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Theodore Kuchar
Ask the Artist

Conductor Theodore Kuchar Answers Questions from Naxos Fans
Meet this prolific musician through the eyes of Naxos.com readers





Next month conductor Marin Alsop will answer your questions.  Submit your enquiries for the Maestra at the bottom of the page!

Q:  Do you have any pets?

A:  A wonderful, five-year-old, female, cinnamon-colored Labrador retriever named “Aza”.

Q: What is your nickname?

A: It really depends where I am. In Kiev or Helsinki, having a “Ted” is already greatly exotic! In Warsaw, I get a few “Tadyu”s. In principle, although I have been known as “Tedyk” or “Teddy” by those closest to me, I still find quite remarkable the degree of respect, which is not a bad thing, colleagues and audience members show towards the conductor. In other words, “Mr. Kuchar” or “Maestro” are extremely common when visiting an orchestra for the first time, yet these are “titles” which I attempt to discourage once we have gone beyond the initial greeting.

Q: When you are preparing a piece for a performance or for a recording, to what extent do you listen to other recordings of the work? Do you rely primarily on the score?

A:  I am going to be absolutely honest on this one, especially because I am extremely discouraged by colleagues who swear that they, under no circumstances, listen to other recordings before performing a work for the first time and “only rely on the score”. If you go into an attorney’s office, you can often see walls and walls of journals and publications, which these professionals rely upon on a regular basis. The same can be said about people in the medical profession, not to mention many others. Do I rely on recordings when preparing a new work? Absolutely not! Do I listen to existing recordings when preparing a work for the first time? Absolutely! It would be pure ignorance not to. We are very blessed, in the age of the compact disc and an ultra-competitive recording industry, to have access to just about every recording ever committed to “tape”. For any conductor, or musician, how can you approach Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven and ignore the lifetime of experience of Szell, Sibelius and Berglund, Shostakovich and the personal relationships of Mravinsky, Oistrakh or Rostropovich, and so on? I was very fortunate, in my relative “youth” to have studied and later performed in Cleveland, where there could not have been a stronger tradition and feeling of ownership of the central-European literature - the ghost of George Szell was present at every turn, even when it was only Lorin Maazel who was to be seen! During
my nearly five years in Helsinki, nowhere was there a more direct contact and tradition between musicians and composer than those musicians had with Sibelius. In Kiev, there are still plenty of musicians today who speak about their collaborations with Shostakovich, Oistrakh, Mravinsky and Kondrashin as though it were yesterday. I feel, and am, very fortunate to have had a priceless education and professional experience. I never listen to recordings to imitate or copy, but to be educated and informed about traditions of the past and approaches of the present.

Q: I greatly admire your recordings of Prokofiev's works, especially the symphonies.  Did you do a great deal of study and research before you began the symphony cycle?  Which symphony provided the greatest challenge?

A: As a Ukrainian, a musician who has been genetically obsessed with the entire Slavic literature from birth (in my earliest years, often by the force of parents and grandparents!), I have long felt the closest contact with the entire output of Prokofiev. As a listener and performer, much of this literature has been a part of my life. As an orchestral musician, the “Classical” and Fifth Symphonies, “Romeo and Juliet” and many others are as standard a part of concert life today as the Beethoven symphonies. On the other hand, the genius and originality of the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies had long obsessed me, prior to our recordings. My goodness ... try and program these works in concert today, especially in the USA, and see how your mental stability or attitude towards “fiscal responsibility” are questioned! Every one of the symphonies represents such a different extreme of Prokofiev’s creativity. As far as the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine was concerned, they had a degree of experience with the First and Fifth Symphonies, performed the Sixth on one occasion, with Mravinsky, and had performed the Seventh once, approximately a decade prior to my arrival ... there was no record of the orchestra having ever performed the Second, Third or Fourth! These may be the three “children” I took the greatest pride and responsibility in doing absolute justice to, because there was no doubt as to their genius and the need for responsibility towards their advocacy. That is my feeling today. If I reveal to you my reflections during the mid-1990s, when the symphonies were recorded, it was the Third which I was most obsessive about.

Q:  Which one of Prokofiev's symphonies do you listen to most often while at home? What is your second favourite?

A: This is a difficult question, because I listen a lot and may not be completely happy with my answer! I find that once I begin a rehearsal period with a particular work or have performed it frequently within a short span of time, recordings sometimes irritate me, only because much time and thought has been given to the work I am responsible for. As I said previously, the genius and originality of the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies had long obsessed me and it saddens me that it is quite difficult to program them nowadays. I love the Third Symphony but am especially proud of our recordings of the Second and Fourth.

Q:  What is the general public's reaction in the Russian states to the music of Prokofiev and Shostakovich? Do they hold the music in very high esteem?

A: Honestly? I’ve heard just about everything regarding Prokofiev. The “Classical” and Fifth Symphonies, “Romeo and Juliet”, the two Violin Concertos and Third Piano Concerto are regarded as sacred. The Second and Third  Symphonies drove the musicians, in many cases, to insanity. Especially in these two symphonies, the writing for the violins is often very “pianistic” and awkward. In other words, what Prokofiev, a phenomenal pianist, could achieve in the upper octaves of his own instrument did not always translate into his orchestral writing with the same degree of simplicity or practicality. I believe it is most accurate to say that Shostakovich is regarded as a sacred figure, Prokofiev a highly-respected one.

Q: With your recorded repertoire ranging from mainly Russian symphonic (plus your excellent Martinu), to many of the great American 20th century works, are there any British, French, German, or Scandinavian pieces that you would really like to record?

A: Thank you for this question, which has several answers. Firstly, it is one thing to perform a wide-ranging repertoire in concert, whether it be in Kiev, Berlin, Fresno or Amsterdam but certainly another to record. As you well know, virtually every recording I have made has been done with the NSO of Ukraine and Mr. Heymann and those of us involved in the planning of each recording have done well in selecting repertoire suited for the particular strengths of the artists in question. You ask about French repertoire, of which I am extremely fond. Faure and Chausson were two of the most “symphonic” composers of chamber music (I’ve often thought of Faure’s G minor Piano Quartet and Chausson’s Piano Quartet and Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Quartet as several of the most symphonic works in the chamber music literature) but were quite selective when it came to composing for large orchestra.  I would love to record the Symphony and orchestral works of Chausson, the Symphonies of Roussel, numerous works of Ravel and Debussy. As a result of my years in Cleveland, I have a very strong commitment to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms and perform these with great frequency. I am terribly fond of the Czech musical culture, often influenced by Ukrainian idioms, and would love to explore much more Martinu, Dvorak, Janacek and Smetana. Sibelius and Nielsen appear frequently in my programming. The most important issue for me, which is a moral one, is that there are very few of the abovementioned which I would record in Kiev. There is no need to produce a mediocre recording and although the NSO of Ukraine has many strengths, Soviet cultural practices denied the training and exposure to much repertoire we take for granted (you may have a hard time believing that I conducted the Ukrainian premieres, in the 1990s, of works such as the Mahler Symphony No. 2, Sibelius Symphonies Nos. 2, 4 and 7, lots of Mozart and Beethoven, not to mention Shostakovich and Prokofiev ... nor had the orchestra ever played a work of Martinu until the recordings came about). There are works I would love to record, yet the choice of orchestra would play a large role in influencing what and where. 

Q: The competition for the position in Reno was extremely intense. Are you as gratified about your appointment as the orchestra and city of Reno obviously are? That is, do you consider the new position a great career enhancement?

A: Anytime one is invited to take up an appointment with an organization which is made up of musicians with a burning desire and enthusiasm to succeed, a Board of Directors and community which take such pride in the life and existence of the orchestra, and a season which, in my first year, is almost sold-out by subscription, how could one not be gratified? With four positions in the USA, continuing to serve as the Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, not to mention seven trips to Europe during these four months to guest conduct in cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague and London, I would not have accepted the Reno position if I didn’t feel it to be a career enhancement. Based on the limited time we have spent together, I believe this to be a win-win situation for all concerned ... and I am very thankful for this!

Q:  I'm currently a 2nd year music student interested in studying conducting. How should I go about it and what should I expect?

A: I assume that when you say “studying conducting” you mean “wishing to become a conductor”. I will begin by telling you what my parents and others told me when I began asking the same question nearly twenty years ago. I was told to practice the violin (later the viola) as productively as possible and to allow the instrument to open the doors. As absurd as that advice sounded to this teenager at that time, it is exactly what I would say to you. I must confess that I never studied conducting but having performed, by the time I was 25 years old, under conductors including Bernstein, Maazel, Colin Davis, Ozawa, Previn, Berglund and Rozhdestvensky was as wonderful an education as any conductor could have hoped for. I continue serving as the Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, where I also perform as a violist, with one selfish purpose - playing great chamber music with first-class colleagues is a microcosm of the orchestral situation, not only musically speaking but also psychologically. I wish all conductors had the ability to speak to the musicians of an orchestra, with efficiency and respect, as colleagues deal with each other in a chamber music situation.

Thanks to Theodore Kuchar and everyone who submitted questions!




What's your question for Marin Alsop?

Her high-profile debut as Music Director of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra won the hearts of the British critics, her recordings of American orchestral works have added invaluable interpretations to the catalogue, and her combined talent and wonderful personality were recently honoured with the Gramophone Artist of the Year Award.  Now you can submit your questions to Marin Alsop and view the answers next month on Naxos.com


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