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Soviet Conductor Yuri Simonov Going the Distance

September 12, 1989|JOHN HENKEN

The distance from Moscow to Los Angeles can be measured many ways. Logistically, it meant a 19-hour trip for conductor Yuri Simonov, visibly suffering from jet lag half a day after his arrival here Friday night.

In terms of musical politics, the distance seems even greater. Simonov arrived for the penultimate week of Hollywood Bowl concerts without knowing that he was replacing Andre Previn, or even that Previn had resigned as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic under controversial circumstances.

When asked how he felt about the programs he had inherited, Simonov replied: "I had no choice. They were what was offered." He expressed curiosity about who concocted the agendas, and it was only then that he heard something about our abrupt extra-musical symphonic modulations of this spring and summer.

So then, what does he know about Hollywood Bowl?

"Absolutely nothing," Simonov promptly replies. "I only know that I'm supposed to have a white tuxedo--which I do not have!"

A compact, poised man of clear charm--an expressive raconteur in Russian, even though tired and taking medicine for a headache--Simonov proved disarmingly frank. The conversation, excepting a few polite asides in English, was translated through the services of Philharmonic violinist Tamara Chernyak.

The son of opera singers, Simonov grew up in the theater. As a boy soprano with a high C, he sang such disparate and unlikely things as Boris' monologue from "Boris Gudounov" and Marguerite's Jewel Song from "Faust" for his music entrance exams at age 7.

A child prodigy, he came quickly to the podium. "I am 48 years old," he proudly says, "and 36 years I've been a conductor."

In those years, Simonov has conducted seemingly every musical organization in the Soviet Union, including a 16-year stint as chief conductor for the Bolshoi Opera. He brought the Bolshoi Opera to the United States on tour in 1973, and returned with dancer Maya Plisetskaya for another tour in 1975.

He has not been in this country since then, and the performances today and Thursday mark his North American symphonic debut.

Simonov is not alarmed about making this debut under the less-than-ideal summer conditions. He has conducted at smaller outdoor venues in the Soviet Union, and in very large halls such as the Kremlin Palace, "absolutely not suitable for classical music. . . . I think that must be very good training for the Hollywood Bowl."

The programs Simonov has assumed include much common Russian music--"Marche Slave" and the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1, with Jeffrey Kahane, today and the "Pathetique" Symphony Thursday--but also Copland's "Appalachian Spring" Suite. That is not music that is played in the Soviet Union, although Simonov has conducted it before in London, where he has been busy for the last two years with all the resident orchestras, including some recording.

Repertory restraints in the Soviet Union, it gradually emerges, have been a long-term irritation and career hindrance for Simonov. When first asked why he left the Bolshoi, he simply says with a shrug: "How long can you sit in a golden cage?" Job security and money, he suggests, are not everything.

Later, he recounts his long struggle to get Wagner performed at the Bolshoi, over the objections of bureaucrats for whom Wagner was associated with Hitler.

"I asked them, what would you do if, by chance, Hitler had liked Tchaikovsky?"

He finally got "Rheingold" performed, only to see the production canceled the day after he left it. He added "Cosi fan Tutte" and performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to the Bolshoi repertory in his last years there.

"How can you consider yourself to be world-class," he asks in wonder, "if you have no Wagner, no Mozart, no Beethoven?"

For his troubles, Simonov was criticized for "German-like inclinations." He makes no bones about the focus of his musical interests: "What can I do if Shostakovich, Wagner, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are my favorite composers?"

"The biggest dream of my life," he says, "is to conduct the 'Ring,' complete." Where? "Bayreuth, of course," he says with a laugh, "but they have not invited me--yet."

Simonov's discussion of his career is frequently tinged with regrets that he was not able to accept Western job offers, or to record as much as he would have liked. He felt that he was working against the official grain in many ways, and sees this period of glasnost and perestroika as one of opportunity.

"It became clear that this is a good time to think about my own career," he says.

The blessings of openness, however, have not been evenly bestowed, he reports.

"Those who were working honestly, for them, life got more difficult. The other ones, who were trying to sneak by and fake it, they got new and great opportunities."

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