Alexey Botvinov
Daryna Anastasieva
Short profile

Pianist, Rachmaninoff's best performer

People's Artist of Ukraine, Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy, "Odessa Classics" founder

To keep in shape, how much piano do you play every day?

From two hours up. Thank God I can be in my status without the required six hours, like most of my colleagues. Daily training is necessary, otherwise, it is heard that something is wrong.

Horowitz had a creative crisis, and he hadn’t played for a while. It is said that he heard a performance that seemed to him better than his own and became depressed about it. Have you ever had your inspiration fade and stopped playing for any reason?

It was very recently. In March, when it became clear that the coronavirus would inflict a huge blow on culture and, in particular, on classical music. For a couple of months, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the piano, but then I pulled myself together. It was the first time in my life. It became clear that culture would be under tremendous strain, as we have seen so far.

How much has the situation with the coronavirus which is out of our control changed things, and how do we get around it?

The million-dollar question. The borders are practically closed. In Europe, concerts are still held somehow, albeit with huge restrictions. The situation is dire and very difficult. There is no normal functioning within countries. Everything has become local and limited. How to get out is a good question.

It seems to me that we all need to turn to politicians together so that high culture still has the opportunity to somehow exist, at least with restrictions. The first thing on which the quarantine hits is mass events: nightclubs, weddings, and at the same time classical concerts, but they cannot be put on the same page. Alas, this is happening everywhere. So far Europe, including us, is in a better condition than Great Britain or America. There is simply a disaster without exaggeration. Not only has the Metropolitan Opera closed, but most of the orchestras are not working, people are leaving the profession en masse. We must not allow our culture to perish — that would be an appeal to politicians.

How do you keep up the spirit of the musicians? Creative people, when their creativity loses its meaning, cannot create, and when it is massive: is there a recipe to sustain the creative person?

Good question. Music helps; it has a therapeutic effect. But when the COVID-19 epidemic happened, many of my colleagues said almost the same thing: professional musicians are used to practicing according to the program, based on a specific order, concert, or their own plan. When all plans have collapsed, even if you have a definite plan to learn some work for the future, you still lack motivation to do this, if you do not understand when this future will come.

It’s a very serious psychological challenge. It’s unprecedented. Even during World War II, there were concerts. There were fewer of them, but something could be planned. What you’re trying to do right now; everything you’re planning can go away in a second. It’s a psychological challenge I’ve never faced before. And I don’t have any special recipes, except to hold on.

We have even underestimated the impact of this crisis. What helped me: we decided to hold the festival "Odessa Classics" in the first place not so much so that I could play there, but so that the musicians could come, and the audience that bought the tickets (by then 40% of the tickets had been sold) could have attended the event. It was motivating. We were looking for all the possible and impossible ways, convincing at all levels. We were listened to by both the power structures and our partners — it was a battle for the festival that was very helpful.

Now we plan for next year (Odessa Classics 2021 will take place on June 2-12 ). Although in fact now you can probably only plan 2 weeks in advance: it is difficult for everyone — both great musicians and beginners. The level of problems is different, but everyone is in a state of war with this virus.

One way or another, the cultural realm is waiting for reformatting, so you can’t go back to the way the sphere was. And yet the music can not go online completely?

No, I’m totally against fairy tales about it being possible. It’s clear when some political institutions say, “let’s go online for a couple of years, do something creative” but the very essence of music is in live communication. So this kind of replacement can only be small in this sector, but now to say that yes, we will work completely online is simply not serious. You can lose all interest in the cultural process. No record, not even the most wonderful, is like a live concert. Otherwise, they would not have existed for a long time. Because the greatest musicians, singers and productions have already been recorded. And if there was no need for live communication, it would not have existed for a long time. The whole point is in the energy exchange, which gives special things — as it was several millennia ago, it stays that way. During the strict quarantine, I did nothing online simply to avoid creating false illusions. Live communication only, let it be in a room with people with masks, with a limit on the number.

As a matter of fact, there’s a question that has been around since the beginning of the pandemic, and none of my colleagues have been given an answer to it: why transportation and airlines in principle allow people to gather without social distancing, and it’s unacceptable in the concert hall. We understand why, but tell us honestly that this is just lobbying and money is everything. The world’s cultural community needs to unite and assert its rights to exist more actively.

As for the links between culture and politics, can music be independent of politics? Are there boundaries that can appear in music related to politics or war?

Of course, politics affect society and culture and try to solve its problems. And, of course, you can go too far here. We understand that now it is much easier to find funding for patriotic cinema related to the problems of Donbass and so on than for just a love story. There should be support, but when there is a one-sided lurch, it is wrong, it kills art.

Many people are engaged in political conjuncture under excellent patriotic slogans — and as a result, art suffers, including the patriotic idea because when it is expressed conjecturally, there is no sense in it, only a counterproductive effect appears in all this action.

So art should be art — something that reflects the creative will of the creator and the desire of the audience, and the more you try to push something into an ideological framework, the less useful it is. And now we’re doing the same thing.

However, there are examples of “made-to-order” works that have become great.

Of course there are.  But if there is a huge leap towards ideology, it never helps the culture, never helped, and will not help us either. There must be a balance.

At the same time, formatting is a global trend. The Oscar Committee, which recently passed new requirements for films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar category.

This is another example. It’s stupid and has no prospect. It’s going to be devalued over time.

If we talk about classical art and search for it: You have done a musical multimedia concert of classical music in the form of installations, theater and musical projects, Bach's Goldberg Variations with percussion. How can that be combined?

This was combined by the principle: no one believed in it, neither I, nor my colleague, but the project came out. Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time in Switzerland, especially in Zurich, in collaboration with the Zurich ballet, management, orchestras and musicians. I knew that there was such an interesting musician, Turkish percussionist Burhan Ochal. We were both said to be creative people who don’t despise experimentation. We met, talked, and Burhan proposed to do a project with Bach. I told him — then let's start with the most difficult thing there is ("Goldberg-Variation"). We laughed and tried to do something — and it turned out surprisingly interesting. This is how the project “Bach. Restart” was born, in which Bach's Goldberg Variations were performed to the accompaniment of oriental rhythms based on ancient Sufi traditions.

Then we worked with Beethoven, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky. Nobody has repeated this until now. We have been performing for 11 years (more than 30 concerts in different countries), and so far no one has copied us — apparently because it is very difficult.

What does the beat give to the classics and, in particular, to Bach?

Bach is rhythmic in many works. There is a pulse in this music from the beginning, which simplifies the task. But when this beat opens up in jazz variations, and there are some good jazz readings of Bach, the variations sound lighter, albeit pretty good. In our project, oriental percussion gives Bach's music a somewhat surreal effect and speaks of the unity of completely different cultural layers — that in principle they can cooperate. And I think it’s very interesting because if it sounded inorganic, I wouldn’t be doing this project. And the audience around the world warmly greeted "Bach’s Restart". We managed to find a niche that no musician had ever been in before.

In the new program, we take pieces that are more rhythmic, and there may be pieces, for example, by Prokofiev, whose polyrhythm is his element. Or works where percussion acts not as a rhythm, but as paints and sound effects, which is especially applicable to Musorgsky and his Pictures at an Exhibition. There are a lot of mystical things, and it is combined.

We’re going back, one way or another, to the syncretism of art.

Yes. I am confident that this trend will gain momentum. In Ukraine, I was probably the first musician who made a classical concert with video installations. It was 2008. The first reviews were very different: someone really liked it, someone smashed it to smithereens.

Then I was holding the position that you will see — in 5-10 years video installations will be included in the opera and in other venues — and it happened. Because this is natural: even Scriabin dreamed of something like that, he just did not have the technical capabilities. Which are now more and more.

One of the latest projects — a collaboration with a wonderful Kyiv video artist VJ Videomatics (Piano Light Show), we started with a sort of cinema screen, then there were different screen constructions, then video mapping on architectural forms: the Odesa Colonnade of the Vorontsov Palace. One of the latest projects is video mapping on a white piano (which was not in Ukraine before our project and was created for us by a specialist). Technologies are developing very quickly, and they can be used for the benefit of classical music: leaving the meaning of music, emphasizing it with technology.

The first thing that can be read about you on the web: Alexey Botvinov is the most famous performer of Rachmaninoff's music and the first person to play the Goldberg variation of Bach more than 300 times. Bach, as a deeply spiritual man and reformer in music, and Rachmaninoff, one of the last representatives of romanticism, make up your top musicians.

As for the purity of the musical style, these two composers are anti-pods, but they have a lot in common actually. Bach is faith, and Rachmaninoff is a great sincerity of feelings. These different but close individuals are equally close to me.

The choice of repertoire is the same creativity, each performer selects his own music, according to his own preferences. Besides Bach and Rachmaninoff, who do you perform most?

Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, Schumann, Prokofiev, Schnittke, Silvestrov — a fairly wide range. And modern music of the 20th and 21st centuries - everything is interesting to me. Recently, I have been very interested in Philip Glass, who not all my colleagues take as a serious composer — I think he’s brilliant.

Crimean Tatar composer Alemdar Karamanov: when I studied at the Moscow Conservatory (1988-90) his music was not performed. I studied under Vera Gornostaeva, she was a dissident and she was converged with such figures that were forbidden: Gidon Kremer, Shnitke - in the class and apartment of Gornostaeva there was an island of freedom. In her apartment there were notes by an unknown composer, whom I began to play, and she said that "the notes have found you." The composer handed over the manuscript to Gornostaeva with the words: “I need one of the performers to decode this music”. They lay long enough before they got to me, and I fell in love with that music. The composer himself later said that my reading was new to him.

From the generation of Soviet modernists: Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Denisov and Karamanov, three of the four names received world recognition, and Karamanov did not compromise with the Soviet regime — he went to Simferopol and lived all his life in an old one-room apartment. Only in the last years of his life, when Ukraine became independent, the composer began to be recognized, supported and performed.

I am performing a concert of his “Ave Maria”. I transcribed most of the original from the original into a piano transcription and called it “Night Prayer”. I believe that this music should go out into the world and become a huge asset for Ukrainian culture in the world. He is an absolute genius. If we are talking about Valentin Silvestrov — another classic of the same scale, fortunately, his music belongs to world civilization. Karamanov's music needs a push, and I will do it. In his creative heritage, there are more than 20 symphonies, and they all have names according to the Old and New Testaments. He is a very religious person; he has a very special style; he was ahead of his time.

I’m lucky to find you in Odessa — I know you often live in Switzerland. In case of border closures, where would you rather stay?

I already made my choice, I stayed in Ukraine. In March, I had to decide where to stay — and I chose Ukraine. That says a lot. I don’t have a second citizenship in principle. I don’t want to do this although there were opportunities in different European countries. I believe that if I was born here, I must do something for my homeland.

What formed you as a musician and as a performer, besides education? You decided to become a musician after a serious soccer passion.

I was serious about soccer until I was 16, and then I stopped because of the danger of getting hurt. I’m still interested in it. I’m a bit of a fan, not of the team, but of the soccer coach, José Mourinho. I am impressed by the person. He is very bright, “against the grain” and, accordingly, I support the team he trains.

What position did you play on the team?

Midfielder. This position offers maximum possibilities.

If I wasn’t so good at music, I’d be making big bets on the director’s profession. Cinema means a lot to me, as does painting. But when it comes to painting, I can’t paint well ever since I was a kid, but I love it. I visit museums in any city and know the museums of the world very well. For me, the concepts of painting and the concept of cinematography were very important for my formation as a creative person.

From a certain age, both Bergman and Tarkovsky became important to me, as well as blockbusters. The whole spectrum of cinematography is very important. In a project with visualization, I actually worked as a director. Of course, VJ draws all, but many of the ideas were mine:  how I see music, what I want the viewer to see. Cinema inspires me.

Of course, travel still inspires, but now borders are closed. My profession involves travel. I have been to 45 countries in the world, and it is a great privilege and great happiness to see how people live differently — travel enriches. And that for which you do not need to go anywhere and that does not cost so much is cinema. It has accompanied me in life from my early childhood and inspires me.

Have you performed in all 45 countries?

Yes. My principle is: I don't go to a country as a tourist until I have played there.

Are the audiences different in different countries? Where’s your favorite audience or in which country is there the most unusual audience?

All different. On the one hand, there is such an amazing thing that the part of humanity that is interested in classical music, the cultural elite, is no more than 10% of the country's population — these people react in many ways to art in the same way. Rachmaninoff, who lived in an Orthodox country and wrote things based on Slavic melody, is equally perceived in our country, in Germany, or somewhere in Taiwan. It’s amazing, and it says that music is a universal language, a universal human language.

On the other hand, there are huge differences in human response. When you play a concert in Spain or Portugal, the first impression is shock, because the audience is noisy. When I started playing, I thought everything was a failure, the audience didn’t like it, disaster. And then you finish, and a storm of applause rises, and it turns out that people are very temperamental. They cannot sit still, and noise is a normal reaction.

In Germany, on the contrary, during the concert, there is such a deathly silence that it seems as if people are sleeping as if there is no contact with the audience. And it is — people just behave very differently.

Are you more famous in Europe than in Ukraine (except for big cities)?

Yes I am. My activities in Ukraine are concentrated in Odesa, Kyiv, and a little in Lviv. I would be happy to tour small towns, but I would like to do it in normal conditions. The musicians' demands for a good instrument and a decent concert hall are motivated by the desire not to disappoint the audience. Bad conditions spoil the sound. And it really slows down the concert life in our country.

At the same time, the general trend of the spread of classics in Ukraine is positive, but so far the classics have not yet reached the rural areas.

What is the main thing in good performance?

The first is sound. This is the beautiful voice of the singer, and the sound of the violin and piano. When there is sound, one can talk about a concept, about a technique, about a spiritual component. But if there is no sound, there is nothing to talk about.

I was lucky, my teacher was Serafima Leonidovna Mogilevskaya. She was an assistant to Heinrich Neuhaus, a renowned pianist and teacher. She was very attentive to the sound: the piano must sing and must not be knocked on. And she knew how to teach it. There are few such teachers in the world. We spent a lot of time trying to transform the grand piano from a percussion instrument into an instrument that can sing.

There are virtuoso pianists, some of them are quite famous, but if they knock on the piano — for me such pianists do not exist.

Do you keep in shape with scales and etudes?

Never. Only musical works. This is my credo, I don't know if it is correct. I stick to it, probably, because playing scales and etudes is not very pleasant, and you turn into a robot for a while. And the worst thing is when a person is engaged in music and he has no feelings. In order to not lose motivation, you can improve your technique in difficult pieces. But it’s important to be emotionally involved — to experience catharsis.

How do you manage to combine creativity with management?

I had to. In 2014, when the Maidan and a big crisis in society happened, it became clear to me that my dream of creating a big serious festival in Odesa became even less feasible. Before that, as a musician, I regularly addressed the authorities with the words “let's do it”. As a result, I freaked out and my wife and I decided to organize ourselves — suddenly something will turn out. I had no ambition to become a manager, moreover, I was sure that it was not my thing.


But when I saw that the prospects were hazy, I decided to give it a try. And then, surprisingly, it began to work out, and better than expected. Now I’ve bumped into this work, gotten to like it and realized that it was mine. I love Odessa very much, and I think that since I am here, I must do something. In addition to its various projects, it was important to make a festival for the city.


Locality is based on persons and individuals. But in addition to the vivid representatives in every great city, myths of uniqueness and isolation arise that can sometimes lead to dangerous rhetoric.


Yes, but in 2014, when it was necessary to choose: this part of Ukraine will go to Russia or remain in Ukraine, despite the split in society, the majority was in favor of Ukraine. Then, together with other well-known citizens of Odesa, we organized the Forum of the Odesa Intelligentsia, which in fact was a forum for the pro-Ukrainian part of the Odesa intellectuals.


We talked about the fact that Odesa is Russian-speaking, but still Ukraine and tried to reverse the trend in the media space as if Odesa was just waiting for Putin to come. It was the moment of truth. The situation was dangerous: when I drove past the Kulikovo field, I understood that this place would be the starting point for the capture attempt.


Then what happened happened. My colleagues and I tried to say with our voices that there are opinion leaders here who are pro-Ukrainian. A similar situation was in Kharkiv, and largely thanks to Zhadan and other representatives of the Kharkiv intelligentsia and activists, the city was saved. Unfortunately, this did not happen in Donetsk and Lugansk.


What artists' paintings are in your home?


I have several pictures. One of them is Roitburd, a wonderful musical picture about Wagner from his series, which, by the way, he wrote in 2014. Another is Stepan Ryabchenko, a contemporary Odesa artist. This is a graphic work that won the sculpture competition as an installation in front of Odesa airport. I would not refuse a representative of the Baroque or Renaissance, but this is unrealistic.


What is your relationship with money?


There is not enough of it all the time, because a classical musician in our country is not a highly paid profession. It’s rather a mission or pleasure for your soul. It’s a mission for society, but not for making money. It's impossible to make money at festivals. At concerts there is an average income, but this is still not what our pop musicians have.


At the same time, you use your resources to lower ticket prices so that people can come and listen to classical music.


Yes. Besides the Ukrainians, a lot of people come from abroad. Because the same cultural product that they see in Zurich or Salzburg, you can get in Ukraine for a price 10 times less.


Having such extensive creative activities: both theatrical directing and solo concerts as a pianist and collaborations with other musicians, and the organization of the festival, what is the development priority now?


I hope that I will never stop playing the piano, but at the same time I want to continue all the fusion projects. I would like to continue concerts with ballet, I would like to embody a theatrical performance, to continue projects with video performances and holograms, as in Scriabin's “Mystery” — to create something magical in the hall. And maybe someday I'll get to the cinema. It's a costly thing, but I have something to say as a director.


It will be a picture with powerful emotions, the viewer must be shocked: some part causes crying, some part causes laughter. It must be art that would evoke a powerful response from the viewer and, of course, be very beautiful. I’m always into aesthetics. Aesthetics combined with music. Any masterpiece of cinema always has a wonderful composer.


You did a project based on Shishkin's "Scribe", where one of the themes is the relationship between man and time: time crumbles and man becomes a man. Time in your creative path has already crumbled, have you stopped it, or can it still interfere in some way?


I don't think I have said everything yet. There are things I don’t know, and they have to come.

Short profile

Pianist, Rachmaninoff's best performer

People's Artist of Ukraine, Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy, "Odessa Classics" founder