Donatella Flick enters the rather dramatic reception room of her house (the room in which Churchill died) as if it were a stage – she has that kind of presence. Blonde hair swept away from the face, elegant, flawless and quite imposing, she is not someone you walk past without looking twice.
So strong is the first impression that I quite forget how our conversation began – I just remember listening to her accented but controlled castigation of the superficiality of modern life. The accent is a mixture – as is she – but more Italian than anything else.
It is all somewhat surreal as I could well be hearing my own musings in the same vein:
“Life has become even more frantic, if that were even possible.
“You can travel everywhere, you can Google everything, but no one seems to care about human relationships, whether you have an intellect, whether you have a heart. Most people are just smitten with glamour; they want fame, and they want everything very fast.
“I don’t use the internet. It is very shallow. When people send messages, they don’t even bother spelling words; they use signs instead. Nor do they communicate any longer – they simply don’t talk. I recently watched a young couple who didn’t exchange a single word over dinner.”
Not only am I in total agreement with her but, having just authored a short piece that amounts to a vituperation against excessive mobile phone texters, I feel I need to change the subject, so that we don’t belabour the point to death.
I let her talk about her life, which is the stuff Hollywood is made of, and about the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition she set up 24 years ago.
She credits her father, Prince George Missikoff of Ossetia, as “the major influence in my life, unequivocally” and references him frequently throughout the conversation.
“My father was an incredible man – warm, educated, cultured… a music lover and a bon viveur. He left Ossetia having witnessed this major historical moment, the revolution, and went to Italy where he met my mother.
I still idolise him, even though he died a long time ago.”
Going to Italy was a natural choice for Prince Missikoff – his half-sister was married to the conductor of La Scala and already established in the country.
“He became part of the European intelligentsia at the time, and kept the company of great artists. Toscanini and von Karajan were his friends. He was an interesting and accomplished figure, so I try to follow his sparkle. His life was an inspiration.”
Donatella grew up between Rome and Venice and spoke Russian until she was about 7. Although she has a certain affinity with the Caucasus, and has been back there on a number of occasions, she doesn’t quite identify with it. I ask her if she has a sense of belonging to any one country and after a moment of hesitation, she says “perhaps England”.
“Many years ago, I had a sense of belonging to Italy or Italian culture, rather, but as time goes by, I don’t think that I know where I belong exactly. Of course I have a penchant for Italy, it’s a beautiful country but I also love going to Russia, to the Caucasus.
England has been my home for so long now and of course, my son was born here.”
Her son Sebastian (from her marriage with Gert Flick) speaks German as a first language, English of course, as well as Russian, Italian, Spanish and French. It is her hope that he will shoulder the responsibility of running the family estate in future and let her focus on the Conductors Competition – and indulge her two passions, music and books.
“In life, it is very important to have a big passion for something, whether painting, music or something altogether different.
“My passion is for classical music mostly, but I have an appreciation for all good music. One should expose children to everything that’s culture and aesthetics while they are growing up. It should be normal to go to the National Gallery on a Sunday afternoon; it should be normal to go and see a beautiful opera, or a play or a concert.
Generally, exposing children to the arts opens up their heart and soul. It’s very important.”
Donatella met Gert Rudolph Flick, a scion of the German industrialist family, in Switzerland, when she was a student. They met through a common friend and it was, she says, love at first sight.
She adds, “my husband gave me a lot and I hope I have given him a lot too.”
“We had both lived in Switzerland for years and decided to move to London. In the 80s, it was a difficult time for Paris and also, if you are German, English is the easier language to master.
“I tried to build my life here. I love London and it’s been my life for many, many years, but of course, it has changed a lot. It is a world centre for finance and for music and has become much more sophisticated since I first came here. In the 80s, there were only a couple of good restaurants – it is so cosmopolitan now.
“A change not for the better is that today, money can buy almost anything – except, thank God, a soul or a heart. It is all the more important to keep steadfast, to hold on to your principles and to your morals as morality is scarce these days.
“There are those who don’t care about such things but they can go on their own way – as I will mine. It is very sad that today charm is not in great abundance and things are not done in a nice way. People do not appreciate the value of personal discipline.
“I used to go to Salzburg regularly with the Flick family and couldn’t help noticing that all the great conductors were in their 80s or even 90s. I wondered why it was so difficult for the young to break through.
“The answer was, of course, that they didn’t have an orchestra. If you are a soloist, playing any instrument, you can always find an orchestra to play in/with, but not so with conductors – they need an orchestra. So, I decided to do something about it.”
The Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition exists for the exact purpose of helping a young conductor to establish and develop an international conducting career. It is now one of the major international competitions for young conductors.
Donatella Flick founded the competition in response to the lack of opportunities for talented young conductors but also to show that, if you have the will power, determination and this great passion, you can make it – and that you can generally conquer many obstacles in life.
The winners of the competition are appointed to work as Assistant Conductor with the LSO for a year. They receive a monetary prize and they are also able to acquire an agent – it is essentially a springboard into the world of classical music.
“This year we have 250 participants which is a lot for the 28 countries of the European Union. Unfortunately, only 5 of them are girls, which is sad.
“The competition takes place in two preliminary rounds ; from the applications received 20 candidates are selected for round 1 and ten for round 2. They rehearse with the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra. Three finalists are then selected, who each conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a public concert at the Barbican. The final round jury then select the winner. Judges change every year and we always have big names who are delighted to come, schedule permitting.
“Conducting an orchestra like the LSO is the hardest thing for competitors to do and during the eliminatory process the level is very high. It is hard for the judges too, because even young people in their 20s are consummate conductors. This year we had a boy of 14 from Cornwall who applied, but the competition rules (age 16 to 35) did not allow us to accept him. It is surprises like this that makes the competition such an amazing and worthwhile thing to be involved in. It is also inspirational to see young people conducting, and to hear their own interpretation of some of the greatest works of music.
“I created something without knowing or expecting it would grow this big. I worked very hard at it – it didn’t happen overnight. When people understand that you are serious about what you are doing, their attitude changes.”
“Especially if you are blonde”, she adds with a wry smile. Donatella Flick sounds and looks so perfectly composed and accomplished that I cannot help wondering – aloud – if she has always been so confident, self-aware, poised and sure of her path in life.
This seems to take her by surprise.
“Am I? I suppose I have doubts like everyone else – all the time – but I think what I have is a certain inner core of morals and ideals. You need to have that and to hold on to it, else you’d lose yourself.
As for self-awareness, can you live at peace without self- awareness? I don’t know if this means I am self-assured. I have doubts about everything but I have a road to travel and a kind of guiding light, which I have had all my life. Of course, we can all get lost for a week, a month… but then you come back. We have all made silly mistakes but even as we are making them, we are aware of this and pull back. You can allow yourself to make mistakes but the important thing is to know who you are and where you are going.”
She did her journey by herself, she says, because her guiding light – her father – died while she was just 19. But then, her son arrived and:
“The moment they put your baby in your arms, your heart doesn’t belong to you anymore – babies are a work of art in themselves. They also give you the strength to go on, to live, to fight, and that’s a very beautiful feeling we women have.”
“Anna Karenina’s undoing was the choice she made (to abandon her child for the love of a man”. Donatella was 14 when her father gave her Tolstoy’s book, because, she says, “every woman should be made to read it”.
“Everything is easier when you have a wealthy husband but what matters the most is that you are in peace with yourself – knowing that you are doing the right thing. It is important to have this inner stability so that you give that to your child. Money alone cannot achieve that.
“Life is really about health, children and perhaps your work, but not much more. The rest is tourism.
“We each of us shape our own karma.”
Donatella Flick was appointed “Commendatore” of the Italian Republic in 2006, and in 2007 was the recipient of a Montblanc de la Culture Arts Patronage Award, given to “outstanding art patrons whose personal commitment and achievements deserve wider recognition”. The Queen of Denmark’s Foundation for Culture has also awarded her philanthropic achievements. The 2014 Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition takes place 6 to 8 December 2014.