Interview conducted by Prof Friedrich Lips and Dr Herbert Scheibenreif at the Russian Gnessin Academy of Music, Moscow, 14 and 15 December 2002.
This Celebrity Interview co-incides with the 75th birthday of Sergey Michailovitch Kolobkov who has had a highly distinguished career in music and an important role in the development of the bayan culture of Russia which has impacted so enormously on the development of accordion all over the world.
Q. Sergey Michailovitch, what age did you first start learning the accordion?
A. I had my first contact with professional musicians even before the war. I was nine or ten years old at that time. Everything started in the house of the sappers in the district of Moskvorezky of the city of Moscow in which a musical circle had established itself. I studied at the childrens school of music in Voronzovsky street about two years later. So my education started.
Q. Was the accordion the first instrument you learnt?
A. When I was three or four years old, my father took a little harmonica home. He wasn't a musician himself but a driver by profession, then afterwards a mechanic in a car factory, but he liked to play on the harmonica. Later he started to teach me. He probably bought a bayan in 1938 or 1939.
Q. Tell us a little about the town/city where you were born, and where in Russia, it is located?
A. I was born in the village of Korsako, situated 80 kilometers from Moscow in the area of Kalushky. Once this area was part of the area of Kalushsky, then it belonged to Moscow again. Nowadays it is the district of Shukovsky in the area of Kalushsky. I was born there and after a year we settled down in Moscow. Therefore I am practically Moscovite.
Q. Did your parents play an important part in your early music education?
A. Of course, as all parents do. My father played on the harmonica and my mother knew many folk songs which she sang to me very well. Later I heard other variations of the songs by Pirogov and Ruslanova. All the ones my mother had sung to me remain in my memory even today. As such, my parents played an important role in my further life and existence, and this beginning was very essential for my future.
Q. Tell us about your first teachers?
A. Peter (or Viktor) Lukic was my teacher in the child school of music. After this I studied with Vladimir Jakubovsky in the music junior high. He was wrapped up in his work and gave to us, his pupils, very much professional regard. We played in duets or ensembles, he made transcriptions himself, not only etudes by Chopin, Prokofjev's "Classic symphony", Schubert's "Military March", but also many other classic works. I studied with Jakubovsky in the music junior high for two years, then I was referred further to Vladimir Tjurikov.
He was a trained pianist and taught at the conservatory. He was at the front in a concert brigade, played on the piano accordion and made transcriptions for bayan. I remember that he mastered the English language very well. There was an excellent library in the house of Tjurikov. With him I finished the music junior high. My memories of the music junior high are generally very clear.
Wonderful musicians, later famous personalities and well-known pedagogues took care of us., e.g. Anaida Sumbatjan, leading pedagogue at the central school of music and our pedagogical chief at the music junior high at that time. Or Anna Michaltchi, Rachmaninov's teacher. We received a high academic education. Why do I always say that we need more academic atmosphere? Simply because I was absorbing everything through this myself.
Q. Please describe your middle and higher education?
A. I completed the junior high rather early, in 1945 after three years. There wasn't a high education on the bayan at that time. In October 1945, I entered the Ossipov Orchestra and started to work there. The Department of Folk Instruments was opened at the Gnessin Institute in 1948 and I entered there even though I was already a leader of bayan ensembles in the orchestra. Such serious people as concert master Boris Tichonov, substitute of concert master Miromanov, entered from the orchestra at that time too.
We already had work experience: three years in the Ossipov orchestra, appearances with important singers and musicians. Together we started to build up the faculty where it was very important that Yuri Muromzev, Elena Gnessina and Aleksandr Iljuchin gave us their support. I had to work in the Ossipov orchestra and to study at the institute at the same time. My bayan teacher was Viktor Gorochov.
I don't know what education he had as a bayanist but I know that he went through the theoretical faculty of the conservatory in Sverdlovsk. He played bayan in the Mossovjet theater. He died rather early but already after the end of my education. I studied conducting with Aleksandr Ivanov-Radkevitch. After all, I would like to say that very big importance was attached to the first course of the chair. There were outstanding musicians, conductors of the Bolshoj theater and state orchestras like Simin, Sacharov, later Ogarkov, Drushinin, Sergey Gortchakov and Vladimir Degtjarenko.
Q. Do you have any lasting impressions from your teachers?
A. Vladimir Tjurikov left a strong impression on me through his creative atmosphere which he surrounded us with. Vladimir Jakubovsky was a great enthusiast, an extremely intelligent person and he has given very much to me. Viktor Gorochov also impressed me very much with his great enthusiasm. Although I didn't study directly with Elena Gnessina and Yuri Muromzev, the frequent contact with them also left its traces. In the music junior high the contacts with pianists Anaida Sumbatjan and Anna Michaltchi remained in my memory.
Q. You were in your teens when the Gnessin Institute accepted the accordion in 1946. Tell us what you know about this and the tutors at that time?
A. Of course the Gnessin's were very progressive people, revolutionaries in the best meaning of the word. And thanks to the character and authority of Elena Gnessina a chair for folk instruments was opened at the institute. At that time, one had to be very courageous to dare such a step and, first of all, the academic council had to be convinced.
Yuri Vladomirowitsch Muromzew also had very progressive views and a double education. As a pianist he had gone through with Igumnov, as a conductor with Gauk. He was in the war and came back with military awards. He and Elena Gnessina left a deep impression on me.
Q. You were there during the development of the bayan from being purely a folk instrument to a serious concert instrument? This was a period of enormous development of repertoire, instrument design and teaching process. Tell us about this fascinating period?
A. During my studies at the music school, the music junior high and at the institute, I already experienced the professional development of the bayan. On the other hand, the identity of an instrument determines its repertoire. There weren't so many very artistic works despite the concerts of Klementjev, Rubzov and Sotnikov at that time. The works of Tchaikin and Shishakov appeared later.
Regarding artists, Kusnjezov, Popkov and Danilov formed the first bayan trio, of course. Both classic works and transcriptions of folk songs were part of their repertoire. Their excellent interpretations had a high academic level. In the final of his fourth symphony Tchaikovsky used the folk song "The birch was standing on the field", in the second symphony the Ukrainian song "The crane", but one mustn't call this folklore. This is valid also there. And the Ossipov orchestra performed works by Budashkin, Cholminov, Kulikov, Vasilenko, Russian classical music and romances. Ivan Panitsky made excellent transcriptions.
The Duo Shalajev/Krilov appeared later. But the rather fast development as an academic instrument in the chamber music started only during the last two, three decades although this breakthrough had already begun in Tchaikin's works with his well known Sonata Nr 1 and Concert for Bayan and Orchestra. Friedrich Lips is now continuing this breakthrough.
Q. Is there any teacher or artist to whom you would like to pay particular tribute, for their inspirational effect on your musical career?
A. The atmosphere at the institute and in the Ossipow orchestra exerted the strongest influence on me. I was also very much impressed by working with such outstanding singers as Aleksandr Pirogov, Maria Maksakova, Lydia Ruslanova, Ivan Koslowsky. I absorbed all this musical atmosphere into myself, this was all a part of my education.
Q. Tell us how your accordion solo performing career began and some of the most memorable highlights? Solo Recordings and TV appearances? Premiere Performances?
A. My career as an artist started with the Ossipov orchestra. I remember that I had to play for Viktor Sergeyevitch Smirnov on October 18th, 1945. After we recorded quite a lot of works for the radio, e.g. Rubzov's Concert for bayan and orchestra and Konjajev's Concert piece, among the solo recordings Rubinstein's "Valse Caprice" and Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble-Bee". As I remember, there was a TV-recording with the gusli player Bsjevolod Beljajevsky.
Q. You became a teacher at the Gnessin Institute? Tell us how that came about?
A. After having finished my studies at the institute in 1953 Aleksandr Iljuchin and Yuri Muromzew invited me to become teacher of the chair. After all, I had a good relationship with both Aleksandr Iljuchin, Yuri Muromzev and Elena Gnessina. I started to teach bayan and after the festival in 1957 Iljuchin suggested that I become conductor of the orchestra for folk instruments. So it came that conducting was predominating particularly since I was an orchestra musician.
Q. As a teacher at the Gnessin Institute, you had students who later become very famous in their own right. Please tell us about these students?
A. I had a rather large class with numerous well-known performers, primarily Friedrich Lips, Yuri Vostrjelov and Aleksandr Skljarov who are now our leading musicians, elite and authority. Yuri Dranga made the Assistentura with me. Many of my graduates work in conservatories, music junior highs, orchestras and as leaders of institutes such as Pjotr Govorushko in St. Petersburg and Jevgeny Kolobov in Uljanowsk, etc.
Q. You were one of the first teachers, to be allowed to take young bayan artists to compete at international accordion competitions? How did this come about and what were your first impressions of these international events?
A. Which impressions? At competitions there is nothing special. As soon as the program is known, the test piece, there is only work, work and again work left. This is my whole impression. I remember how seriously we prepared with Friedrich Lips for Klingenthal where he won first prize, the same with Vostrjelov for the Coupe Mondiale in Leicester and with Skljarov for the Coupe Mondiale in Brugge.
We prepared a work schedule, had breaks so that no overtiredness could enter. It is necessary to divide up your strength carefully, finally a competition contains both a culture of studies, having a rest and also good diet. We approached all this very seriously. Kolja Sobotchevsky is a very good performer but he never participated in competitions.
Q. How were Russian candidates selected? Tell us about the preparation of candidates in those early years of international competition?
A. In former times nationwide, so-called all-Russian competitions used to take place. This tradition has been lost now. Sometimes one also must hear: "Let's go to the competition to warm up for a concert". My point of view is different, one must warm up somewhere at home, but you have to go to the competition to win, to finish among the first. How did this happen in former times? First we organized a competition in the chair and determined the dignified candidates. I remember when the commission gathered in the Little Hall under the chairmanship of Yuri Muromzev.
Afterwards we discussed very long which player we should recommend. Furthermore an all-Russian tour was established to select candidates. An authority arose from that procedure because the Gnessin institute was always expected to present the highest standards! Perhaps this sounds a bit too severe but our tradition was founded on this. The selection happened that way and, as a rule, our bayanists were always successful.
Q. How did winning an international competition effect the lives of these young artists?
A. Of course winning an international competition is a milestone in the life of young artists. But it depends on the candidate which ways, horizons and possibilities will open up for him in the future. Out of my experience of many competitions, I can say, that there are many prize-winners, however only few personalities. On the whole, it can be said, that the competition is important for the musician, of course: he gets inspired, full of enthusiasm and organized.
Q. You were the editor of the famous series of volumes "Bayan and Bayanists" about many aspects of the bayan culture. Tell us about this famous series and your input?
A. I didn't work on this series of volumes for a long time although I always took part in discussions about the articles very actively . I think this is a remarkable input. There were both good scientific essays and popular people forming articles. Briefly, it seems to me, that the series "Bayan and Bayanists" played a very important role in theory and methodology of the bayan culture. This isn't just talk. There was really deep, good material which was developed in thesis, work and monographs afterwards.
Q. You are widely respected for your years as the conductor of the Ossipov Folk Orchestra which became world famous. How were you selected to become the conductor?
A. When I finished my studies in 1953, a competition was announced amongst the assistants of the conductor. I won this competition, and became the assistant of the conductor and later also permanent conductor. The orchestra supported me because I was an orchestra musician myself. We had many concerts with great singers: Ruslanova, Pirogov, Sikina, Levko, Archipova.
Q. When did you first tour outside Russia conducting the Ossipov Folk Orchestra and to which countries?
A. I didn't go abroad with the Ossipov orchestra. But we had tours to the whole world with the Moisejev ensemble. In whole, I spent about eight years in this ensemble. We went to many countries: USA, Europe, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Africa. Performances took place daily. One day N. Hekrasov was conducting, it was my turn the other day. This orchestra had the highest standard, a high-class orchestra no matter which kind of music was going to be performed.
Q. List some of your most interesting and important performances both as a soloist, performer in folk ensembles, and as the conductor of the Ossipov Folk Orchestra. Describe your most "unusual" or "humorous" performance situation/s?
A. We were on tour in Stavropol when Dmitry Ossipov died in Moscow. But we had the daily concert in the big concert hall. I was conducting, Lydia Ruslanova was soloist. Full of tears, she sang the song "The hundred year old lime", the orchestra sobbed, nobody did not understand anything in the hall. The whole concert proceeded in the atmosphere of unbelievable tension. I will remember this concert my whole life.
Another experience: P.I. Tschaikowsky's "Snow White" with the Little Theater, the Jurlow-choir and Irina Archipova was to be performed without rehearsal. It was the daily concert in the Tchaikovsky Hall. Suddenly the conductor Gnutov fell ill. And I as a young man strode to the conductor's stand.
The concert master Kapitonov showed to the whole choir from the sceneries: look at me, Kapitonov, because nobody really knew what would happen on the stage. But after the performance, choir and orchestra gave to me their applause! All of us remembered this concert at that time. These were probably the most memorable occurrences on the stage.
Q. You have had an enormous impact on the development of the bayan culture in Russia through your important administrative positions as the Rector of the Gnessin Institute and also as the Vice-Minister of Culture? How did you achieve such important administrative and political positions?
A. First I was head of the chair of folk instruments, then also secretary of the party organization. When Muromzev went to the Bolshoj theater Vladimir Minin became principal. He offered me the place of a deputy rector. In a whole I was about eight years deputy rector besides my teaching.
With the time the situation developed so that Minin left and for about two years I took over the agendas of a principal particularly since all threads of the leadership and the knowledge around the institute ran together with me as the first deputy rector. Suddenly the secretary of culture and then the ministerial committee invited me to cooperate in the department. I refused as my activity field was located in the institute, there I had grown up, I had built up and I knew everything.
They invited me into the soviet ministerial committee twice, I refused twice, but then, however, I had to agree to become finally Russian Vice-Minister of Culture, curator for all questions of the music art. I remained in this function three and a half years. There was much work to be done: competitions of academic and traditional choirs, ensembles, symphony orchestras, different festivals, Days of Russia in Kirgistan, Georgia, Bulgaria, etc.
Three and a half years passed and I came back again to the Gnessin institute as a principal in 1984. I must confess that the work in the department was of great use for me: new knowledge, experience in leadership work, contacts, relationships. I attained experience in administrative work, far away from creative one, but also very important.
Q. What are some of the most important development decisions that you were able to implement in your career? What is your proudest achievement?
A. First of all, it was a great success that the Gnessin Institute became Russia's Gnessin Academy of Music.
Now we are academy for already ten years and in one row with Russia's leading universities of music: Moscow's Tchaikovsky Conservatory was first, then St. Petersburg's Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory and finally it was up to us, the Russian Gnessin Academy of Music.
I also would like to add the opening of new fields of study and branches here. We also organize great competitions and festivals. I think these were remarkable activities. I am proud of all this which will remain in my memory for sure.
Q. How have the political changes in Russia over the last 15 years effected your profession?
A. I continued my work, like all others also. Of course there are difficulties as now everything is very different from former times. When I was principal it was also difficult, of course. But I tried to get stability in the institute as it is the main task of the administrator to guarantee the necessary conditions for the work.
And of course the moral atmosphere, our Gnessin's traditions, with my whole strength I did my best to maintain them, and it is wonderful that they continue. The situation is stabilizing itself now, in certain regard one gets used to the conditions. No, I wouldn't like to say that the atmosphere at the academy breaks somehow, but this is good traditional work.
Q. In the future, where do you see the accordion fitting into the overall musical scene?
A. Nowadays the bayan has obtained a high standard and everybody must support Friedrich Lips in his most valuable and talented work with composers. We have to consolidate this breakthrough and further support Friedrich Lips with young strengths so that this work could develop in all directions: in the art of performance, in the work with composers, in holding symposia, meetings and round tables. Nowadays one must not simply sit and play on the bayan.
Sergey Michailovitch, thank you for this interesting conversation.