The Soft Power of Cultural Diplomacy

19 DEC 2016


The Soft Power of Cultural Diplomacy

Text by Anna Chernogolovina; photos by Andrey Efimov



Mikhail Simonyan is one of the world’s most renowned violinists today: he was giving his first solo concert at the Lincoln Center in the USA at the age of 13, and debuted at the Carnegie Hall at 15; he played concerts with Valery Gergiev and Vladimir Spivakov, Leon Botstein and Kristjan Järvi. But Mikhail is more than just a musician; he is also the President of the Open Sea Foundation, whose task is to discover new opportunities for talented musicians. The Fund organized a unique event at the Historic Stage of the Bolshoi Theater on November 28 – a gala concert dedicated to the 80th anniversary of two bands that play an important role in the Russian musical tradition: the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation named after E.F. Svetlanov and the Sveshnikov State Academic Russian Choir. Mikhail tells WATCH about music being the most important form of diplomacy and his view on the perfect conditions for creative process.

You played at the Carnegie Hall when you were a kid but you’ve only played at the Bolshoi for the first time this year.

Yes, I’d been looking forward to this event; after all the Bolshoi is the heart of our country’s cultural life. It was very interesting to learn the acoustics of the hall, as the stage transformed in the course of action – forming a so-called “acoustic box”.

Do you have any halls, any places that you are particularly fond of performing at?

Not really. Some halls are magnificent, of course: acoustics is just another tool. The better it is, the more colors the audience can perceive in the musical palette. Musikverein in Vienna, Carnegie Hall in New York are great examples; Tokyo has a dozen halls with unique acoustics. We also have some excellent halls in Russia: Mariinsky-2, Mariinsky-3, the Grand Hall of Moscow Conservatorium. By the way, I’ve never heard the Bolshoi Theater auditorium in concert configuration.

How many hours a week do you dedicate to violin, to working on the violin technique?

You know, it’s like the sports – you have to keep practicing at all times. Of course I’m not studying 10 hours a day, as I did when I was a kid, but I do try to stay in shape and play for at least one and a half or two hours. So I end up with 7-10 hours a week.

When you were a kid, you left home at 8 in the morning and did not come back until 10-11pm. How did you manage to stay interested in music, with that frustrating schedule?

My interest was in travelling places. While my peers were hanging around in their yards, I was touring the world – and this was very motivating. But there was a downside to it: I cannot remember too many heartfelt family evenings – I spent all my time in school, while my father was always at work. So I only really started getting in touch with my family when I grew up. 

What did you feel when you were playing at Lincoln Center at the age of 13?

Nothing special. I felt just as responsible before playing a concert at the Officers’ Club in Novosibirsk. Yes, it’s a different city, a different country – but that’s it.

Nevertheless, teenagers only start thinking about a career at 15, while you already had one.

I had lots of different feelings in this respect. You know 15 to 17 is an awkward age, when you understand violin is not everything; there are also parties, beautiful girls… And adulthood is just a step away. In music it’s simple, but in life you keep making mistakes.

You know, when a whiz kid is growing in a family, it is important to have someone around him or her, who would prompt the right way to behave in the society, without offending and humiliating them. Because a child would be forgiven for making a mistake, but a grown up musician would not. I was lucky in that I had senior comrades – this includes my parents and my friends in the US who showed me the way. Thanks God they were there for me.

Today I do not have to be part of the music industry – I have my own team of managers that take over most of my responsibilities. Perhaps now I am in the perfect conditions for returning to music.

How did you get to study in the USA? Was it a grant?

There was a joint Russian-American symphony orchestra back in 1999, established as part of a project to reconcile the two countries after the Cold War. It’s top-class diplomacy in the area of culture, called “soft power”. All these young guys knew about each other was that “they have nukes and they want to bury us”. I was invited to the orchestra as a solo performer, and its director told me: “Perhaps with your aspirations and talent you should continue with your education here?”

The nineties were a hard time for cultural life in Russia: many professional tutors left the country riding the emigration wave. The government wasn’t paying much attention to education in general. So my parents decided I should fly to the US for an audition. It ended up with me getting a scholarship and entered Curtis School of Music. For my parents, it was just like sending their kid to the Moon. All young hopefuls at the time would go to Moscow or Saint Petersburg. Those who dreamed of making it really big would dream of Europe. And for a kid to go to the US at 13 was an extraordinary step. I am thankful to my parents that they were not afraid of making that step. I had two siblings, so my mother could not stay with me in the States for too long; so I was pretty much left on my own in a foreign country.

From your point of view, what is the difference between American and Russian education system?

There are lots of differences here and there. But the main advantage of the American system is that not even a penny of taxpayer money is spent on it. Education is funded by private donations, because the taxation system is different: rich people in the US are financially motivated to become philanthropists, make donations, including contributions to symphony orchestras and opera theaters.

As for purely musical differences, I can dwell on and on: for example, in Russia we wrote four-voice dictations in solfeggio class after two playbacks; in the US we did single-voice dictations after 20 playbacks of two measures each.

How many violins do you have at the moment?

The first one is a Stradivarius; it is owned by a private foundation that allows me to play it. The other one is a replica made by a close friend of mine – Chrystophe Landon, a famous violin maker living in New York.

What is yourthingas a violin player? How would you best describe your own manner of playing and technique?

I take things easy – that’s it.

Which ones of your fellow violin players are you impressed with?

All of them. Honestly. Everyone who creates art and tries to make our society a little better. A musician’s profession is not as simple as it might look to an outsider. The flights, the jetlag – it is really hard on your body. And it is definitely not good for your health. Not knowing when you will have a chance to sleep, not eating right, spending lots of energy with no time to recover. I have a great respect for the people who picked up this burden.

Many countries these days try to break away from being part of the Soviet Union’s history. But when I invited our colleagues and friends from Estonia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and the USA to come and play at the November 28 concert – nobody said no.

You were going to enter the Diplomatic Academy under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia – what happened to that?

That will happen next year: I didn’t have the time in 2016. I think the projects that the Open Sea Foundation is doing are some kind of an academy for me. We do projects that are impossible, and we make them happen thanks to our friendly relations with the performers.

For example, we directed a performance of Carmen recently, which joined countries that otherwise only meet in newscasts, and only in a negative context. Ukraine, Lithuania and South Ossetia are three states that can never come to an agreement at political summits. Culture and medicine are the only bridges between them. You cannot stop someone from singing duo in an opera; likewise, you cannot prohibit a doctor to treat a patient from Lithuania. We did the same in Moscow on November 28. Many countries want to break away from their Soviet history, their legacy. But the Svetlanov State Orchestra and Sveshnikov State Choir are 80-90% of the history of music in the USSR, this just isn’t something you can forget. Everybody admires the work they did over the last 80 years. It is impossible not to come and celebrate with the two bands. I don’t think that the representatives of these countries would agree as fast if they were invited to some political forum.

As far as I know, you also contributed to the funding of the National Music School in Kabul, Afghanistan.

I am glad I had a chance to join that project and convey some of my experience to the kids. This is the first educational institution teaching kids to play musical instruments in that country. Afghanistan is still in a military emergency situation, but our colleagues from different states – US Department of State, the Embassy of Finland, Italy, EU Embassy – they are doing the right thing. Building the Music School is to some extent a restoration of the country’s culture that has been destroyed.

In 2013 you became an advisor to the Governor of Kaluga Oblast and were involved in creating the Kaluga Symphony Orchestra. Are you still working in that direction today?

Personally for me, that project is over. But I gained great experience while working at it – and not just while creating the orchestra. I saw the situation from the inside, saw the establishment of a new cultural history for the region. The problem is, our culture today is overly dependent on the ministries, particularly regional ministries. And you know how well regional ministers are appointed in our country: sometimes top-ranking officials are people who used to be working in the utilities sector. Now Kaluga Orchestra is in the hands of my colleague – a great musician Alexander Gindin, and I am wishing him success.

How do you visualize your future? Is it mostly about administrative work?

You know, a year ago I would agree: I’ve played it all, seen it all, been there, done that. But when I got up to my neck in paperwork, I realized I missed my violin. So literally two weeks ago in London I told my old managers I would like to return to the big stage. They were happy of course.

I do not think of myself as purely a violinist; today I do not have to be part of the music industry – I have my own team of managers that take over most of my responsibilities. Perhaps now I am in the perfect conditions for returning to music – when I do what I want to do, not what my agents tell me to do: what to say, where to play, where to go. I have a great tool for that: the Open Sea Foundation. Why the name? Because it’s an “open sea of opportunities” – this was the name coined by Ernest Matskyavichus, a journalist working for “Vesti” program on the “Russia” channel. Generally, I have a very clear picture of the future, and it is all about developing the present.

Do you follow the events taking place in the world of violin music?

Not much. I know what is happening there anyway: the world of music is small. You cannot imagine how small it is. When you are on a tour, you come to one city, then another, and another; you open booklets at each stop and you see all the same people you were playing with the other day. We just go round in circles, one after another. This is an industry where everybody knows everything, and there is no need to specifically monitor something – you can get all the updates by quickly scrolling through your social media feed.