Ignat Solzhenitsyn Returns To Vermont To Honor Piano Teacher Who Launched His Career

Dec 7, 2017

This weekend, a one-time Vermonter returns to the state to perform in honor of the woman who helped launch his career as a pianist and conductor.

Ignat Solzhenitsyn now teaches and conducts with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. He's also the principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and conducts and performs all around North America and Europe.

And his last name might sound familiar — he's the son of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author who was pushed out of the Soviet Union for his writing, which was seen as critical of the Soviet government.

The elder Solzhenitsyn became an international figure after he left the Soviet Union. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1970, but didn't claim it until after he was exiled in 1974. Soon after, seeking a respite from the crush of attention, he ended up settling with his young family in Cavendish, Vermont. That's where his son Ignat discovered music.

Excerpts from VPR's conversation with Ignat Solzhenitsyn below. Listen to the conversation above.

A teacher's influence

As a child in Cavendish, Ignat Solzhenitsyn studied piano with Chonghyo Shin of the Brattleboro Music Center. On Saturday, he returns to perform a recital in Brattleboro in honor of Shin. Solzhenitsyn says Shin provided him with a springboard for his musical career.

"I think the biggest thing was attention to detail," Solzhenitsyn says of what he learned from Shin, "reading the text with attention and understanding that anything the composer writes is there for a reason."

That has influenced how Solzhenitsyn approaches music. He says that he chooses to examine the historical context of a piece when he plays it, something he adds is hotly debated in the classical music world.

"If a composer is writing in exile or if he's writing on his deathbed, how can that not matter? And how can it not affect his state of mind?" Solzhenitsyn says. "On the other hand, the reason we want to be careful not to overstate that is simply that if it's art, in this case music, worth playing five years later and certainly 200 years later, it must be because it's more universal than simply reflecting a given circumstance, no matter how serious."

His relationship with Russia

Solzhenitsyn now regularly travels back and forth between the United States and Russia, something he says was utterly impossible when he was a child.

"I'm still pinching myself after all these years in that I'm able to go back and forth freely. This was an utter impossibility during my childhood because of the general circumstances of the Cold War and the specific circumstances of my family," Solzhenitsyn says. "And so for me, it's still just a great joy to be able to have that part of my heritage and of my life restored to me, no matter what the political environment is."

Of course, the political environment between the U.S. and Russia is tense right now. When asked what he thinks of the way Russia is currently discussed in the United States, Solzhenitsyn says he's not impressed with what he sees in the press.

"I actually find that regular folks, just people I talk to — whether it's after concerts, whether it's, you know, on the subway or whatever, something comes up — I find people have a much kind of a more realistic and a more normal sense of what's going on than I find really in the kind of most sophisticated press of the U.S.," Solzhenitsyn says.

In his view, both the U.S. and Russia are pursuing their own interests, and those interests will not always line up, which, he says, is to be expected.

"In a broad picture, it's normal, but it's kind of a bumpy ride right now, and certainly I very much hope that this will improve as this next foreseeable period of time unfold[s]," he says.

Music and politics

Though his writer father was swept into the world of international politics, Ignat Solzhenitsyn says his work as a musician is not overtly political. But he does try to live his life in a way he says his father would approve of, by living "not by lies."

"Even if we can't be heroic, or life doesn't call upon us to be heroic, at least do not participate in lies,"  Solzhenitsyn continues. "At least do not let your actions help that side, wherever one sees it. And so I certainly try to make sure that there is no concert I perform or program that I develop or agree to or participate in that somehow might lead to supporting the wrong, the wrong side, as I see it."

Correction 12/8/2017 5:43 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled Chonghyo Shin's first name. The spelling has now been corrected.

Disclosure: VPR is a media sponsor of Ignat Solzhenitsyn's performance at the Brattleboro Music Center on Saturday, Dec. 9.