Ah, Interviews (I think by now it deserves the royalty of a proper noun). I completely forgot how invested I was in this portion of Eminent: the constant Gmail updating, the feeling of complete joy as I read the words “Yes, I’d be happy to help you with your project”, the pacing around my room as I anxiously waited for my interviewees to pick up, and, best of all, getting lost in conversation with the best of the best in the classical music business.
Having conducted two successful and lengthy interviews with some pretty notable experts for my project last year, I must confess that I felt a certain level of expectation on my shoulders as I prepared to send out interviews again.
Here are the experts I contacted:
Richard Taruskin – Shostakovich scholar, written several wonderful essays about him (see my Annotated Bi-blog-raphy).
Eugene Osadchy – Russian cellist, now a professor at University of North Texas.
Alex Ross – music critic of the New Yorker. He wrote a great chapter about Shostakovich in his book The Rest is Noise.
David Fanning – author of Shostakovich Studies, prof. at University of Manchester.
Judith Kuhn – Shostakovich scholar.
Alan Mercer – founder/editor-in-chief of DSCH Journal, a twice-year publication dedicated to the composer.
Vladimir Ashkenazy – notable Russian pianist.
Marietta Orlov – former Romanian State Pianist, currently a professor at University of Toronto.
Lafayette String Quartet – based in Victoria, all are professors at University of Victoria. These include:
- Ann Elliott-Goldschmid
- Sharon Stanis
- Joanna Hood
- Pam Highbau-Aloni
Here is the following email I sent all of them (some were in variation; ex. for musicians I focused on how I am a pianist, if I had a personal connection with the contact I would state it too):
My name is Lucas Hung, a student at Gleneagle Secondary School near Vancouver. I am completing a project for my English 10 class where we are to complete a month-long study about an “eminent” person of our choice. I have been asked to conduct an interview with an expert in the field of my subject, Dmitri Shostakovich. The objective of this interview is for me to gain a more in-depth understanding of Shostakovich, and also learn how to properly develop interview questions.
I am requesting permission to interview you about your experiences with writing about Shostakovich. I am an aspiring classical pianist myself, and have been fascinated by his story and his ability to produce music of such great emotional quality despite his creative conditions, as well as the scholarly controversy surrounding his personal beliefs and personal life after his death.
I would greatly appreciate it if you could spare some time from your busy schedule to provide me with some insight about Shostakovich and performing his music, or direct me towards someone else that could help me as well.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at xxxxxxxxxxxx, or lucascwhung AT gmail.com. Or, you may also contact my English teacher, Nathan Morris, through email at xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you!
I got two responses by the next morning. Osadchy politely declined, but gave me four books to read about Shostakovich. The manager of the Lafayette SQ agreed to contact them. It was a start!
My promising beginning quickly faded away to nothing. David Fanning responded, stating he was too busy, and sent me to contact Judith Kuhn. It seemed as if all hope was lost; there were only two weeks until Night of the Notables, and I wouldn’t have a single interview to show off.
Then, it happened. An innocuous email popped into my inbox on a Wednesday morning, sent from New York: Alex Ross had agreed to chat with me! We were able to talk on the phone for nearly an hour, and I was particularly interested in his investigative, nearly-forensic attitude to researching Shostakovich. Also, it was quite humbling to hear someone so knowledgeable about a specific person :P.
Soon, three more members of the Lafayette Quartet responded as well (the fourth, Joanna Hood, did agree, but has yet replied my email with my questions). They had all studied with Rostislav Dubinsky, a violinist in a Russian string quartet that knew Shostakovich personally. They weaved in stories about what their teacher had told them about living in an oppressive regime, and I came away with a more personal look into Shostakovich’s life.
Only Ms. Highbau-Aloni send me answers through email. Here are a few of her answers:
Question: How much do you take in account his life/circumstances under which he composed into your interpretation [of his music]?
PHA: With Shostakovich, we learned from our great teacher Dubinsky, the more powerful message is stated with objectivity and almost a stoic approach. As performers we could feel and take into account his struggles, but his music’s message is best served when the rhythm, pulse and line are played truly and without “over interpretation”. I believe for Shostakovich his music and genius were something that allowed him to rise above his life struggles and circumstances.
Question: Did your teacher have a favourite story about Shostakovich that he liked to tell?
PHA: Rostislav Dubinsky would tell may (sic) stories, but one I remember is when Dubinsky approached Shostakovich and asked if he would mind that Dubinsky would like to transcribe a couple of the Preludes and Fugues written for piano for string quartet. Shostakovich asked which ones Dubinsky was thinking of and Dubinsky replied, “No. 1 and No. 15” Right there and then, Shostakovich replied, yes, No. 1 is fine as it is, and then he seemed to run the entire no. 15 in his head with his hand nervously rubbing his head and responded quickly – ‘Yes, it will work, but transpose it from Db to Eb as it will work better for strings.’ Dubinsky told this story to demonstrate just how brilliant Shostakovich was.
Alan Mercer and Judith Kuhn also agreed to answer questions through email. Mercer’s responses were particularly insightful about Shostakovich’s rich and complicated legacy. Attached are a few notable answers:
Question: Should Shostakovich be considered a role model or be admired for his actions?
AM: As a genius composer – of course he can be admired and his ability to work in conditions of extreme adversity held up and respected but for us in 2017 to understand the context in which he lived and worked is, in my view too remote a notion for us to pass any form of judgement on the man and his actions
Question: What is one statement/question you would tell/ask him if you could meet him right now?
AM: I would thank him for his dedication to composing music that has such an important part in my life, and those of many others. Through his music he has provoked joy, intense reflection and an affirmation of the importance of the individual’s ability to express himself, whatever the circumstances.
What I learned from the interview process:
- Ask questions that got you the answers you’re looking for.
- Ask questions that go below the surface of normal interview questions – What is your specific opinion about this composition and why? What is the historical significance of this event? Were most of his conflicts internal or external? To what extent was fear a motivating factor in his life?
- Phone interviews are preferable to emails. First and foremost, speaking is easier than writing (as I found), and more information can be told in 30 minutes of speaking than the same amount of time spent typing.
- Only request to interview experts whose answers you really care about. This will save you much time and energy.
- Interviews are so much fun!!!! Experts are literally giving you a lecture for FREE!