It is astonishing and hard to explain why it was that Yevgeny Svetlanov found his way to the Berlin Philharmonic only quite late in his career, at the age of sixty. It was 1989, a year so very eventful for the orchestra (Herbert von Karajan resigned and died in the summer; the orchestra chose Claudio Abbado as its new principal conductor; its members first officially guested in East Berlin with James Levine; and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Daniel Barenboim performed a moving concert for the citizens of the German Democratic Republic) that the Russian first came to the Philharmonic in March: it would remain his only encounter with this ensemble.
Svetlanov’s widow Nina wrote the following recollections of the Berlin performance. They show the outstanding importance that the conductor’s sole encounter with the Berlin Philharmonic had for him: Evgeny Svetlanov toured Germany a lot with his orchestra, The Russian State Symphony Orchestra (ex USSR Academic State Symphony Orchestra). But he would stubbornly refuse to accept invitations from German orchestras such as the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin Radio orchestras among others. His motivation was very clear – “as long as I am not invited to the Berlin Philharmonic, no matter the quality of all the others, I will not go”. There was nothing to be done. Each great artist has his own principals and it was totally impossible to convince him to do otherwise.
Then, finally, the invitation came. Evgeny Svetlanov was very pleased with the choice of repertoire, especially with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred. Usually promoters asked him to perform Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies Nos.4, 5 or 6 when he was on tour abroad. The concert was a big success and was followed by long applause from both orchestra and public. He was very happy. Back in the artists’ room he welcomed all those who wanted to greet him. After which he quietly said to me – “I am so tired, let’s go back to the hotel”. After a while, when I closed the door and the Maestro started changing, we heard a persistent knock on the door. He did not wish to be disturbed. Someone kept on knocking. When I opened the door, we saw the director of the Berlin Philharmonic who looked pre-occupied and who explained to us that the public was still there, the hall was still full and there was a standing ovation that would not end. Evgeny Svetlanov, who was already dressed in his coat with an umbrella in his hands, came out on the stage immediately. He saw the audience standing and screaming, greeting him with endless applause. He deeply bowed and stretched out his arms asking the public to calm down. And when the commotion died down he said, in German, that he was extremely happy to get this kind of welcome. “As long as I live, I will never forget this evening”.