Vakhtang Jordania, last of the three guest conductors to lead the Pacific Symphony this season, may never have been heard of in the United States if he hadn’t taken a fateful taxicab ride in 1983.
It was then that Jordania and fellow Soviet musician, violinist Viktoria Mullova--on tour in Finland--pulled the fast one they had been planning secretly for years.
Eluding official “escorts,” they took a taxicab over the border to Sweden, flew to Stockholm and sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy.
But their timing was a little off. They arrived on July 4, anxious to make it their own Independence Day, only to find that the embassy was closed. The two had to hide out in a hotel for an extra day before presenting themselves and asking for the magic one-way tickets to Washington.
“I came without any money, any language. Everything was zero. And I started my career from zero,” Jordania said in a recent phone interview from Chattanooga, Tenn., where he is music director of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera.
Jordania said the issue was freedom. “I was just tired of being under too much control, if we want to say it nicely.”
Soviet authorities had put restrictions on his travel in 1971, as soon as he had won first prize in the prestigious Herbert von Karajan Conductors Competition in West Berlin.
“I had very many invitations to conduct all over,” he said. “The answer for those invitations was, I was very busy or very sick. I was quite busy but never sick, fortunately. . . . It was a kind of repression because nobody knew--or somebody knew but never told me--why I was not allowed to go to the West. . . .
“I was always trying to get answer from the officials why I was not allowed to go. It was kind of (the) last drop when (in 1981) I had round a trip-ticket to Montreal and a $1,000 check in my pocket.” Then 10 minutes before he had expected to receive his passport from the Ministry of Culture, “one of the officials came out and said, ‘No passport.’ I returned the tickets.
“I decided then that if I could get out, I would never return.”
Despite these disappointments, his career progressed. His first prize in the Von Karajan competition brought him to the attention of Yevgeny Mravinsky, eminent conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic. Mravinsky chose Jordania as his assistant, launching his career in the Soviet Union.
Jordania remained his assistant for 3 years and later became music director of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, the Saratov Philharmonic and the Kharkov Philharmonic in the Ukraine.
“My main career in the Soviet Union was conducting every major and minor orchestra there,” Jordania said. “I did an average of 100 appearances a year. Also, I conducted often in Eastern Bloc countries: Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany. But I was never allowed to go to the West.”
He and Mullova, who had been living together at the time, managed to persuade authorities to let him be her piano accompanist on a three-concert tour in Finland in 1983, even though Jordania had not played piano in earnest for 20 years.
“I imagine that they gave me a chance to go to Finland because . . . there is an agreement between Finland and the Soviet Union (that) a person cannot ask for political asylum in Finland,” he said.
He left two children, his parents and brothers behind. (He had been divorced earlier.)
After their defection, he and Mullova lived in New York City for 2 years and began struggling to make careers in the United States.
One of Jordania’s guest appearances in 1985 took him to Chattanooga, where a conductor’s search was under way for the Chattanooga Symphony. (Shortly after, the symphony merged with the Chattanooga Opera.)
“I was not, of course, in this search,” Jordania said. “Suddenly after my first rehearsal day, they started searching me. I didn’t know about it. Two weeks after my concert, they sent me a contract.”
Chattanooga gave him more than a new position. It gave him a new wife and life. Jordania married a local woman, Kimberly Stabbins, in 1987. They have a 10 1/2-month-old daughter, Maria Jordania. He and Mullova, who will appear with him on the Pacific concerts, remain “just friends,” he said.
“I have a new family,” he said. “And I am waiting for American citizenship. I will get it in a year.”
Jordania is not terribly impressed with glasnost and has no interest in joining the ranks of other music and dance world emigres who are returning to the homeland to perform.
“What’s going on right now is just very good public relations,” he said. "(But) in general, the system has not changed, and it couldn’t be changed. And probably (Mikhail S. Gorbachev) doesn’t want it to change. He doesn’t want to be out (of power).”
Was he worried that such remarks might ricochet to affect the family he left behind?
Jordania hopes not, but obviously doubts remain. “If they are playing those games, I am telling them the truth. It’s just my opinion. They are playing glasnost, and I’m saying, openness, openness, let’s play both ways.”
Unlike the other two guest conductors--Neal Stulberg and Geoffrey Simon--at the helm of the Pacific this season, Jordania is not coy about his interest in the position.
“I feel very excited about this because I really wanted to be able to get this orchestra,” he said. “Right now, my goal is to move toward major work and start building some major orchestra and to make records. This is the main reason, probably, for a conductor’s life, to do some major records and leave something after you.”
Vakhtang Jordania will conduct the Pacific Symphony in works by Mozart, Rossini and Shostakovich at 8 p.m. today and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, in Costa Mesa. Featured soloist will be violinist Viktoria Mullova. Tickets: $9 to $49. Information: (714) 973-1300.