Preston Witts catches up with internationally-acclaimed conductor Rimma Sushanskaya on the “miracles” of her life and career.
ON Rimma Sushanskaya’s bookshelves at her home in Stratford is a work by the great Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman called Life and Fate. The title alone is a poignant reminder to Rimma – a child prodigy on the violin who is now an internationally-acclaimed conductor – of the astonishing twists and turns of her own life and how difficult it is to predict what lies in store for any of us.
It is pretty obvious that Rimma, who was brought up in the Russian city of Leningrad (now renamed St Petersburg), is a believer in Fate. She modestly refers to all strokes of good fortune in her life and career as “miracles” rather than products of innate intelligence or exceptional talent.
She was the last pupil of the legendary Soviet violinist and conductor David Oistrakh (who died in 1974), became a “refusenik” in the Soviet Union of her birth – thus enduring the suffocating repression of totalitarianism – and regards her birthday in Vienna in 1977, after she had fled Russia, as the day she was “born”.
She has a simple way of putting it: “It was my birthday of freedom.”
I last interviewed Rimma for the Herald in the summer of 2005, a few years after she had started her annual August festival for violinists in Stratford. The festival has now been going for 18 years.
The interview also took place shortly after she had begun her second career as a conductor. Since then a lot has happened in her burgeoning career on the orchestral podium. She is now in big demand in some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world, including the Gerwandhaus in Leipzig, the Konzerthaus in Berlin and St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
She is also making CDs. Only the other day she spent nine hours in the Sir Henry Wood Hall in London with the National Symphony Orchestra and two soloists – pianist John Lenehan and soprano Grace Davidson – recording works by Mozart (the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the motet Exsultate, jubilate, the Piano Concerto No 21 in C major – known as the “Elvira Madigan Concerto” because of the use of its slow movement as the sound track in the 1967 Swedish film of that name – and the Symphony No 40 in G minor).
When not living in Stratford Rimma stays at her home in Manhattan, New York City. She has great affection for America, to such an extent that she has a replica of the Statue of Liberty in her back garden in Stratford. “It reminds me of democratic freedom,” she said.
But it is in Stratford where she feels enormous warmth. “I do love Stratford,” she said.
“I hope I am an honorary Stratfordian! At first I didn’t like it. It was too small, and I felt like a bird in a cage. I had lived all my life in big cities. It took me seven years to get to like it.”
She added: “I love the amazing atmosphere in Stratford and I feel so happy and relaxed and at home. I can function here the best. I can walk and do my best work, more than in New York, where there is the distraction of friends, restaurants and concerts – every day! In Stratford I am much more disciplined.”
Rimma first came to Stratford because her late husband Eric Hurst, an international businessman and former Labour member of the old Greater London Council, had a home in the town. However, her links to Stratford have also proven to be very important to her conducting career.
When she first thought of becoming a conductor, she approached Guy Woolfenden, who had been the longstanding head of music at the Royal Shakespeare Company. “He came straight to my house and he threw me into conducting within five minutes,” she said.
“He brought batons, CDs and scores. He asked me to conduct straightaway Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony [the famous New World Symphony]. We had an amazing rapport.”
From these early beginnings Rimma was able to embark on her new career. “It is like a miracle,” she said, in reference to her belief in Fate. “It must have been meant to be.” Guy Woolfenden died at the age of 78 in 2016.
“He came to my festival before he died,” said Rimma. “He was my first teacher of conducting. When he died I felt like an orphan.”
Conductors of today are somewhat different to the famous maestros of the past – people like Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Yevgeny Mravinsky. Toscanini became immensely famous with his NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York, Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra and Mravinsky with the Leningrad Philharmonic. They were very hard taskmasters. And Mravinsky, whom Rimma accused of treating great musicians like “slaves”, knew exactly what he wanted and expected the orchestral players to deliver it. “He was very scary,” she said. “He looked like the Devil!”
These days the relationship between conductors and orchestras is rather more collegiate. “When I work with musicians it is with ‘no nonsense’, but it is in a friendly way,” said Rimma. “And that way you get good results and they respect you.”
I asked her about language difficulties when conducting orchestras around the world. Was it a problem communicating with the musicians if you couldn’t speak their language? She said: “Sometimes language can be very difficult. But usually someone in the orchestra can help out! And you find a way because music is international.”
And when Rimma first started to learn to conduct, she found that looking at all the bars on a page at once was like trying to read 18 languages simultaneously – with each one in a different key!
Some indication of how things have progressed since Soviet days can be gauged from a visit to Finland that Rimma made as a young violinist. She and some of her fellow musicians wanted to go to see the film Dr Zhivago, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak. But since Pasternak had been a Soviet dissident, this was strictly forbidden. They were allowed to see The Sound of Music instead!
However, since Vladimir Putin’s Russia has banned showings of the satirical film, The Death of Stalin, perhaps things are starting to go backwards.
But that is another story – as is Rimma’s eventual departure from the Soviet Union courtesy of the intervention of Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State…