Sunday Times, 31 January 2016
Having just read Dostoevsky’s nightmarish novel Demons, a Russian 17-year-old, Vladimir Jurowski, resigned from the Young Communist League. A few years earlier, this would have been a dangerous move. But it was 1989, Gorbachev was in power and Soviet communism was dying. Nevertheless, his reasons were officially requested.“I wrote that my main reason was, being a member of this organisation, I was required to conduct anti-religious propaganda among the people and be intolerant of those believing in God, and I found that unacceptable.”
He wasn’t religious, nor were his parents — “Typical Soviet-era intelligentsia,” he says — but, like many Russians in that period, he could see that communism had failed not only materially, but spiritually. People needed more and, luckily for him, the Jurowskis had more.
“I was brought up in the belief that music and art in general connect human beings with higher ideas and levels of existence. So, even if there is no God, there are certainly some things we humans have created to celebrate the idea of God, one of which is music.”
At 18, he would have had to do national service on board a nuclear submarine. His father, a conductor, knew his son was musically gifted, so, semi-legally, took the family to East Germany. Within three months, the GDR had ceased to exist and the Soviet empire had collapsed.
The family are still based in Berlin, where we met. Jurowski, 43, is now a world-class conductor, a superb interpreter of Beethoven, in particular. In Britain, he was music director at Glyndebourne and is now principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He is fluent in German and Italian, as well as English, which he speaks with a few syntactical oddities, but with barely an accent and with immense precision. At home, with his wife and two children, he speaks Russian and, when pressed, says he still feels closest to Russian culture.
Even hugging a mug of cocoa (it is -10C in Berlin), he looks disturbingly like the villain Kylo Ren in the latest Star Wars, a fact of which he is entirely unaware. When I point it out, he decides to take his seven-year-old son to see it.
In his role at the LPO, Ren, sorry, Jurowski had an idea. In 2013, the Southbank Centre ran a year-long festival of 20th-century music called The Rest Is Noise. It worked, becoming a great success for arts evangelism. “Because the subject matter aroused their appetite,” says Jude Kelly, the Southbank’s artistic director, “people accessed art, and that has always been my passion — how to get people to access art.” Furthermore, the success endorsed Kelly’s view of the Southbank as a cultural centre rather than simply an arts centre. “It is about how a culture is expressing itself through art and debate. It is very interesting to me how societies understand themselves. That is what a cultural centre is there to do — to reflect this understanding back to people.”
The year-long festival format having been proven, the Southbank began looking for another theme. Jurowski, as a joke, suggested 21st-century music, but then went away and came back with the idea of belief. So now we have Belief and Beyond Belief: Being Human in the 21st Century, a title so ambitious, it would cause an embarrassed silence at your average British dinner party. But not at a Russian one. And that’s the point: this show is very much Jurowski’s baby.
Through the year, there will be eight big weekends covering subjects such as The Search for the Meaning of Life, Should Science Depose Religion and How Do We Live with Death?. Poetry, theatre and debate will be included, as well as the music, which will not, Jurowski says, “be an endless series of Masses and Requiems”, but rather a series of thematic collections centred on the subjects of the weekends.
Kelly calls these subjects “provocations” and sets them against the reductive atheist fundamentalism of recent years. “If you stop debating mystery or searching, because it’s somehow not cool or intellectually valid, I think you are shutting down something humanity has clearly needed to discuss and express since we came into existence. It’s difficult to really enjoy some of the great gestures that have been made unless you’re prepared to explore what the composer, painter or writer was exploring that was transcendent in some way.”
In Russia, of course, the Soviet government attempted to shut down all spiritual debating and searching. As a result, even the members of the secular intelligentsia from which Jurowski sprang were yearning for a seriousness that lay beyond the competence of bureaucrats and that can only really be described as “spiritual”. The greatest artist to emerge from this moment was the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky, who died in Paris in 1986 and failed to see the end of the Soviet oppression from which he had fled.
“Tarkovsky was, for me, a typical example of the Soviet intelligentsia of the time, a searcher for God,” Jurowski says. “There was a lively interest in everything that contained spirituality, even in rudimentary form — poetry, painting, obviously literature. Another example is the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, particularly The Master and Margarita, which had a strong influence on my parents. And, as a result, I was brought up with all this knowledge. But when I was growing up, all these things were still either half forbidden or banned.”
The irony being, of course, that nothing more successfully stimulated Russian religion and spirituality than the attempt to suppress it. Unfortunately, as Jurowski notes, the Russian Orthodox church chose to exert its post-Soviet liberation by enslaving itself to a new tsar: Putin. “I see it with a great grief and bitterness that the church that for so many years has produced so many martyrs and had the simple faith of the people — and now the pre-revolutionary times are coming back. It’s just as bad.”
Being Russian doesn’t guarantee an interest in spirituality; being Russian and a great musician, however, probably does. Music has always had a claim to be the highest art — “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” Walter Pater wrote in the 19th century. He meant that in other arts, there is a struggle to unite form and content; in music, they are the same thing. It does not represent the world as language or painting does; rather, it seems to create its own reality, an argument, as the poet John Ashbery said, in which the terms are never defined. It seems natural, therefore, to relate something undefinable, something higher, with religion and spirituality.
The further point is that, for all the millennia of theoretical head-clutching, music remains profoundly paradoxical. What, exactly, is it? Philip Glass suggested to me that it exists prior to our arrival, an “underground river” that composers dip into. Mozart said in a letter that his music seemed to come to, rather than from, him, as if he were simply a channel. Do the musical intervals exist in nature or in us? Jurowski puts it most succinctly: “Yes, music is manmade, but it obeys laws that aren’t manmade.
“Music was born obviously in the caves, as an accompaniment to daily life. But it soon became an accompaniment to certain kinds of spiritual activities, such as conjuring up the spirits, celebrations and mourning. So my question was, what is music in relation to spirituality? Can music be spiritual by definition, and, if yes, what is the effect of it in different people at different times?
“This is particularly important today, when the whole idea of spirituality is seen separately from the question of religiosity, or religiosity is considered as but one of the possible forms of spirituality. The more interesting it becomes in our atomised world, to see if there is something in music that binds people together as religion used to do.” In this, he is almost on the same page as Kelly, who sees the Southbank’s festival format as one that unites people in a form of contemporary ritual.
“The thing that has always inspired me here is the  Festival of Britain. That was such an amazing idea of saying, ‘Let’s celebrate the human spirit again after a terrifying war.’ The word ‘festival’ is celebratory, but it is also meditative, a meaning that will be thought through. Many more people come to festivals here than would come to art. There is a greater sense of being in fellowship with people they don’t know. I think it makes people happier — I think we want to be with people we don’t know.”
For Jurowski, the whole project is consistent with what he wants to do as a conductor, which is, in essence, to preserve the centrality of music in contemporary society, not, as he puts it, as “pure entertainment”, but as a spiritual force, perhaps the only one we have left. “In our days of vanishing spirituality, because of the aggressively acting mass culture, it’s time for us to think, particularly as musicians, about acting responsibly with regard to how we are promoting our classical heritage.
“I see the threat not in the appropriation of values by the wrong people, but in the devalidation of values — the possibility that these values might stop being something special.”
Then he tells me about going to see Tarkovsky’s son in Italy. He was there to conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. There is no more popular nor more ambiguous work in the canon, and he decided to address the problem head on.
“I said to the orchestra at the last rehearsal, you know people go into such concerts all over the world without any thinking. They know there is this beautiful tune at the end that everybody knows, the Song of Joy, and they want to lull themselves into the celebrating mood. But if we take it responsibly, they have to pay for it by sitting through a harrowing two first movements all about war and destruction.
“My feeling is — it might sound naive —but if we learn ourselves and teach our children to listen to music with their hearts as well as their ears, in other words to become more compassionate, the world will eventually become a slightly better place.”
Sometimes, in spite of Putin’s best efforts, in spite of everything, it’s hard not to want to be a bit more Russian.
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