No longer a casualty of Cold War

Music: Conductor Dmitri Kitaenko returns to the United States 20 years after history derailed a promising career.

November 12, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Dmitri Kitaenko has every right to be a bitter man.

A little more that 20 years ago, he got swept away by the forces of history and -- on this side of the Atlantic, at least -- disappeared.

In 1977, he was a much-talked-about young Russian conductor who seemed to have a major international career in his grasp.

He already had led two successful coast-to-coast tours of Russian orchestras.

He had just made his debut with a major American symphony, the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra.

His unusual program -- which included the nowadays still-exotic, but then almost completely unknown Scriabin Second Symphony -- attracted the attention of critics throughout North America.

And that concert's success exceeded all expectations, leading not only to a 1979 re-engagement with the Philadelphia, but also to engagements with the orchestras of New York, Boston, Cleveland and Chicago.

But 1979 never arrived -- not as expected, at least -- for Dmitri Kitaenko. That year, the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan turned the thermostat of the Cold War so low that all cultural contacts between the United States and Soviet Union were frozen.

"Opportunities, not only for me but for many of my colleagues, vanished -- it was a bad time then," Kitaenko says, with matter-of-factness that approaches Zen-like detachment.

Such imperturbability probably results from Russians accepting hardship much the way they drink vodka -- straight, without a chaser. Kitaenko's is a common story in his country.

In the 10 years before cultural relations resumed, the Soviet Union dissolved and its successor, the Russian Federation, began its inevitable plunge into bankruptcy. Once world-famous musicians were earning $100 (or less) a month. Even those lucky enough to be the first invited back, such as conductor Yuri Temirkanov, needed 10 years to regain credentials established 20 years earlier.

It is only now that Kitaenko has begun to receive invitations like those his friend and Leningrad Conservatory classmate, Temirkanov, received a decade earlier. That's why he's guest conducting the Baltimore Symphony in Meyerhoff Hall tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, and why he's making other appearances this season with orchestras of similar stature in Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Toronto.

But even if it takes him 20 years from now to return to where he was 20 years ago -- even if he never gets there -- Kitaenko still considers himself a very lucky man.

"Better than lucky, blessed," Kitaenko exclaims.

No matter what hardships Russian musicians have had to endure, Kitaenko says, their American counterparts cannot begin to understand how fortunate he and others of his generation were to have been able to study music in Russia during those hard times.

"As a teen-ager in Petersburg, I was able to hear great musicians like [Evgeny] Mravinsky, [Ilya] Musin and [Kurt] Sanderling conduct orchestras every week," he says. "My first conducting teacher, Elisabeth Kudriavsky, was like a mother to me. My second teacher, Leo Ginzburg, a refugee from Nazi Germany, had been Otto Klemperer's -- Klemperer's -- assistant in Berlin! And when I went to Moscow as a young man [as a graduate student at the Moscow Conservatory] I was able to work in the same building, walk the same corridors and talk with people like David Oistrakh!"

It's clear that Kitaenko believes that the musical legacy he received beggars any career reward -- no matter how great -- he might reap. Not that those rewards -- both before and even during the collapse of his U.S. career -- were exactly shabby. The circumstances that led to his first American career include a victory in the first Herbert von Karajan conducting competition (1969) -- and the Cinderella-story circumstances of his last-minute replacement (also in 1969), for the ailing chief conductor in the joint Moscow-East Berlin production of what was the 20th century's most talked-about (and imitated) staging of Bizet's "Carmen."

And while bombs dropped and land mines detonated in Afghanistan set back his American career 20 years, they do not seem to have hurt his chances in Western Europe. Since 1990, he's been chief conductor and artistic director of the internationally prestigious Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, as well as principal guest conductor of the Danish National Radio Orchestra and a frequent guest conductor with the Czech Philharmonic, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the NHK Symphony in Tokyo.

"I like working in big cities, I like working in small cities, with well-known orchestras or with unknown orchestras," Kitaenko says. "There are nice people everywhere. It's music I enjoy, and it's music that's my top priority."

Music notes

What: Dmitri Kitaenko conducts the Baltimore Symphony in music of Bruch, Stravinsky and Shchedrin

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow; 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Meyerhoff Hall

Tickets: $22-$57

Call: (410) 783-8000

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