On his best conduct

Tugan Sokhiev who is  conducting the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse the City Hall concert on March 31
Tugan Sokhiev who is conducting the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse the City Hall concert on March 31
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AS Tugan Sokhiev says: “I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a conductor so it’s hard to imagine a different life now.”

And you could say the man hailed by many as the best young conducting talent around hasn’t really had time to think about doing anything else.

Born in the Russian republic of North Ossetia in 1977, he started piano lessons at seven and began conducting at 17, subsequently going to the St Petersburg Conservatory where he was one of the last pupils of Russia’s conductor-maker extraordinaire Ilya Musin before his death at 95 in 1999.

Leaving aside a curtailed appointment as music director at Welsh National Opera in 2004, Sokhiev’s success since has been fairly spectacular, not least at the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

“It is a joy to conduct the orchestra,” he proclaims.

“They play so well and with such commitment. The range of colours we can achieve is quite extraordinary and I can’t wait to show the UK public what we can do when we tour to several cities this week.”

Including Sheffield this Saturday in the International Concert Season at the City Hall with an all-French programme of Debussy: Afternoon of the Faun, Saint-Saëns: Third Violin Concerto, and Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique.

He became the orchestra’s principal guest conductor and music advisor in 2005 and music director in September 2008 in succession to Michel Plasson who both raised its playing standard and international profile as music director between 1968 and 2003.

Last year Le Figaro, France’s national paper, surveyed the top 25 French orchestras and the Toulouse orchestra emerged as one of the top three along with two based in Paris.

Sokhiev, whose work with orchestra was clearly a factor, had by then become increasingly in demand throughout Europe, including an acclaimed debut with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 2009.

And he was hailed dirigentenwunderwaffe – Germans love compound words, it means ‘miracle conductor’ – following his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in January 2010.

Later that year, he was named principal conductor and artistic director of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.

He has worked each season since 2003 with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the UK and the question seems compelling: Has his age ever caused problems?

“I am very fortunate to work with some of the world’s finest orchestras and find communicating my ideas is all about trust and respect.

“For example, with Toulouse, from the very first moment I stepped on the podium to conduct them in 2003 it felt so natural – a wonderful exchange.

“As long as you share a common passion and direction for the music, then I don’t think age can be considered a barrier,” asserts Sokhiev.

He conducts a lot of opera: Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in Vienna next month, but most regularly at present, at the Théatre du Capitole de Toulouse and, since 2005, the Mariinsky Theatre (Kirov Opera) in St Petersburg.

It is, perhaps, not entirely coincidence that the Mariinsky’s artistic supremo is the renowned Valery Gergiev, a fellow Ossetian, and Sokhiev believes conducting operatic and symphonic repertoire informs and influences each other.

“It all feeds into each other, I think. The lyricism in some symphonic writing and the layers of sound are all things that can continually develop and that I bring to my work in opera.

“Breathing with the music is one of the many important things in conducting – finding the space in the music and enjoying it. The work I do with singers (in opera) regularly supports this completely.”

Above all in his approach to music, he says he tries to stay true to the score and composer and cites his most recent recording, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony with the Toulouse orchestra, as an example.

“I tried to achieve an intensity but without pulling the music about too much. I didn’t want to over-romanticise the beautiful score that’s already there for us to enjoy.”

Escape from music usually means walks in the countryside for the young conductor – “I enjoy walking in the forest or mountains and soaking up the nature... and the silence!”

Providing a link with Nicola Benedetti four weeks ago is another highly-rated, and even younger Russian, Alina Ibragimova, who is the soloist in Saint-Saëns’ violin concerto.

The two were students at the Menuhin School of Music at the same time and performed Bach’s Double Violin Concerto under the great man’s baton in London and Paris in December 1998.

Ibragimova has been resident in the UK at the age of 10 in 1996 when her father became principal double bass with the London Symphony. She played in the Bolshoi Orchestra at the age of six, so when The Times says: “Whatever she plays, it’ll be worth hearing,” there is no reason to doubt it.