Surname a Mixed Blessing for Solzhenitsyn's Son

Itar-TassIgnat Solzhenitsyn after his performance at St. Petersburg Philharmonic's Winter Arts Festival last December.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Few Russian names reverberated so powerfully in the second half of the 20th century as that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who survived the gulags to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. His son's challenge is emerging from his famous father's shadow.

"As proud as I am to bear this name, and of my father and his accomplishments, it's frustrating to be judged on the basis of that," said Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who is building a reputation as a conductor and pianist in the United States and Russia.

Solzhenitsyn, 33, the second of three sons, is musical director of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, where he has been principal conductor since 1997 and took charge in 2004.

The family was forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1974, when Ignat was 18 months old. They settled in a small Vermont town, where the children grew up speaking Russian and were taught by their parents about the country they had left behind.

In December, Solzhenitsyn made one of his increasingly frequent trips back to the motherland, getting top billing at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic's Winter Arts Festival, where he conducted and took a turn at the piano, playing Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 to a packed house.

Having such a prominent and easily recognizable last name poses problems that most musicians don't have to face.

"I've seen it hurt me more than I've seen it help me," Solzhenitsyn said, sitting in a hotel cafe across from the Philharmonic.

The preconceptions tend to be negative, especially in Russia, he said, with people saying he has succeeded because of his father.

Solzhenitsyn is an impressive figure, standing more than 183 centimeters tall. He speaks English without an accent and carries both U.S. and Russian passports. But the intensity of his Russian side seems to have the upper hand, at least when it comes to music and culture.

"For me, a great piece of music or art contains a message: It is not a toy, not merely a form of entertainment," he said.

"That doesn't mean it has to be somber and heavy. It can be witty, it can be light, but there has to be a purpose: that I have suffered through this, that I have enjoyed this.

"Suffering -- the Russian experience -- it needs to be there," he said. "I strive to be an effective tool to transmit the message of the composer, to wrench the guts of the audience, to move them."

Balancing the piano, conducting, and running the orchestra is not an easy task, but so far the results speak for themselves.

He expanded the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia to 33 members from about 15; lengthened the season to 20 concerts from 10; changed the name of the orchestra from Concerto Soloists; oversaw a move to a new hall, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts; and changed the emphasis of the repertoire from exclusively Baroque music to a wider range that now focuses on the Classical period and 20th century.

"Everything in our field must be driven by artistic excellence and the need to constantly improve, the need to put the best possible product before the public," said Solzhenitsyn. "That's what drives me, whether as a conductor, the leader of an orchestra, or in my solo work as a pianist."

And his tastes in literature?

"I never wanted to become a writer, and I can't imagine how hard it would be to follow dad," he said. "I can't name a favorite writer, but Solzhenitsyn is very much near the top of the list. I've read everything he's written, and most things more than once."