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  1. Wealth
January 16, 2009

A Dominant Mind

By Spear's

Spear’s meets a rising star in the world of classical music, pianist Olga Domnina

Spear’s meets a rising star in the world of classical music, pianist Olga Domnina

London, 21 December 2008. The Russian community here is abuzz with conjecture. In the exclusive Rublevka residential enclave in Moscow, as the rumour mill has it, one prominent family has spectacularly broken with the ‘New Russian’ tradition of inviting stars like Britney Spears to their celebrations and has instead launched a series of classical concerts in their home.

All that is known is that the inaugural concert of the series, on October 5, showcased two musicians resident abroad, the international violin virtuoso Julian Rachlin, based in Vienna, and a pianist completing her graduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, Olga Domnina.

Spear’s has learned that the world-renowned violist Yuri Bashmet, on hearing Miss Domnina during his Elba Festival in 2006, has spoken of ‘superlative sound’ and of ‘a striking musical presence.’ On the same occasion, the violinist Victor Tretiakov was heard to exclaim that, were he a conductor with an orchestra at his disposal, his ‘first wish would be to sign up Domnina.’

At the Royal Academy, Miss Domnina’s principal tutor, Hamish Milne, has written of her ‘performances of genuine artistry and compelling intensity… Her mastery of the instrument is avowed and her artistic ambitions lofty.’

Christopher Elton, head of piano studies at RAM, has likewise admired ‘compelling playing from an intensely musical pianist,’ while Timothy Bowers, on hearing Miss Domnina in the performance of a Brahms sonata, has added this to the plaudits: ‘This was a performance of rare stature both technically and musically. The power, concentration, structural control and passion of the playing were never in doubt.’

Adding to the mystery of the emerging artist, it has further transpired that the roster of Miss Domnina’s current sponsors at the Royal Academy, who have volunteered to underwrite tuition fees over the two years of her Performance Degree course, reads like a Who’s Who of British society, from the Duchess of Westminster to the Spectator stalwart Taki Theodoracopulos, from the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky to the thinking man’s Maecenas, Lisbet Rausing, from Bond Street jeweller Marwan Chatila to the political activist Jessica Douglas-Home.  

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Spear’s caught up with Miss Domnina on her return here after the watershed concert on the Rublevka at which she and Julian Rachlin performed, notably, the notoriously demanding Third Sonata for Violin and Piano of Johannes Brahms. 

You are a young musician, on the threshold of your career as a concert pianist. What is it like performing in such august company?
First of all, I’m hardly young. By the standards of our profession, which are quite ruthlessly ageist and only becoming more so with every passing year, I’m practically ancient. I should be writing my memoirs!

At thirty, a musician is expected to have completed the greater part of his career, to have garnered recognition and fame, in short, to have made whatever contribution the music world – the critics, the agents, the impresarios, the record companies – is to judge him on.

The problem of treating musicians like sportsmen is in my view very grave and reflects poorly on contemporary society, which as indiscriminating as it is sensationalist.

To be sure, musical skills are in part physical, and this is something one acquires in one’s early years, but classical music is by and large the sum of its metaphysical components, intellectual as well as spiritual.

Before you can play Brahms, even if you’ve very nimble fingers, you need to have lived something of his life. You need to have loved and striven.

You don’t believe in child prodigies, then? Were you one?
Not in the least. I began playing the piano aged 7. At 15, I was accepted by the Gnesin Academy, where I studied for the following nine years, principally with Andrei Khitruk, who is a pupil of the late Lev Naumov and a rare remnant of the sort of milieu which made the Russian School what it was.

Looking back, to suggest that at some point during those years of apprenticeship I might make a meaningful contribution to the performance of a work by Schubert or Prokofiev makes me cringe. 

What did I know of death, so I could dare to attempt, say, the Schubert Sonata in B flat Major? What did I know of politics, so I could tackle Prokofiev with all his tics and quirks and Stalin’s prizes and paranoias? And, by the same token, it makes me smile when I hear a curly boy of 13 tearing his way through a Chopin Scherzo. 

Can a writer who has no experience of unrequited passion produce a book on a par with Turgenev’s First Love? Would you buy such a book? Then why on earth would you take this boy seriously, even assuming all his commas are in the right place?

Of course there are exceptions, such as Rimbaud who retired from writing poetry at 19, but they rather prove the rule. Unfortunately, much of what takes place on the cultural scene today is more to do with sound bites, with spectacle, with the ethos of the music-hall and the circus, rather than with adding an honest brick to the edifice of European culture.

Are you from a musical family? Were your parents supportive of your choice of profession?
My parents were supportive, which made all the difference, but neither is in the least musical. When I was growing up, my father was a military test pilot, my mother worked in the same industry, military aviation. When that sector more or less collapsed in the 1990s, my parents could barely make the ends meet, and they denied themselves everything so I could pay for my schooling. 

Still, the upright piano I grew up playing at home would be thrilled if somebody called it a wreck. I think it was made of plywood. There was nothing else to do but linger at the Gnesin, from the break of dawn until closing time, scrounging what time could be had at one of our concert grands, which, truth to tell, weren’t exactly up to international standard either.

On the bright side, all this was a character-building experience, and I don’t think I would’ve become a better musician if my parents had had more money, or if my food had been put in my mouth already chewed.

What about international competitions? Didn’t you want to participate in those, as many of your contemporaries see them as a viable launching pad for a solo career?
Perhaps foolishly, I was dying to participate in all those things, and a couple of times I actually did. But money was really scarce, there was always a big to-do about obtaining the costly visas, and besides, my parents weren’t particularly keen.

My mother is to this day forbidden from traveling abroad by the secrecy clause of her employment contract with Sukhoi Aircraft, and she thought that eyebrows would be raised. 

I did manage to get to the San Bartolomeo in Italy in 1999, which I won, and again to Spain some years later, to the 2005 Maria Canals Piano Competition in Barcelona, where I won a frustrating Special Mention.

But, on the whole, I was an ugly duckling, thinking that these international competitions were for other people, for the high-fliers and the jet-setters of the music world, while I was just an ordinary Russian girl, who ought to stay put and be good.
When did that finally change for you?
It all changed in 2005, when I went to Spain at the joint invitation of Ramon Ticò, whom I had met as one the sponsors of the Canals in Barcelona, and the Juilliard professor Oxana Yablonskaya from New York, who was running a summer school in the Pyrenees, in a Catalan village on the French border. 

There I met my future husband, a Moscow-born British writer who divides his time between England and Sicily. So by the end of that year we were engaged, I was living a stone’s throw from Teatro Massimo in Palermo, eating a lot of pasta and wondering what to do next.

And you decided on the Royal Academy of Music?
Yes, eventually. At first it seemed such an absurd dream, to be catapulted from the outskirts of Moscow, where I had been staying put and being a good girl for so long, smack in the middle of Marylebone, a quick amble from the Wigmore Hall and the Steinway showroom, to say nothing of all the galleries and museums. 

True enough, I was now a resident of sunny Sicily, complete with an Italian permesso di soggiorno and an espresso machine, and a leap of this kind no longer seemed so wonderfully bizarre. But we had a good piano in the house, and I was already happy enough in Palermo.

Besides, I was absolutely certain that nobody in London, where I knew maybe five people, would pay for me to attend the Academy even if I were to get accepted. Which, to my mind, was a huge ‘if.’

But anyway, you got in. Was that a pivotal moment?
My husband practically dragged me to the auditions. I don’t want to go into details too much, but during my adolescence I was plagued by a skin condition that all the Russian doctors said was chronic and incurable, particularly irritating as it affected the hands. It was only after I’d settled in Italy that a specialist, Dr Klaus Wolff of Vienna, was able to diagnose and cure it once and for all. 

That was after the trip to London, however, and as it happened I was in the grip of the illness in the month preceding the RAM examination. I remember that after I had played for the examiners, I surreptitiously wiped the keyboard with a handkerchief, because it was all covered in blood.

Anyway, they accepted me on the spot, and even awarded me a generous merit scholarship towards my first year’s fees. But where the rest of the money would come from was still a bit of a puzzle at that point.

How did you manage it in the end?
My husband, who is after all a writer, sent a kind of round-robin letter to all his friends, detailing what little substance there was, at that juncture, to my musical career and asking for help.

Eventually it made the expected rounds, and contributions started to come in to the RAM tuition account, the first of these from my old Barcelona acquaintance, Ramon Ticò, who had been a kind of angelic presence when I met my future husband in Spain. 

But a lot of people sent their contributions without ever hearing me perform, simply on the strength of my husband’s appeal. He said he was confident that when it comes to begging letters, genuineness is quite as rare – and just as irresistible – as in the art of musical performance, and that our honesty was certain to be rewarded.

So, before long, there was enough in the RAM account to cover the tuition, and in 2007 we moved to London, where most of my new patrons could finally hear me play.

Tell me how that happened. Did you feel like a swan at last?
It was all thanks to an old acquaintance of my husband’s, the architect Hugh Geddes, a music lover who took it upon himself to organize a private concert at the house of some friends of his in Kensington, cultivated people with a fantastic concert instrument.

He got many of my sponsors together under their roof, and I played a single work for what turned out to be an incredibly high-powered audience of about fifty. 

It was Brahms’ Third Piano Sonata, which is a veritable monster, in five movements, three-quarters of an hour long, and leaves you for dead when it’s finished with you. All I can say is that, as a result of that concert, raising money for my tuition at the Academy was a lot easier the second time round. I guess that’s the ultimate compliment, both to Brahms and to me.

Have you enjoyed your studies at RAM? How is the teaching different from what you were used to at the conservatory in Moscow?
Very much, all largely due to my phenomenal principal tutor there, Professor Hamish Milne. I had heard about him while still at the Gnesin, as he happens to be a leading authority on early twentieth-century Russian music, Nikolai Medtner and others.

The amazing thing for me, about studying with him, is to feel totally free from the strictures of the Russian School, which, while as good as any, is after all but a school. 

Only a stubborn Scot can stand up to it, and Professor Milne is a great individualist, I’d say almost religiously so, with the result that at RAM I find myself in a kind of interstellar weightlessness, which is very stimulating.

The result is that over the past year I’ve been able to work on building a repertoire exactly the way I wanted, of which the Brahms F minor and the Schubert B flat Major Sonatas are cornerstones, along with the Russian works I’ve been playing all my life, Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata, Scriabin’s Second, Fifth and Tenth Sonatas, Prokofiev’s Ninth Sonata, Stravinsky’s ‘Petrouchka’ and so on. 

For me, my time at RAM is a synthesis, and a priceless validation, of everything I’d accumulated before I arrived in Marylebone Road – experience, hope, knowledge, intuition, originality, courage, taste.

So what’s the next step? Tell us about the new Rublevka concert series. Do you think that the future of serious music, or at least your own, is wrapped up with private initiatives of this kind?
I think they are tremendously important, certainly, in that they allow the newcomer – the underdog, the nonconformist, the upstart – to bypass the ‘conventional’ mechanism of recognition, which as I said is very set in its ways, and to try his mettle against world-renowned performers, significantly, before a small and sophisticated audience. In my own case, such private initiatives are a lifesaver, allowing me to earn enough to finance my stay in London as a student. 

So I am very grateful to my Rublevka hosts for having given me a hand in the administration of the series – which has the potential for becoming a fully fledged international music festival – as well as for suggesting that I should participate in it alongside artists of Julian Rachlin’s calibre.

But apart from this, I have by no means renounced whatever ‘conventional’ means of making a living that a classical musician may have at his disposal. This means finishing my studies at RAM in June, and plunging right in.

Anything specific?
A Swiss businessman who has heard me play Brahms in a private concert in St Tropez last winter has kindly offered to finance a no-expense-spared recording in a studio near Geneva.

Apart from a disk of Rachmaninov I had made when I was still living in Russia, this will be my real debut, and I am quite busy at present working out exactly what my choice of material should be for that.

In the end, what do you think makes a classical musician? What is the magic ingredient?
Intelligence, which comes in a whole gamut of guises, from iron discipline all the way to quirky originality. At bottom, with music as I believe with all the arts, it is the act of thinking through every millisecond of one’s time on earth that makes all the difference between the passable and the really perfect, between the pleasant and the really persuasive.

With the most acrobatic set of fingers in Creation, the memory capacity of an idiot savant, and the looks and wardrobe of a Hollywood movie star, if you have not the brains to understand why Schubert wrote what he wrote, your concert will soon be forgotten. I hope that the music I play resonates long in the future, because the future is where the intelligent artist lives.

Photographs of Olga Domnina by Gusov

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