Sometimes, when I enter the rostrum for a concert at the Oslo Concert Hall, I feel the love of the musicians and the audience almost physically, like an embrace or an enveloping warmth; an indescribable feeling that has filled me with greater joy and gratitude than I can ever express. But my first impression was very bad!
The train from Stockholm was delayed and no-one met me. It was dark, it was pouring with rain and everything seemed dirty. “My God, what an unpleasant place!” I thought, on my way to the Bristol Hotel.
As a Soviet artist, I had very little money and sometimes took some more food with me. The room was warm, I put the sandwich I had brought on the window-sill outside so that it would keep. The next morning it was gone. “Here they even steal my food,” I thought. Later I understood that it was the seagulls from the Oslo harbour that were the culprits!
When I arrived for the rehearsal, the musicians had been given the wrong parts and the rehearsal room was unattractive. But my meeting with the orchestra was so special that my attitude changed entirely. We found the right tone from the first moment, and we have kept it ever since.
On this first visit, I had three concerts and I fell in love with the orchestra, the audience, the country and Norwegians. On my next visit I was met with ovations. I found many good friends, and when I was offered the post of Musical Director in 1978 I accepted without a moment’s delay. This was a wonderful opportunity for me. The problem was the strong Soviet dictatorship.
I was a young conductor. And at that time only Roshdestvensky was allowed to work abroad for any length of time. When I went to Moscow Culture Ministerium to ask permission, they just said, “Forget it! Not possible.” When I protested, they said, “You are young. You have time.”
I told them I am not so young. I have the disadvantage of a young face! When they realised that I was thirty-five, the minister himself was consulted, and the Norwegian ambassador visited him personally as well. The minister never actually said “yes”, but I was allowed to travel as a guest conductor – without signing a contract as a guest conductor in residence. Nobody dared take the responsibility for allowing me to be Music Director; officially, I was on a “concert tour”. I am sure Goskonsert knew that I was Music Director, but there were no papers to prove it.
My first concert as Music Director of the OPO was in 1979, on the orchestra’s 60th anniversary, and now the Oslo Concert Hall had been completed. The reception they gave me was fantastic, unforgettable. The enthusiasm of the audience was spontaneous and heartfelt, every moment was precious. My work with the orchestra became increasingly harmonious.
When I first arrived, I had no special goal. My task was not to work miracles. But I did thank that 73 musicians were not enough – and so the struggle started. I went to the Minister of Church and Cultural Affairs – and got off to a bad start. He was an unpleasant man. Cooperation with subsequent ministers has worked far better. The main difficulty was still with the Soviets, though, and I was always under pressure.
The Soviet system did not allow an artist to be out of the country for more than ninety days, and since I had asked for ten weeks in Norway, there were only twenty days left for the rest of the world – too little for a conductor at the beginning of an international career. Another stupid principle was that you were not allowed to visit the same country more than once a year. However, everything that was permitted was forbidden, and vice versa. When the leading artists complained to the Ministerium, exceptions were made. As long as there was no law against it, they could accept anything.
Once condition was that you could not take your wife with you. The leading artists wrote a letter to the authorities and exceptions were made. Most of them wrote that they were old, in ill health and helpless without their wives. Rostropovitch wrote that he was young and strong and therefor needed his wife!
Around this time, Kondrashin, Godunov and Kremer defected, and the war in Afghanistan had started. Everything was tightening up. I was not one of the stars and had to leave alone. I was depressed and did not want to go, but my family and friends all said I had to go, my fate and my future depended on it. And the authorities promised that my wife could go with me next time – but they lied. I arrived in Oslo, very embarrassed, with an “interpreter” was not from the Ministerium. She spoke only Russian. I interpreted. But she was friendly and wrote a good report, otherwise I would not have been allowed to return.
I did return and work progressed. Our first tour was to Great Britain in 1982. The British were surprised – nobody expected an orchestra on this level. We secured international management, which today is IMG. One day the orchestra approached me to ask if we could produce a CD to show who we were. We agreed to record something popular, something that sells so that we could be compared with others, and we chose Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. Everyone worked for nothing. We took the master tape to London and went from one company to the next with no success. We finally ended up at Chandos, who immediately grabbed the chance and commissioned all the Tchaikovsky symphonies. Today we are with EMI; we have one of the best recording contracts in the world and it stretches well into the next millennium.
This CD was just the beginning of the miracle. The jungle telegraph worked, suddenly everyone was talking about the Oslo Philharmonic. This gave me and the orchestra enormous energy. Everything was new to us – recordings, frequent tours, big parties where we were celebrated – we felt that we were building something and our enthusiasm grew. So did the orchestra, but not at the desired speed. Today we are finally 106, but we ought to be 110. Still the fight goes on. People tell me I have achieved much. Yes, maybe, but always so slowly, with so many stressful moments.
After fifteen years, I have in my heart a great love for the orchestra. You never forget your first love, and ninety per cent of my heart is here. I love the country, and it is wonderful to see the development among young Norwegian musicians – so much talent! But – it is painful for me when things aren’t as they should be for the wonderful musicians of the OPO. After fifteen years, I also feel like Don Quixote – I’m fighting windmills. Round in the same circles go the eternal discussions about the number of musicians, their wages, and the acoustics at the Oslo Concert Hall.
The Oslo Philharmonic is today considered one of the best orchestras in the world. Now the question is how long it can last, and how far we can go. Maintaining this level is difficult, perhaps more difficult than the ascent itself. But in spite of all our success, the orchestra has never become arrogant. The enthusiasm is impressive, the work ethic is strong and everyone is striving for even greater heights. I cling to the hope of better conditions for the OPO. My thoughts are always with the Oslo Philharmonic – day and night.