Joffrey Ballet commissions first music score in its history for 'Anna Karenina'

  • The 35-year-old award-winning Russian composer Ilya Demutsky is known as a serious composer with highly professional approach to writing music that is extremely sincere, emotional and warm.Courtesy of Daniil Rbovsky

    The 35-year-old award-winning Russian composer Ilya Demutsky is known as a serious composer with highly professional approach to writing music that is extremely sincere, emotional and warm.Courtesy of Daniil Rbovsky

Updated 1/31/2019 11:32 AM

For the first time in its history, The Joffrey Ballet is proud to commission a full-length score composed by young Russian award-winning composer Ilya Demutsky. The world premiere of Demutsky's score for Tolstoy's immortal novel "Anna Karenina," along with the outstanding choreography by Yuri Possokhov, will add another gem in the colorful palette of classical ballet repertoire. This majestic work will be performed in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, in ten performances that will take place from February 13 to February 24.

It is always interesting to learn about the person who stands behind big and loud success. To learn more about the 35-year-old award-winning Russian composer Ilya Demutsky and his personality, I decided to conduct with him an online interview. Maestro kindly agreed and within 24 hours after I emailed to him my questions, I received his extremely detailed and thoughtful answers in Russian. I tried my best to translate them into English and am happy to present them to you.


Q. You started studying music at the age of 6, which is pretty early. How did it happen? Are you from a family of musicians who initiated your musical education, or did you demonstrate a will to start studying music in such a young age?

A. The professions of my parents are not related to music or any kind of art at all. I grew up in a large family. My mother wanted to give us a well-rounded education and initiated the musical education of every child in the family, and each of us studied music to this or that extend. However, I became the only child in our family who continued studying music professionally. Of course, only the parents' initiative is not enough for a child's success in music. I demonstrated an active interest in music and art in general, and when I was five I insisted that my parents buy me a piano. I was sure that when I touched the piano keys I would immediately hear the beautiful sounds of music. However, when I touched them I was disappointed because the first sounds that I produced were far from what I expected. I was very upset and realized that music doesn't just get born out of nowhere; you have to seriously study it and work hard.

Q. In one of your interviews you said that you don't believe in inspiration and cited Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who once said, "Inspiration is born from labor." What helps you write music then? You are a great musician, but not every musician can compose. How do you come up with musical ideas?

A. Yes, it's true, I don't believe in inspiration. I get inspired by the process itself. I do not necessarily sit down to write music because of an immediate need to express some musical thought that all of a sudden came to me. Sometimes, I sit down and compose because I have a deadline and just have to finish my piece and submit it. In case I really don't feel like writing, I just make myself sit down and start working, and during the work I get so involved in the process that I start enjoying it.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

Sometimes I feel that I don't write music but perform the role of a transmitter of musical ideas that are collected somewhere in one large roll and I just get threads out of it and fix them in the form of musical notes. This is one of the strangest feelings to finish working on your music with the realization that this music has never existed before. On the other hand, you feel that this music has existed forever; you just pulled it out from somewhere and brought it to life.

Q. It is the first time in the entire history of The Joffrey Ballet that it commissioned a full-length score and luckily enough the Company chose you for this honorable role. How did it happen and was it a surprise for you?

A. Yes, it is true that this is the first time in the entire history of The Joffrey Ballet that it commissioned a full-length score. This Company learned about me from my previous collaborations with Yuri Possokhov. When The Joffrey Ballet chose me as the composer for this work, Yuri and I had already worked together on two ballet productions -- "A Hero of Our Time" at Bolshoi Theater and "Optimistic Tragedy" with San Francisco Ballet. At the same time, we had already started working on the ballet production called "Nureyev" for Bolshoi Ballet. Therefore, The Joffrey Ballet didn't have any doubts in my competency. Originally, we planned to build the "Anna Karenina" ballet production on a kaleidoscope of music pieces that existed already. At first, Yuri Possokhov offered that I put together, arranged and orchestrated a list of already written pieces of classical music, but fortunately, we decided to reject that idea. We came to the conclusion that this ballet production needed absolutely new and fresh music, and The Joffrey Ballet enthusiastically supported us.

Q. You are a multi award-winning composer whose music is popular all over the world. When did you get your first international award?

A. During my lifetime, I participated in a great number of competitions for composers. It is true that participating in competitions is the only way for a young composer to introduce himself. Sometimes, these competitions are the only way to have your compositions performed. I was mostly interested in competitions that involved big orchestral groups, such as symphony orchestras, because you can put together a small ensemble for this or that piece by yourself, but to hire a whole orchestra is a very expensive deal. So, after I was chosen to be a finalist in a few competitions, I enriched my portfolio with classical music recordings of a very high quality.


Interestingly, the first big award I received was not in a competition for composers but at an academic vocal competition. It took place in Novosibirsk, Russia in 1995 when I was only twelve years old. Before my voice started to change, I had a really nice descant and frequently gave solo performances as well as performances with various choruses and orchestras in Saint Petersburg. I remember that I made a furor at the vocal competition back then and received the Gran-Prix. Besides the award, I also received a new Japanese music system, which was really rare in Russia back in 1995. I also got a crystal bell.

Q. You hold a Master's degree in choral conducting from Saint Petersburg State Conservatory and a Master of Music in Composition from San Francisco Conservatory of Music, so you are familiar with this country and with American audiences. Of course, Americans love old Russian classical masterpieces, but would you agree that this society also has interest in classical music written by young, contemporary Russian composers?

A. The main thing is that the public has an interest in new, freshly written academic music in general. Where this music came from is not that important. Of course, my music has that special coloring and spirit that could be called "Russian." This is probably what makes me different from many of my colleagues whose national and cultural background in music is difficult to determine. Oftentimes, in the concerts of contemporary music you will not be able to recognize the music of composers who came, for example, from Russia, Germany or China. I don't know whether it is good or bad, but sometimes it is just boring. I love music that thrills you and touches your feelings.

Q. Joffrey Music Director Scott Speck called you "the Tchaikovsky of this ballet." This ballet is Yuri Possokhov's historic reimagining of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel "Anna Karenina." Being a native Russian, do you feel spiritually, emotionally and artistically connected to Tchaikovsky?

A. I write tonal music that is very emotional and has wide melodies. My music is based on strict thinking in terms of melody and harmony. I also like sweet and yearning intonations; my music is full of endless minor. These characteristics are distinctive for Russian symphony music of such composers as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

Q. Did you enjoy working on this particular work? Did you face any difficulties writing music for "Anna Karenina"?

A. Working on "Anna Karenina" became an exciting challenge for me. On the one hand, when I started working on it more than ten ballet productions based on this novel already existed. On the other hand, only one of them, the ballet that was written by Rodion Shchedrin, was created based on original music. And even that ballet developed from the film score music. I think that by making this new production of "Anna Karenina" we managed to create something absolutely new, which at the same time surprises with its simplicity and clarity. After attending this production you might even have a feeling that there is no other way to tell this story in terms of choreography and music.

Q. Tolstoy's novel is extremely intense and dramatic. It demonstrates the whole spectrum of human emotions -- love, desire, jealousy, anxiety and despair. How did you reflect it in your music?

A. I decided not to "create a bicycle" but trusted my own emotions and the old and well tested system of leitmotivs. I created a few main musical themes that accompany the main characters and tell more about them sometimes than we can see. For example, there is a constantly changing theme of passion (or love?) between Anna and Vronsky, a theme of secular society, a theme of Levin, a theme of Kitty, and many others. On these themes I built the scenes that demonstrate the relationships of the main characters. My orchestration is a never restful sea that doesn't have an utter calm; I am constantly saying something in my music.

Q. During your career, you have composed operas, symphonic poems and film scores, including several collaborations on full-length ballets with Yuri Possokhov. So, it's not your first time working with this great choreographer. How can you describe your collaboration? Was it different this time, or maybe it was more difficult considering the very challenging subject matter?

A. I developed not just a warm professional relationship with Yuri Possokhov but also a very strong friendship. It happened because of our strong mutual trust in our intuition and flair. I don't intervene in choreography because it's not my field, although Yuri oftentimes asks for my opinion. I always look at his work with great delight. From another side, he never dictates to me what to do and how my music should sound. It's even the opposite -- he insists on such music and emotions that would not leave him a choice and would direct him on what to do in this or that scene. He wants music to talk to him openly; he wants music that would lead to naturally born choreography.

Q. Chicago can't wait to see The Joffrey Ballet's world premiere of Yuri Possokhov's "Anna Karenina" and to hear your majestic music that you wrote for this ballet. Do you feel nervous about this premiere? I am sure that you will get great support from Chicago audiences.

A. Of course, each premiere is a time of happy excitement because the birth of a music composition is similar to the birth of a baby. You carry this child for a long time, soon he will see his first sunlight, and you worry about his future fate.

I never think about how the audiences will perceive my composition, whether they will like it or not. It doesn't make sense to think about it. However, I always worry how to carefully deliver to our audiences the original idea. I always get nervous about the first performance of my music -- whether the orchestra will play it right, how exact will be the dancers presenting Yuri's choreography, will the decoration start moving on time, will the light come on time… Nothing depends from me, as a composer, on the premiere; my music has been written long before it is performed for the first time. However, it is important how it is brought to life. It happens here and now, and it is different every time. And every time it is a great happiness to see how all the elements of the production successfully get together, just the way you imagined it in the beginning or sometimes even better than you originally thought. I am sure that this production will be very bright and will not leave anyone indifferent.

After conducting this interview, I realized that success is not only a combination of a great talent and hard work, but also a set of smart steps that gradually lead a person to achieving their goals. Ilya Demutsky is a great example of not only a great talent but also perseverance, responsibility and professionalism.

For tickets, please call 312-386-8905, go to or obtain them at The Joffrey Ballet's official Box Office located in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street, as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University Box Office. Single tickets are priced from $35 to $199. "Anna Karenina" will be performed in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, in ten performances that will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wed., Feb. 13; at 7:30 p.m. on Fri., Feb. 15; at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sat., Feb. 16; at 2 p.m. on Sun., Feb. 17; at 7:30 p.m. on Thu., Feb. 21; at 7:30 p.m. on Fri., Feb. 22; at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sat., Feb. 23; and at 2 p.m. on Sun., Feb. 24.

Natalia Dagenhart

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.