In my time as a globetrotting hack I’ve had a few close shaves. I’ve been shot at in the back streets of Havana. I’ve had arguments with Jihadi warlords in Yemen. But, my closest brush with mortality was after one night of drinking with the brilliant classical pianist Boris Beresovsky.
I was discovered asleep in a snowdrift at 4am outside a casino in Ekaterinburg, in Russia’s Ural region; it was -30C (-22F). Every morning there would be a score or so of frozen bodies found in the streets of those who, like me, had over-indulged in the fermented spell of vodka. I hadn’t even overdone it. I had been rationing myself, about one vodka to Boris’s four, and fully intended to crash out at midnight or so.
Ekaterinburg is on the Europe-Asia border. We had been visiting the mineshaft where the revolutionaries threw Tsar Nicholas II’s family after they were executed by firing squad. That history lesson was followed by dinner and numerous drinks with Dmitri Liss, a local conductor. He was telling us about the crowds in the nearby city of Novouralsk, who he said were his most receptive, I suppose in the same way indie bands get a better reaction north of Watford. Novouralsk is a “secret city”, it never used to appear on maps as it was where the Russians made nuclear weapons and anthrax. These days, I’m told it is a major centre for webcam stripper girls.
My downfall was when he said he said we should go to the casino there. I told him I had enough vices already without gambling, but he bribed me with a stash of roubles, saying that it was always necessary to test the gods of chance. I lost most of the cash, but I believe I was actually beginning to win. And then, my memory starts getting fuzzy. There was no brick of roubles in my pocket when I was rescued, but at least I wasn’t another frozen statistic.
Despite his hard living, Boris Beresovsky is an astonishing pianist, picking up prizes the way other musicians pick up parking tickets and able to play the most fearsomely difficult pieces (like the Godowsky Chopin variations) without written music, using what he calls “fingertip memory”. Of course, he isn’t the only classical musician who likes to drink, carouse and generally misbehave. A documentary last month on the BBC entitled Addicts Symphony told of widespread drink and drug addiction among the classicists, and brought together ten musicians who have all battled addictions, including top cellist Rachael Lander.
I always thought it was the rockers who flew the flag for debauchery, I grew up with legends of Keith Moon, Led Zep and the Stones throwing TVs out of windows, driving limos into swimming pools, instigating mass groupie action and epic ingestions of cocaine and heroin. That, however, was another time. There may be exceptions - Fat White Family sound like a blast - but most of the rock bands you come across these days are sipping herbal tea, doing yoga, texting their accountants and discussing demographics with their record company bosses. Muse were the last huge band I met – I like their megalomaniac pomp rock dashed with paranoia - and they were very well behaved. I seem to recall we discussed which was their favourite bottled water.
For quite a lot of classical musicians, though, the puritan message hasn’t got through. In fact, some of them seem to want to copy the rock stars of old. There’s been a shift – in the 70s many rock musicians wanted to be like classical musicians. Prog rockers like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes did versions of classical tunes like Bartok and Brahms. These days, it’s the other way round: a top classical composer like Philip Glass will do orchestrated versions of things like Bowie’s Low. This month Steve Reich, probably America’s top composer, is releasing a record called Radio Rewrite; a version of a Radiohead tune.
I started in the classical music field relatively softcore with would-be punk violinist Nigel Kennedy. He, or his management, had the nous to sell Vivaldi’s Four Seasons like a rock album and it sold truck loads (a couple of million and counting). When I went to his place the first thing he said to me was “if you need a piss, you can have a slash in the garden.” I ended up spending late nights with him in a weird Polish Jazz club in Berlin getting smashed. I saw him perform at Hampton Court, an open air venue he likes because “if it rains the rich motherfuckers get shitted on”. He once told me his favourite orchestra are the Berlin Philharmonic, because they are “the bollock. Proper.” It could be pointed out that his punk persona is a pose, but it’s one that has lasted so long as to become real and besides, plenty of the original punks were nice middle-class boys, like diplomat’s son Joe Strummer.
But for the real hardcore drinking you have to move onto the Russia and the Ukraine, who also happen to have the best classical musicians. The first I met, in Vienna, was the most celebrated viola player in the world, Yuri Bashmet. Even when we were out at a restaurant, he was often recognised and people frequently sent drinks to the table. Stories abound of his wild parties in his dacha outside Moscow, his carousing in jazz clubs and having to be woken up in sundry hotels with epic hangovers when he is late for rehearsals. If Skream was a viola player, he’d be this guy.
He used to be a rock star in his native Lvov but he began to feel that “pop music, in comparison to classical, was spiritually limited." As for the groupies he had then, "they were good-looking but a little stupid." Instead he has raised the profile of a previously unfashionable instrument, getting many composers to write pieces for him. He says he can prove he changed the status just by examining its female students. "Twenty years ago all the girls who played it were tragic; compensating for failure in their lives. Now nearly all of them are happy and very beautiful. I can be proud of that."
At this point I’d become hooked on hanging out with these guys, despite what trips to Russia were costing me in North Face apparel. I got the call to interview Valery Gergiev, a legendary conductor – for many the best in the world. I met him in the pale and spectral city of St Petersburg. Of course, like all my evenings in Russia, we ended up completely tanked up (or whatever the Russian equivalent is… Baboushka’d? Glasnossed?) The night ended around 5am, because if you are Gergiev, you don’t get thrown out of restaurants there. He even gets his own motorcade if he needs to get about the city in a hurry.
Gergiev looks like a man who hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in several decades, which may, in fact, be true. People talk about his “demonic energy”, and he runs a company that includes 80 singers, 200 dancers, 180 musicians and scores of technical and administrative staff. This is someone who according to his sister Larissa, “cannot cook, wash his clothes or do any kind of practical housework”. He celebrated his 50th birthday by marrying a 19 year old.
But at 10am the next morning, he was conducting Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, turning the opera into Kashmir era Led Zep. He has phenomenal energy and has been known to conduct three different concerts in different countries on the same day. Later that night, while I still had a splitting hangover, I watched the premiere of Gergiev’s new version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely performed opera The Tsar’s Bride. After we went to a gala dinner attended by sponsors and critics. The designer of the Opera proposed numerous toasts to the genius of Gergiev, before slipping unconscious under the table.
I did get a moral lesson that night. Another oligarch type at the table asked me if I needed a lift home. I said my hotel was round the corner but thanks for the offer. He meant a lift back to London in his private plane. The other oligarch’s ears pricked up. It turned out that the first one had a Gulfstream 4. At which point the other one casually drops that he has a Gulfstream 5 – more windows and somehow you don’t have to bend down to get in the cockpit. The first oligarch was genuinely pissed off and scowls for the rest of the evening. So, the moral of that is for some people, it never ends – you might think once you’ve got a good private jet, maybe you have enough. But no, you need the best one.
I could have cut my losses, but several people told me about a guy in Siberia even more intense than Gergiev. So, I got an overnight plane to Novosibirsk to meet a terrifically crazy guy called Teodor Currentzis who makes pronouncements like “I will save classical music”, and means it. I know what he meant after hearing a version he conducted of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which was like a piece of soul music newly minted. Of course, that was followed by an uproarious evening fuelled by wine and yet more vodka. “All the girls are in love with him and he loves it” said a female student to me. Currentzis, with his Byronic long hair, calls himself an “anarchist narcissist”. He used to be in “industrial new romantic” bands and drops the names of obscure post-punk bands like Nurse With Wound. “You know” he told me “I preferred Joy Division when they were Warsaw.”
It’s worth pointing out that Siberia is huge, and is not just gulags and endless snow, with the odd tiger or shaman on the horizon. In fact, it would be the seventh biggest country if it was independent. There are hundreds of music schools there and Currentzis scoured them, not for technique, but for attitude. He wanted to mess with his hand-picked musicians heads and succeeded.
I’m not saying you have to be wrecked to be interesting. What I am saying is that I would prefer to spend the night with the likes of Currentzis and Gergiev than Mumford and Sons or Clean Bandit. Basically, if you're looking for rock'n'roll behaviour you need to go classical.
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