Soviet Conductor Vakhtang Jordania Dies at 62

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005

Vakhtang Jordania, 62, a prominent Soviet conductor whose post-defection career in the United States never quite matched his early renown but who worked as a wide-roving freelancer, died Oct. 4 at his home in Broadway, Va., in the Shenandoah Valley. He had cancer.

Born in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, Mr. Jordania won the top prize at the 1971 Herbert von Karajan competition for young conductors in Berlin. Conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky chose him to be his assistant at the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra for three years, and other prestigious assignments followed as guest conductor with nearly all major orchestras in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Because of a Soviet rule that prohibited performances in the West, he left his family in 1983 to defect with his then-girlfriend, the ultra-chic violinist Viktoria Mullova. They won asylum in the United States.

The language barrier and adjustments to the U.S. musical community caused a bumpy transition, but Mr. Jordania said: "I didn't expect anyone would bring to me the Philadelphia Orchestra. I took it the right way. I didn't waste time."

He toured as a guest artist from England to South Korea before taking appointments as music director of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera (1985 to 1992) and the Spokane, Wash., Symphony (1991 to 1993).

In Chattanooga, he was credited with enlivening the small orchestra with top-class visiting musicians, including violinist Itzhak Perlman and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. He also had a charismatic personal style (he was "sort of a Russian Sean Connery," a musician once said) that made him a local idol.

After Spokane, he settled in Virginia and started a busy freelance career that took him back to post-communist Russia. He recorded several well-received classical albums and was honored with a conducting competition named after him in Ukraine.

Mr. Jordania was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Dec. 9, 1942. A piano student from a young age, he decided on a conducting career at age 9 when he and his father attended a concert by American-born Italian conductor Willy Ferrero, once hailed as the boy genius of conducting.

Mr. Jordania graduated from the Tbilisi Conservatory and studied symphonic and operatic conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory. During his Soviet career, he became conductor of the Kharkov Philharmonic Orchestra in the Ukraine. He was conducting 100 concerts a year by the early 1980s.

Though he lived in relative luxury, he bristled at the state ban on contact with his Western peers. Describing a prisonlike life, he said he was unable to obtain scores by contemporary U.S. composers, even the Russian-born Igor Stravinsky. He smuggled scores and tapes and listened to Voice of America broadcasts when possible.

He met Mullova when he was asked to prepare her in 1980 for the Jean Sibelius violin competition, which she won. They spoke increasingly of defecting, which for Mr. Jordania meant leaving his second wife and his children from his two marriages.

He and Mullova won KGB approval for a summer tour of Finland in 1983, with Mr. Jordania doing a rare turn on piano accompaniment. Mullova's regular accompanist had been refused permission to leave.

As she later told The Washington Post, she won accolades but he was drubbed as a pianist. She said she asked the KGB chaperone to leave them alone because Mr. Jordania was "very depressed" by the reviews. The pair then snuck out, took a taxi across the nearby Swedish border and flew to Stockholm.

They arrived on a Sunday, and the U.S. Embassy was closed. The next day was July 4, and the embassy was closed for the holiday. The city police told them to stay disguised in blonde wigs until the embassy opened.

That November, Mr. Jordania was engaged at Carnegie Hall conducting the American Symphony Orchestra, but he otherwise had to scramble for work, taking conducting jobs from Alabama to Australia. He received the job in Chattanooga after he impressed the conductor search committee with a performance of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait."

His marriages to Nana Askurava and Natalia Bondarchuk ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Kimberley Stebbins Jordania of Broadway; a son from his first marriage, Giorgi Jordania, an opera conductor in Tbilisi; a daughter from his second marriage, Nina Jordania of St. Petersburg; two children from his third marriage, Maria Jordania and Dmitri Jordania, both of Broadway; two brothers; and four grandchildren.

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