didn’t, but I was so focused during the competition that I wasn’t really paying attention to anybody else. I did see Noras play the Bach Third Suite and Kates play Shostakovich No. 1 on TV after the competition. They both played beautifully.

How were you affected when Rostropovich went into exile in 1974?

I was definitely affected on a personal level because he was my mentor for seven years. When he left, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again. And then my own career started to be affected. After having great career success abroad, suddenly I wasn’t playing any concerts in the West. As far as I know, there wasn’t an explicit order from the upper echelons in the government to end my performing career, it was just that the system turned away from me. I finally left the country in 1980 and I had to re-build my life from the ground up, which was a very difficult time for me personally.

How did you manage to leave the country?

With difficulty and a considerable amount of preparation. Some day I will write an account of it, but now is not the time. I never tried to exploit the situation to help me make a career in the West, I simply hoped people would accept that I had left there, and now I was here, without making a fuss of it. In retrospect, this may have been naive.

Do you think there is such a thing as a Russian style of playing? Was there 40 years ago? One stereotype of a Russian player is that he or she plays with a big sound much of the time, no matter the era of the music.

There may have been a grain of truth to that stereotype back when I was at the Moscow Conservatory. There was certainly an emphasis upon Romantic and virtuoso repertoire at that time. The baroque movement in Russia was only just beginning when Trevor Pinnock was already in full bloom, so our Bach was pretty heavy-handed in the 1960’s.

As for whether there was a so-called “Russian sound,” I would say that there were some common tendencies in Russian players. One contributing factor to this is that our system of music schools created a certain consistency of technical approach from student to student. Also the gods of the Moscow Conservatory happened to be giants on the international music scene – Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Neuhaus, Gilels, Kogan, Oborin, Yudina (Richter did not teach). How could such amazing artists and personalities not be highly influential in shaping the sound of an entire generation of Russians? Having said this, one shouldn’t get carried away with this stereotype. It’s only true up to a point.

There is a tendency in some critics to assume that Russians can play Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but not Debussy. And that Germans are better at Beethoven than Shostakovich. I find this quite irritating. It pigeonholes people and doesn’t allow for the fact that great artistry can cross nationalist lines.

You play with a long endpin. Is this due to Rostropovich’s influence?

Perhaps, but I do it because it feels right to me. I had a student who played with such a long endpin that the cello was practically horizontal. I’ve seen other students with endpins that are so short that the sound seems to go more into the floor than out to the audience. The key is to find the right balance with the right posture so that one has the most natural relationship possible with the instrument. I don’t dictate endpin lengths to my students.

In a master class in Manchester, you commented on how students used their “non-playing parts” when they played. For instance, you told one student not to move so much because it detracted from the musical line. With another student, you said that one plays with the arms, not the head. What is the guiding principle behind these comments?

First of all, I’m not suggesting that people play as if they are in a straightjacket. When one looks at a really good athlete, all the motions are integrated. No motion is wasted, and every motion accomplishes the purpose for which it is intended. Nothing is for showing off, and the movement looks perfectly natural.

A similar idea applies to playing an instrument. Extraneous motions can detract from the music, both visually and in terms of what actually comes out. For instance, sometimes people bob their heads when they want to make an accent with their bow. Unfortunately, the accent often doesn’t come out. It is better to sit in a balanced manner and play from one’s center, rather than trying to force the music out with unnecessary motions.

You recommended in a master class to not press too much, to allow the strings to ring, and to play with a light left hand. Do you often see students doing the opposite?

I see this all the time. A classic problem is that tension can block the connection between one’s concept, what one hears, and one’s technical ability to achieve it. If the right hand becomes tense, which is often the case, the left hand usually tenses up as well, and perhaps overpresses, and then the sound suffers, including the vibrato and intonation.

How do you address this problem with your students?

I ask them to feel the flow in the bow arm, to feel free, and to allow the instrument to sound. I use similar concepts with the left hand as well.

The process of learning to play without tension is a form of healing. As we rid ourselves of tension, we become more aware of our mind-body relationship. We discover a lot about ourselves as we strive to set ourselves free.

Did your teachers in Russia talk a lot about having free and ringing sound?

Not explicitly. Rostropovich talked a lot about sound production specifically in relation to the music we were studying, and techniques to achieve it, but never just sound for its own sake. I had to tailor my sound to the music, which gave me a range of sonorities. I have developed these over the years and they are what I now discuss with my students.

You made some comments of a psychological nature to the students in your master class. One student was “closed in on herself.” Another seemed to worry about “being judged too much”.

Seeing a student as a unique individual with individual needs is a significant part of teaching, and is an endlessly fascinating challenge. The basic technical principles are transferable from student to student, but each student has a different psyche and therefore must be approached differently.

You mentioned playing Bach earlier. Has your approach to Bach changed over the years?

Absolutely. As I said before, the Baroque movement was slow to arrive in Russia. My Bach was more heavy and Romantic back then. I’ve been striving for a more Baroque style in the last several years, and now my third attempt at recording the Bach Gamba Sonatas will soon be coming out on CD, with harpsichordist Gary Cooper. I bought a baroque bow for the recording, even though I play the Gamba Sonatas on a cello.

Unfortunately my baroque bow was stolen after a concert in Germany, and I was so upset I swore I wouldn’t buy another one. I tried playing the Gamba Sonatas with my regular Henri bow instead, which is much heavier than my baroque bow had been. What I discovered was that I could achieve similar articulation and speaking qualities with my modern bow if I imagined it as being very light! I realize this may sound sort of crazy, but it’s true. It goes back to one of the first principles of playing an instrument: imagine the sound you want first, and then try to create it. It’s possible to produce a baroque sound with a modern setup if you know exactly what you want to sound like.

This also relates to your earlier question about the psychological aspects of teaching. Issues of the mind-body connection come up during my own practice sessions, i.e. when I’m teaching myself.

When discussing the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto (Sinfonia Concertante), you talked about the music as being like a landscape, in which melodies have contours like rolling hills. Is this approach unique to the Prokofiev, or do you use a similar approach for pretty much every piece?

Some kind of imagery can apply to pretty much every piece. The goal of such advice is to help the student transcend instrumental concerns and to fully experience the music. You might have noticed that I didn’t describe the landscape. The student needs to come up with his or her own imagery, and the picture should change from piece to piece. The first movement of the Prokofiev could not be more different from the second movement of the Dvorak Concerto, for instance. A teacher’s task is to stimulate a student’s imagination so that the music springs to life.

This reminds me of a couple of interesting books. One is by Glenn Gould, or rather a compilation of articles by Gould called The Glenn Gould Reader, in which he writes that practicing occurs in the mind, not at the instrument. Of course, he was a genius, so there were things he could do that others couldn’t. Nevertheless, what he says is very important. Before sitting down to play a piece for the first time, one should sit down with the score and think. Don’t play it before it is in your head.

The second book is by Thomas Hemsley, called Singing and Imagination: A Human Approach to a Great Musical Tradition, published by Oxford University Press. Hemsley was in his day a great artist and wonderful singer, and today is an inspirational teacher, but his ideas apply to playing the cello as well, since one of our goals is to sing through our instruments. He discusses the importance of imagination when making music. I suggest everybody read it.