‘God was looking for a trumpeter, and chose Sergei Nakariakov,’ enthuses French music critic Jean-Jacques Roth. Whoever this Jean-Jacques is, his enthusiasm will surely rub off on you as soon as you listen to a few recordings or watch a video of the Russian-Israeli trumpeter born in 1977. I myself immediately dove into the World Wide Web, into all the articles about and interviews with him. After some tragicomic struggle with the popular online translator and Russian-language interviews, I came across a German-made film from 2004. It’s called ‘No more Wunderkind’.
Text: Klaudia Kurta
Even if you’re as insensitive as a letterbox, you’ll be teary-eyed at the opening frames, albeit the film hasn’t even started yet. A gentle-faced young man in a white T-shirt is bustling through the streets of Nizhny Novgorod in an old Russian bus. In the background, the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, Andante cantabile, plays. (Written for flugelhorn, of course.) The aforementioned passenger on the bustling bus seems perfectly ordinary, could be a badminton coach from the sports field next door or a pharmacy worker from the corner pharmacy, but we who watch this film know we are watching the ‘Paganini of the trumpet’. The man who has been called that since he was 13 years old.
The film starts
Sergei Nakariakov tells us about his hometown, looking out of the window at the landscape, the housing estates, the old Russian houses. Nizhny Novgorod was founded in the 13th century. St. Petersburg was the head of the country, Moscow the heart, and Nizhny Novgorod the pocket, as merchants from all corners of the world came here to sell and buy. It was a closed city in Soviet times, and between 1932 and 1990 it was renamed Gorky, after the writer Maxim Gorky. It was a closed city, which meant that foreigners were not allowed in, and it was terribly difficult for the residents to get out. Sergei was born here in May 1977 and moved away from here with his family 14 years later.
In between the cuts, new music is played: Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces, Op.73, accompanied by Russian chamber musician and pianist Maria Mejerovich.
Vita Nakariakova, the mother, talks about their family, sitting in a garden with her children. The parents married in 1969 and nine months later Vera, Sergei’s elder sister was born. While her husband Misha – Mikhail Nakariakov – taught piano at a music school, she worked in a large factory. The father continues the family story sitting a little further away, under the Valery Chkalov monument. Sergei has a sister who is seven and a half years older than him, and the two parents decided from the very beginning that the little girl would become a musician. ‘Vera was very successful at music school. Despite her young age, she had already performed to some great musicians,’ says the mother. ‘Sergei also started playing the piano, at the same school, with the same teacher. But the outcome was a bit different, because Sergei was full of impatience – and playing the piano requires patience. This caused him a lot of difficulties,’ his father muses. ‘And then trouble hit… A devastating accident, a serious injury to Sergei’s spine. (He was climbing a tree with his friends and fell.) He spent three months in hospital. After that he was allowed to stand a little, walk a little, lie down, but he couldn’t sit for another six months. So he had to stop playing the piano.’ (In an interview with him, Sergei said that he had actually felt quite happy – of course not because of the spinal injury, but over the end of piano lessons.)
Now it’s the mother’s turn to continue: ‘Sergei’s dad had always wanted to play the trumpet, it was his dream. After our son’s accident, we decided that the trumpet would be the right instrument for him. Until then, this instrument had only given me the experience of big noise, I thought of it as an instrument of the military. But when I heard the recordings of Timofei Dokschitzer, a Soviet-Russian trumpet player and solo trumpeter of the Bolshoi Theatre, I thought it was incredible that it could be played like that.’ The father continues, ‘Timofei played Bach transcriptions from the Wohltemperiertes Klavier. He took some preludes and transcribed them for trumpet and organ. Sergei also listened to this recording. And I saw tears starting to fall from my little boy’s eyes. »I will never be able to do it like that!,« Sergei said. And then he made his big decision: he was going to be a classical trumpet player, no matter what.’
The little trumpeter
Moscow, 1990: Sergei is introduced to influential musicians and music teachers. A little boy with a red face and a tasselled cap stands with his family in front of the State Conservatory building. Occasionally he smiles at the camera. Inside, the father is talking to violinist-conductor Vladimir Spirakov, who gave Sergei his first good trumpet. The little boy just smiles. His father talks like this: ‘Dokschitzer inspired Sergei and me to follow the trumpet line. I told the boy, and he understood right away, that we should raise the trumpet higher than a simple soldier’s alarm instrument. Soon results started coming. By the age of ten he was playing the most difficult trumpet pieces.’
A 1989 recording shows Sergei playing with the Orchestra of the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Defence at a concert in Moscow. There are many serious soldiers in uniform, and in front of them a little boy in white trousers and a white ruffled shirt plays Arban’s The Carnival of Venice. Literally without batting an eyelid. The conductor asks him a few questions. ‘How old are you and how long have you been playing the trumpet?’ ‘I’m 12 years old and I’ve been playing the trumpet for three years,’ comes the reply. Uncle Conductor’s words trail off for a moment. ‘Did you learn to play anything else before?’ ‘Yes, the piano, for three years.’ ‘I’ve been playing the trumpet for twenty years, I have a lot of experience, but the pieces that you play are difficult for all trumpet players. Do you practice a lot?’ ‘Yes, a lot.’
We are back in 2004. The conversation continues outside the imposing State Bank building, with Sergei, the father, and good friend trumpeter Yevgeny D. Galkin. ‘Back then, everyone wanted to make money somehow,’ says Misha, the father. ‘We played at funerals, my friend Yevgeny played the trumpet and I played the tuba. But we had to move on. One day I told Yevgeny I wanted to show him something. I showed him Sergei.’ ‘Sergei didn’t need lessons. Even if there was something he didn’t know and his father, who wasn’t a trumpet player, couldn’t help him, I only had to show him once. He got the hang of it right away and it worked,’ says Yevgeny. ‘Teachers tried to impose the traditional methods on him. But he wasn’t having it. Conflicts arose and I had to tell his father to let him do it his way. (Sergei smiles from behind his sunglasses.) Here’s a photo from a TV show with the conductor, Sergei and me in it. Sergei was only 22 kilos, the smallest in his class.’
A 1990 video recording, Sergei rehearsing with his sister Vera, with their father instructing them. The little boy gets stuck. ‘Calm down and play it again! Don’t try to set a new speed record! A little virtuosity is good, but only a little. Pay more attention to quality and make it musically interesting! Play in the mood you’re in! It was very good like that.’ What’s being rehearsed is Boehme’s Tarantella, later heard in a concert recording, and another cut takes us back to 2004, where it is played with the aforementioned Maria Mejerovic.
‘When I was 12 or 13 years old, my parents stopped working, I started earning money. By giving concerts. In 1990 Dmitry Sitkovetsky (Soviet-Russian violinist and conductor) invited me to a festival in Finland. It was the first time in my life that I saw a capitalist country. I played Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Evgeny Kissin.’
‘Since it was arranged through Moscow,’ Misha takes over, ‘there was no problem. We got permission to leave Gorky – which was then a closed city; no foreigners were allowed in, because of the many military factories and the many military secrets. After the festival Sergei received many invitations and we always got permission through a lot of difficulties. Many concerts fell through because the official permission to travel from Moscow arrived only the day after departure. I realised that if we stayed here, my son would never see the world. He would be locked up in a cage. Like my parents, like myself. So we decided to leave.’ ‘We moved to Israel,’ continues Vita, the mother. ‘I’m Jewish, but not a Zionist. It was our only chance: to move, to give concerts.’ ‘Homesickness is hard, of course,’ adds Misha. That’s why I come home every year, to see this beautiful city, this beautiful river. And sometimes I feel very sad indeed.’
Far from home
He is performing Sergei Poulenc’s ‘C’ on flugelhorn. The special thing about this piece is that Poulenc set to music a poem by Louis Aragon called The Bridges of Cé, which speaks of days long gone and of the country he left when he crossed the bridges of Cé.
TV show footage from 1993: 15-year-old Sergei, already a big boy, arrives on stage wearing a suit, accompanied by his father. They are in Paris, the youngster does not speak French yet, only the father. They perform a trumpet transcription of Grigoras Grinicu’s virtuoso work Hora Staccato. Frame after frame, I suddenly notice Sergei introducing himself to a young lady in Japanese, ‘I am Nikolai.’ For a moment, I wonder if I’ve dozed off and missed something, I even check my notes to see if I’ve missed the name of the protagonist of our article! Sergei tells me what happened in a chronological order. ‘A Japanese film company was looking for a trumpeter with a Russian accent. They couldn’t find anyone, so they took a risk and taught me Japanese instead. (The title of the film: Taiga No Itteki – in English: A Single Drop of Water in a Mighty River.) One of the producers came to a concert I played and then to a signing, so they observed me from a distance for a while and then they approached me and told me about this project. It was all quite exciting for me, of course. I went to Japan for the shooting of the film, but I didn’t know anything about what was where, I didn’t speak a word of Japanese, so I had to memorise everything. Over time I lost the feeling of home. We moved around so much, first to Israel, then to France (where I studied at the Paris Conservatory)…, that I ended up thinking home was where my mother was.’
And if you haven’t cried yet, dear readers (film viewers), now is your chance, as once again the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 is being played while we continue to watch the streets and houses of Nizhny Novgorod from the bus. But throwing handkerchiefs away, Sergei gives his humble account about how he has the best instrument in the world.
‘I think, or rather, I’m sure… that I have the best flugelhorn in the world, and I’m quite proud of it,’ Sergei declares. “It is a four-piston, not at all ordinary flugelhorn. It has an extended range, allowing to perform different transcriptions, such as horn concerts or cello concerts. When I play pieces written for wind instruments such as the horn or the bassoon, I try to imagine how certain parts might sound on string instruments, just to find a different approach. Of course, they need to breathe too, but they don’t have the same limitations as wind instruments. I try to play in a ‘string way’ with a circular breathing technique. You could also say that the flugelhorn is a ‘wind-cello’.
‘Before I start to make a transcription, I have to listen to the work of music and listen very carefully so that the piece becomes part of me. Afterwards I don’t have to sit with the sheet music, I can even go for a walk. At this stage I can already imagine how the piece would sound on trumpet or flugelhorn. And you have to always remember that playing the cello or the violin, for example, is much easier physically than playing the trumpet. I have to leave ‘harmless’ places where I don’t have to play anything extra, just long, sustained notes at the most,’ says the father.
‘It all became risky,’ Sergey takes over, ‘when the various concert organisers started to look at me as a serious musician and not as a young talent who could play in a virtuosic way. But that first period had to be over! When I play, for example, The Carnival of Venice at a concert, preceded by, say, one of Mozart’s horn concertos, after the concert the trumpeters come up to greet me and are amazed at how fast and virtuosic my play is – referring to The Carnival of Venice. But the Mozart piece is not so interesting for them anymore. And that’s a pity, I’m sorry about that, because that’s not why I do it. Anyway, I never felt like a child prodigy. I’m just lucky to have found my own path early on – with the help of my father, of course, who is an extremely talented man.’
His father joins in the same reflection: ‘He’s not a ‘wunder’ and not a ‘kind’ at all.
At the end of the film, we are at a train station, Sergei says goodbye to his father and gets on the train. Where this journey is taking him is not revealed. What is certain is that he is coming to Budapest this April. Be our guest on 7 April 2020 at 7.30 pm at the Music Academy, at the concert of the Budapest Spring Festival, where Gábor Hollerung will conduct the following works, BDO and Sergei Nakariakov.
Programme: Verdi: The Sicilian Vespers – Overture, Arban: The Carnival of Venice, Ponchielli: Concerto in F Major, Respighi: The Pines of Rome