Marina Mdivani

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In 1963, Georgian pianist Marina Goglidze Mdivani became the first female Soviet instrumentalist to perform in North America. Her tour, presented by Sol Hurok, followed the debuts of Oistrakh, Kogan, Gilels and Richter, and was to culminate with a recital at Carnegie Hall on November 22, 1963. With an entire country in mourning, however, Mdivani's debut was pushed to the 27th of November (NYT review, by Howard Klein).

A pupil of Emil Gilels (video) and classmate of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Mdivani was the winner of the 1961 Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud competition in Paris, and Principal Soloist of the Moscow Philharmonic Society from 1966-1992. She now teaches at McGill University in Canada. Below is a transcript of our conversation with Marina Mdivani on the 50th anniversary of her Carnegie Hall debut.

EH: You have a very interesting family background. How did you come to music ?

Mdivani: My father, Victor Goglidze, was the first Georgian chess-master, and we used to invite many musicians to our house in Tbilisi. As a result, we had famous musicians and chess players who would come and stay with us. Before the war, my father would often play chess with Sergei Prokofieff, who apparently, was not a bad player! (laughs)

I was enrolled in the Central music school in Georgia, a school for gifted children. My teacher, Evgenia Tcherniavskaya, knew Vladimir Gorowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Egon Petri, very well. This was, of course, before the Revolution, before they all left for the West. Many of them would often perform in Georgia, and families would meet them on these tours. The piano at the Tsbilisi Consevatory is actually a gift from Rachmaninoff himself - his very own piano, a Bechstein.

During the Second World War, many musicians were evacuated from Moscow to Tbilisi, and among them, Sviatoslav Richter came and lived in the apartment of a famous Georgian painter. My mother decided it was important for me to listen to him practice, and so we went. I sat in a nearby room and listened to him, for an entire hour, as he practiced nothing but one trill! (laughs) I remember he played The Well-Tempered Clavier at the following concert. Richter’s was very, very passionate playing, and the piano was always moving away from him somehow. This must have been in 1944 or so.

In 1955, I entered the Moscow Conservatory and was part of the same entrance competition as Vladimir Ashkenazy. We became very good friends and studied together for many years. It's a shame many of our classmates have passed away. In any case, Ashkenazy studied with Lev Oborin, and I was supposed to study with Heinrich Neuhaus, but something happened.

I was planning to get married, you see, and when Neuhaus heard of this, he said, “she will never become a pianist,”. At the time, I was a very different person, and I said, “If Neuhaus thinks this, I will not study with him!’. Neuhaus was a very popular teacher. He was a highly educated person, very cultured, and very interesting. He spoke of art, of life experiences, etc., and his classes were always very crowded. But I went to study with Yakov Milstein, who made editions of Scriabin, wrote lots of books about Liszt, was part of the Liszt Society, etc.

There were many famous musicians walking around Moscow at the time – Shostakovich, Kabalevsky, Sofronitsky, Samuel Feinberg, etc. - all of these fantastic personalities. I knew Shostakovich and Rostropovich, and they were very good human beings with marvelous personalities. I actually had the opportunity to play some of Shostakovich's chamber music for him, and he was on my final jury at the Conservatory. I met Igor Stravinsky, a very interesting, very great figure. Sadly, he lost all of his family in the Soviet Union, and they were writing many bad things about him at the time. It was everyday life for us. We also heard a lot of Soviet propaganda on the radio in those days.

EH: Were you among the few who heard a little-known Glenn Gould in 1957 ?

Mdivani: 1955-1963 was a very lucky time for us. Things were finally begining to open up, and we heard many of the great artists during this time. I heard Glenn Gould in May of 1957, and I still have his programs from the Moscow Conservatory. My friend, Lev Vlassenko, who was born in Tbilisi, was actually translating for him. It was very interesting, you know. This was a time when we knew little about Reger and Schoenberg, and after a period when pictures of Rachmaninoff had been crossed-out (in the 1940s). We were stunned, with open-mouths, when Gould played the Krenek Sonata!

So I attended all of his concerts. As you know, at the first concert, there were almost no people. I was there with my friend and it was not even half-full! Then, after he played the first concert, the place went absolutely crazy, as you can imagine (laughs).

It was a wonderful time because we really heard the best pianists, the best violinists, and the best conductors and orchestras from all over the world. I met and became friends with Isaac Stern, and we went on a trip back to Georgia once. We also heard Karajan, Szell, and Bernstein conducting, and I attended their rehearsals and even followed them to St. Petersbourg, in order to learn more. I still have the programs of Rubinstein, Michelangeli, Marguerite Long, etc. All of these experiences helped and taught me how to really practice.

EH: Some say that Sofronitsky sounded much better in live performance. Would you agree ?

Mdivani: I don’t think so (laughs). Sure, I was excited by his performances, but I felt he played Scriabin the same way he played a Liszt concerto. This is only my impression, of course. But I have my vision, and you can’t love everybody’s playing. Sofronitsky definitely had an interesting personality, though. In any case, after these conservatory years, I was supposed to enter competitions, and by 1960, I no longer had a teacher. Then Emil Gilels came to teach.

EH: What are your memories of Emil Gilels as a teacher ?

Mdivani: I will tell you that when you have as your teacher, Emil Gilels, you practice like crazy! (laughs) You cannot play badly for an artist like Emil Gilels. You have to prepare to the best of your ability. He wasn’t a very ‘smiley guy’ either, like I am speaking with you right now (laughs).

You have to respect yourself, then play well for him – these are very important. When I first went to his class, he did not know me at all. But after he recognized my last name (he had heard that I played Liszt’s Mazeppa quite well), he said, “Ah, Marina Goglidze Mazeppa!”, and he accepted me. He was often touring, you see, and his lessons were not so regular. He sent me to one competition after another, and I sat with the same repertoire for some time.

He would often take a chord and show me how to voice it in a wonderful way. Just having such a great personality near you – that was already something. If you came to his lessons underprepared, or if he was not in a good mood, he would say, "Oh, you are young, but you are playing like such an old lady,". I remember that he was very nervous whenever he had to go on-stage. He would turn green and say to me, ‘Look at how big this stage is, Marina! These moments before going on stage are the longest!”. I said to myself, ‘No! I will never think like this!’ (laughs).

EH: Do you remember your last meeting with him ?

Mdivani: Yes, it was after his last concert, I believe, in 1985. He performed the Third Sonata of Prokofieff and the Hammerklavier Sonata. They were absolutely fantastic. I remember he was very surprised to see me. He had heard a radio interview that I did in English, and he said, "Marina! All these years, I had no idea you could speak English so well!" (laughs).

EH: In 1962, you were a prize-winner at one of the most notable editions of the Tchaikovsky competition, won by Vladimir Ashkenazy and John Ogdon. How did you end up at the competition ?

Mdivani: Gilels decided to send me to the 1960 Queen Elisabeth competition in Brussels. I repeated my old repertoire and I was accepted into the competition. Unfortunately, the day before I was to leave for Brussels, the KGB refused to grant me a visa. As you can imagine, this was quite a common thing at the time.

In any case, no Soviet pianists were awarded any of the top prizes at the 1960 Brussels competition, and of course, the Soviet regime wanted them. They began working to send me to the 1961 Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris. In the end, it was Nikita Khruschev who personally granted me permission to go and compete at the Long-Thibaud. So I went to Paris, won the competition with the Tchaikovsky concerto, and was very proud to have Georges Auric sign my diploma. I met Arthur Rubinstein and Marguerite Long, who I received many beautiful letters from in later years.

Originally, my teacher and I had no plans of entering the Tchaikovsky competition. Arrangements had been made, after the Long-Thibaud, for me to give concerts in England, Italy, France, etc., but the Soviet government told me, “If you will not play in the Tchaikovsky competition, we will not allow you to go to the US”. So I had no choice but to play in the Tchaikovsky.

EH: What are your memories of John Ogdon and his performances ?

Mdivani: He was a very, very great pianist. I did not hear too much of him, unfortunately. I heard him in Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, and it was absolutely fantastic. I was very impressed. Many pianists there were wonderful, but the distribution of places had already been set by the Central Committee. These competitions, you see, were very political, and like the first one, the second one was the same. But you know, we still felt very lucky to have the opportunity to play in front of such a great jury.

EH: In 1963, you became the first female Soviet instrumentalist to perform in North America. You gave an eight-week tour of the United States that was to conclude with a Carnegie Hall debut on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was killed. What are your memories of these events ?

Mdvani: It was terrible - absolutely horrific. Can you imagine ? People were crying and glued to their television sets all day. I remember hearing the news, I think, just two hours before the concert. I remember running into the street and into Sol Hurok's office, not knowing what to do. I had, of course, been mentally preparing for a concert that evening. The concert on the 22nd was soldout, but of course, we canceled it. Hurok was extremely kind, however, and said to me, "Dushka, I cannot let you come all the way to America, all the way to New York, and not give a recital at Carnegie Hall". And so he booked the hall again, for me, on the 27th of November. Can you imagine how much this must have cost ?

Oistrakh, Kogan, Richter, and Gilels came to America before me, but I was the first one to travel without a translator/KGB because I could speak English and French. Many people were surprised by this, and I'm glad I was able to meet many people because of it. People saw me as a Soviet artist - that's how I was advertised - but I always considered myself a proud Georgian.

You know, I dreamed of America. My father lost all of his family and friends in the gulags, and my mother went through three wars, was lost in Siberia, and her mother was killed before her very eyes. And so, I’ve always loved the idea of people building themselves, their families and their lives. Of course, in the Soviet Union, we couldn’t even make our own money. My fee at the time was quite high - $2000 - but I have a piece of paper from Hurok saying that I only received $670. The rest, of course, went to the Soviet government. You know, they used to say that everything in the Soviet Union was free: education, living expenses, etc. - but somebody was paying for it! (laughs)

The concert on the 27th was not soldout, but there were lots of people. Rosinna (Lhevinne), who started out in Tbilisi, was there, and after the concert, she said to me of my Liszt Sonata, “I hate this music, but you play it well!(laughs). Actually, I only played the Liszt Sonata because Gilels gave it to me.

EH: Vladimir Horowitz’ favorite pupil, Ronald Turini, said one of his greatest musical experiences was listening to Gilels perform the Liszt Sonata, live.

Mdivani: I remember Turini - my dear, he competed at the Brussels competition that I could not go to! I never heard him in concert, unfortunately. The pianist who won that year - Turini placed 2nd - was a fantastic artist! Gilels told me about him, and it was Malcolm Frager, a student of Rosinna's.

EH: What are your thoughts on the evolution of piano competitions ?

Mdivani: When we were young, there were very few competitions. In the Soviet Union, you could win a prize, but then you’d be finished. Nobody cared after that. In 1963, I became the pianist for the Moscow Philharmonic, and maybe I didn’t have much money, but I at least had something. These days, it is very difficult to have a career.

The jury at the big competitions are often the same pianists, and the pianists who compete are often the ones who play at many of these competitions. Some pianists know the right people to push them in the direction of a career. But to be honest, I am not so interested in competitions. I have spent my life teaching people how to practice, how to solve problems, and more importantly, how to be honest musicians and honest people.

EH: With respect to talent, you’ve encountered the entire spectrum of musical ability. What are some of the rarest characteristics amongst those who succeed ?

Mdivani: Personalities. The great artists knew about music, but also of other important things. If you take Richter, Gilels, Browning, Szell, etc., many of these were great figures. I don’t know if this exists anymore. When I deal with some young people, many of them don’t know very much about literature, about culture, politics, geography, etc. You know, my old teachers were born in the 19th century, and we had many traditions. Georgia is a small country, but to simply travel from one city to another required a lot of effort. So we knew our geography very well.

EH: Because every pianist has a different hand, which Chopin Etude has given yours the most trouble over the years ?

Mdivani: My dear, all of them! I've played them all, and each one has its own problems and character that you must learn how to approach. No. 1 is not so difficult, after all, if you know how to approach it (laughs).

EH: Having spent a life immersed in music, what are some ideas that you would like to share with the next generation ?

Mdivani: You have to be responsible and you have to honor your talent. We now live in a society where young people ask, ‘who will do my dishes, my laundry, etc’. My parents never complained about what they had to do. The Soviet regime once took everything from them, and my idea was simply to pull them out. I am still grateful to my friend of fifty years, Tony MacFarlane, for helping us to settle in Canada.

For musicians, you actually cannot chain yourself to the piano all of the time. It is brutal, and it is not good for you. Take every opportunity to travel, to be interested in everything. I’ve always believed it a gift and an honor to perform and play in the Great Hall in Moscow, in Carnegie Hall, in St. Petersbourg, where Rachmaninoff and Scriabin played. But I often thought to myself, ‘How can I make my grandmother happy ? She dedicated her life to me’. She was 73 when she took me to my music lessons. My mother and father also gave me everything. My mother had one dress, my father had one pair of pants and one shirt. Music has given me a full life, but freedom is the most important thing. You have to be free inside.

EH: Professor Mdivani, it was most wonderful speaking with you. Thank you for taking the time, and congratulations again.

Mdivani: Thank you, Elijah - you're most welcome. It was very nice talking to you too!