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Galina Rasch
Galina in rehearsal in The Konzerthaus

A Maestro for Mozart

Dylan Strain finds himself spellbound in Vienna interviewing Russian conductor Gal Rasche

Vienna is synonymous with classical music and its composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss, Schubert and Schumann. The early 18th century Opera House is the most impressive of buildings, situated in the very heart of the city.

Since the dark days of 1941, reads the Vienna Philharmonic website, the New Year’s Concert has been a major tradition there. Recent conductors have included Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Zubin Mehta, Herbert von Karajan, Riccardo Muti and for 2008, Georges Pretre.

Not a female conductor in sight.

Type “female conductor” into Google and it delivers more negative statements than anything else: “Baton of the sexes. They can't do 'men's music'; their breasts get in the way... Why are there still so few female conductors?" wrote Rosie Johnston. "'Women can't conduct Brahms, and Mahler is men's music!”

“The treatment of female conductors is unfair, counterproductive and must stop,” commented Norman Lebrecht.

Gal Rasche with Riccardo Muti
Gal Rasche with Riccardo Muti

Gal Rasche is a female conductor. Riccardo Muti “told me, good luck, you could become one of the world’s best” she says. The appreciation is mutual, Muti being, perhaps not unsurprisingly, her favourite conductor.

“I will be dead without music, I believe in music,” she tells me with energetic broken English early into the interview, her charm, eccentricity and charisma holding me spellbound. Sitting, listening to her, you can imagine the passion she has conducting an orchestra, especially if the music is by her beloved Mozart.

Her refusal to capitulate to the status quo and instead continue her love affair and career as a conductor of classical music is an inspiration for those struggling to follow the heart.

Gal Rasche was born Galina Kroutikova on 13 March 1960, to poor parents in St Petersburg, despite the fact they worked as diplomats for the Soviet regime at home and abroad: “I had a happy childhood, love, education; I’m a happy girl, now I give back to my mother in old age what she gave me.”

St. Petersburg

Galina RaschFrom the age of five, Galina began playing the piano for one to two hours a day, her grandmother lending her parents the money to pursue her talent. She doesn’t know where her gift for piano comes from, although her father played the accordion as a hobby. She also studied the double bass, until at fifteen, she began to entirely focus and finally enjoy her five to six hours of practice and sacrifice on piano each day.

In her twenties, she studied with Professor Anatoly Ivanov at the Rimsky- Korsakov State Conservatory in St. Petersburg. “If you have a poor teacher you cannot learn music,” her professor is mentioned second behind her husband in the “thank yous” amongst her concert programme notes.

From piano to the baton

At the conservatory, tutors would tell her: “ ‘I like this girl. She is a born conductor’. Being a conductor is nothing, I thought, for me it was easy.” First prize with the baton followed and very slowly over time, she began to feel comfortable with the change her tutors outlined to her.

On leaving, other leading lights at the college went “from hero to zero”. Galina worked steadily in different orchestras playing piano, in schools of music and institutes and  in orchestra management (where despite displaying organisational skills, the bureaucratic role took her away from the playing of music). She was also a founder member of the St. Petersburg Camerata.

Russia stifled her opportunities as a conductor however; “she’s not coming into my orchestra, she is young, she is a girl” she would be told. “In St. Petersburg it felt like I was in a box.  So I didn’t sit and wait in Russia. I found people who loved me and helped me, people who needed me. Vienna is my real home now. Friends, teachers and family have helped me and I’ve made it happen myself too.”

Vienna

A move beckoned:  “Haydn, Mozart, are the heart of music. Austrians are different to Germans, there’s more music, charm, warmth, more sun and the architecture, which is similar to St. Petersburg, the baroque and Jugendstil (art nouveau)”.

Galina began her life long love affair with the music of Mozart aged five, at school during music hour, and decided from the start that she would go to Vienna to play his music.

Whilst on tour in Vienna in 1996, a refusal to accept less than average accommodation was to change her life; ”I needed to move, it is very, very important that I have the right atmosphere in a place, I was staying in Vienna for two weeks, I inspected lots of guest houses, twenty or twenty five, nobody opened the door, or I didn’t like room, next pension I think, that is it, now I stay here, then I see the sign, ‘Pension Mozart’ and my heart beat faster, and straight away, it had a beautiful atmosphere, nice man runs it, lovely, helpful.” The nice man married her in 1997.

Many people comment on the ambience of Pension Mozart, attracting guests who have been coming for twenty years, (Galina siting world renowned artist Paul Rotterdam as a man who could easily stay in five star wealth, but chooses to stay in this welcoming B & B), the eccentricity of its living room or breakfast (great pancakes) and  get greeted by dachshund Berry or parakeet Bubby, pronounced Booby. Bubby arrived at the window one day and wouldn’t go away, often greeting new guests by landing on their head.

The “nice man” mentioned is Nikola Mauracher whose grandmother (a passionate lover of music and art) first opened ‘Pension Mozart’ one hundred years ago. He himself has been working there for forty five years. Back in 1996, his mother realizing, his fondness for Galina, encouraged him to invite her back to Vienna for a visit.

He asked Galina to stop working once married in 1997. “In Russian and Austria it is common for women to stop working after marriage.” But she didn't. She didn’t move her son Igor or mother Valentina over to Vienna until 2001. “It was a difficult time; I didn’t know how things would go. These four years, we had big work, I help to modernise the pension. I work at the Conservatorium (she is a professor at the Prayner Conservatoire and guest professor at the Conservatorium Vienna Privatuniversitaet). “I am in love with my situation, my husband, I am in harmony with life,” she says.

Two years for one night

The only sure way to work as a female conductor it would seem, is to create the work yourself. Under the banner of The Viennamonica Orchestra, Galina stages her own concerts. Her most recent evening involved a 40-piece orchestra performing Mozart Symphonies No. 25, 29 and her favourite Mozart piece, No. 40, in where else but the Mozartsaal at the Konzerthaus in Vienna. 

Of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Galina says: “It is narcotic, like a drug. It is so full of emotion, so full of life and heart. He was thirty-three when he wrote it. In your thirties you ask where your place in this world is. He has lost some of his friends.  He understands the good and dark sides of life, he has more emotion.”

Of the performance itself, “I only remember the beginning and the end. It is difficult music, I swim in the music.” Is it worth it, two years for one night? “I am very happy. The atmosphere that was in the hall, everyone together, the sponsors, the bank, musicians, friends, students, many different circles, many there for their first time concert, professionals say ‘super, super’ what can I wish for more, energy, it was so positive, it makes me happy. The whole thing was my baby.”

Gal Rasche and The Viennamonica Orchestra's next concert will be in February 2008, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, op. 64, featuring violin soloist Valbona Naku at The Konzerthaus, Vienna.

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