3 May 2022

Memories about Evgeny Svetlanov by John Wallace

Maestro Svetlanov left us exactly 20 years ago. 3rd May 2002 will always stay in our memories. We post the first contribution of one of the best trumpet players of the great Philharmonia Orchestra (London).

Svetlanov remembered

Mr Svetlanov was my favourite Conductor. Perhaps it was just because he was so full of surprises. And his music-making was so spontaneous. Perhaps it’s just because both on and off the stage he always did such memorable things. Perhaps it was just because he reminded me of my dad both physically and gesturally. Perhaps it was because it was at the height of the Cold War and there was always a frisson of uncertainty about whether he would actually show up or not. 

My memories are legion. The first time I experienced him was with the LSO. He was late. George Reynolds, the second trumpet briefed me – ‘This guy is 10 out of 10 for your Dad, so don’t cross him’. I almost fell out of my chair twice – when I first saw him, he was my Dad, right down to the florid complexion. The second time I lost my balance was the rocket speed at which Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla took off. 

Later, when I joined the Philharmonia, and he became a regular visitor, there was always a jolt of high-voltage electricity injected into the proceedings at the most unexpected times. He was a past master at showing his displeasure. I remember a rehearsal for a prom at Hammersmith Town Hall when the first movement of Winter Dreams got slower and slower and softer and softer as his hand movements became smaller and smaller until it just petered out. Without looking at anyone Mr Svetlanov closed the score, turned on his heels and went back to the dressing room. The rehearsal was cancelled and we were asked to come back in the afternoon. On the podium at 2pm was a beaming Mr Svetlanov and the repertoire had been changed to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. An object lesson on how to get the BBC Proms to accept your first choice programme. Wait till the last minute and tell them there isn’t going to be a concert. 

Another time I remember we were rehearsing the Pathètique which we loved playing with him and as an orchestra we were trying to extract the last ounce of pathos from it, because he had us so fired up. In a slow passage, he suddenly stopped and said something in Russian to Pnina Deadman, our superbly circumspect interpreter whose face quickly coloured and said, “Maestro, I cannot possibly translate that”. Of course we urged her, and very reluctantly she paraphrased Mr Svetlanov’s more colourful Russian version into: “Maestro would like you to know that you sound like a dog stopping at every lamppost”. In other words, even slow music needs a pulse. We responded and it was a memorable concert. 

My most emotional memories of him, however, are when we did the Elgar Symphonies and Dream of Gerontius together. Sitting there all together in the middle of that Philharmonia Elgar sound which he revelled in, I thought, yes this is probably how Hans Richter would have conducted them back in the day before an English performing tradition developed. He stripped them back to first principles. Very refreshing. Superbly exciting. Our librarian managed to get the last hard copy left of one of the full scores from the Novello library and we presented it to him. He and we got really emotional, and he gave a moving speech which strikes a pertinent chord today – pointing to the score – he said – “in these times we are living through all we have to keep us together as a human race is music like this”.

A great, if complex, man. Sorely missed. 

John Wallace CBE

Note from David Whelton, former Managing Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra London :
John was Principal Trumpet during my time at the Philharmonia Orchestra and a great admirer of the Maestro. He is one of the most respected musicians in the UK and ended his career as Principal of The Royal Scottish Academy of Music.

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