Composer Rodion Shchedrin on practice, technology and the secret of a long and happy marriage


Nationality is key to the art of composer Rodion Shchedrin. His operas and ballets are almost exclusively inspired by classic Russian literature.
Shchedrin’s works — both new creations and those written years ago — such as the ballets “Anna Karenina,” “The Seagull” and “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” and the operas “The Enchanted Wanderer” and “Dead Souls” are now being enthusiastically staged by Russian companies, with the Mariinsky Theater showing the biggest appetite.
Every month, local audiences can attend a Shchedrin work. Two upcoming options are “The Little Humpbacked Horse” on March 17 and “Anna Karenina” on March 31.
Born in Moscow in 1932 in the family of a composer and a lecturer on the history of music, Shchedrin was brought up in a classical music environment. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory as both a pianist and composer, and often performed his piano works himself.
A self-confessed workaholic, Shchedrin likes to repeat an old joke: A man is walking around New York and asks for directions. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” the man wonders. “Practice, practice and practice,” comes the reply.
“However talented one may be, skipping rehearsals is an absolute taboo,” the composer said. “To retain self-respect and the respect of your audiences, it is better to cancel a performance altogether than to perform a raw, under-rehearsed piece. And the older you become, the more rehearsal time you need. This is because the more professional you are, the more nuances you can work on.”
Without the slightest fear of appearing old-fashioned, Shchedrin admits he still composes without using any computer technology. All he needs, he says, is the right state of mind, a pen and a few sheets of paper.
“Of course, I am not entirely computer-illiterate: I can read and send emails and check out videos on YouTube, but that is about it,” the composer smiles. “I absolutely consciously stop there. Technology does not help my creative process. Rather, it distracts me.”
The composer is never apart from his mobile phone but his wife, the legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, does not use one as she feels it interferes with her privacy.
“Technology does make me curious, but its involvement, or perhaps invasion in people’s private lives is at times somewhat scary. Also, you just can’t keep up with the tempo of these novelties replacing one another: You have just about learned how to use a gadget, and then it is declared outdated. How are you supposed to feel? Like a pathetic imbecile!”
Shchedrin finds it difficult to accept the term “contemporary music.” He feels a work of music is either good or bad, and modern composers, he argues, can simply be called living artists.
Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater, is a fan of Shchedrin’s music. Since 2008, the company has given premieres of “The Enchanted Wanderer,” as well as of the ballets “Anna Karenina,” “The Little Humpbacked Horse” and “Carmen Suite.” The theater also sells a season ticket to a series titled “Shchedrin” that runs both at the theater itself and at the Mariinsky Theater Concert Hall, and features the composer’s symphonic works, ballets and operas, including the ballets “Anna Karenina” and “Carmen Suite.” And, of course, the company is now well-rehearsed in Shchedrin’s symphonic works, which it regularly performs both at home and on tour.
Shchedrin’s works will also be presented at the International Stars of the White Nights Festival that will run from the second half of May through mid-July at the Mariinsky Theater.
The question of what makes a good composer or how one becomes a composer is technical for Shchedrin. “I could say, get a degree in composition, and this would be a formal answer. But it is a true answer, because one needs to be born a composer. What you learn is how to use certain instruments that help you to write down your score or learn how to use a certain musical form or structure.” ...

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