Stuart Lawson: «Time-proven Pursuit of Excellence»
16 March 2010 | Eugene Boyko
The hero of today’s interview is like no other. First, he is not a musician but a banker. But obviously he is not an ordinary banker as we are not a business publication and write only about things related to classical music. Stuart Lawson is CEO of HSBC Russia. The bank has won praise for a series of events it organized together with the Gnessin Moscow School of Music – it established a scholarship for the best violinist of the Gnessin School, it organized a series of open-air concerts “By the Nikitsky Gates” and then at the end of January together with the Boris Yeltsin Foundation the “January Nights” festival. And the bank was not just a sponsor, it came up with the initial idea and directly organized the events. It established and awarded the prizes. Furthermore, there was no jury, the winner was picked by a popular vote of the audience. All runner-ups also received prizes. No one was left behind.
Against the backdrop of some dramatic situations, which to a large extent are a reflection of the relationship between business and culture – we will get to them later – such actions appear almost surreal. Where does that fascination with classical music and young musicians come from? That was what we discussed early on Saturday, February 6 on Arbat, in Maly Levshinsky Pereulok, not far from Classica.FM studios, at the home of Oxford graduate and CEO of HSBC Russia Mr Stuart Lawson. Taking part in the meeting were also Evgeny Boyko, chief editor of Classica.FM, Mikhail Khokhlov, professor at the Gnessin School and conductor of the Gnessin Virtuosos orchestra, an interpreter, and obviously our host himself.
Let get one thing straight right from the start to avoid unnecessary speculation – this is no advertising spot. HSBC is not a sponsor of this event. It has never sponsored Classica.FM. Neither side has made any proposal to that effect or discussed any. The interview was initiated exclusively by Classica.FM. As the host, Stuart Lawson spoke first.
Stuart Lawson: Thank you for coming to my place on this Saturday morning. It makes life so much easier. Welcome. Mikhail and I have known each other for 14 years and over this time we have found various ways to cooperate. Maybe I should tell you how we met?
Evgeny Boyko: That would be most interesting.
Stuart Lawson: A long while ago I used to live in Romanov Pereulok, in Molotov’s flat. I had just arrived in Russia and was the head of Citibank. I knew nothing about Russian culture then. In fact, I didn’t know anything about Russia but knew that the Conservatory was somewhere around the corner. Once a week I went there, bought a ticket. Naturally, I didn’t know what was on as all the titles were in Russian. It did not matter as the tickets were not at all expensive and if something was not to my taste I could just leave after the break. But I liked the atmosphere. The children would always sit straight and listen very carefully. They concentrated on the music.
Once I was there with my wife and a friend from Italy. Just another night. A dozen children came onto the stage. They were so small they could hardly carry their instruments. The whole audience held its breath, the musicians raised their teeny violins. I think they played Flight of the Bumblebee…
Mikhail Khokhlov: It was a piece by Prokofiev.
Stuart Lawson: Fast and noisy… I sat and thought it was incredible. And I decided that I had to find their professor. That is how we met. Look how beautiful (points to people clearing snow from the roof of his house). We are talking and there is snow falling behind us. What would you like to talk about?
Evgeny Boyko: Let me now tell you how I got acquainted with your bank – indirectly. I live not far from here – on Arbat. Last summer walking home from the Conservatoire I noticed an open-air stage on Nikitsky Boulevard. As I am the head of a publication dealing with classical music I try to follow what is on. Some young academic musicians were performing. I got interested and asked the organizers what it was all about. It was the “By the Nikitsky Gates” festival – and quite well organized, by the way. There was a modern stage, professional lighting and sound. We wrote about the event as we did not see them so much as an advertising move for the bank but a sincere attempt to help young musicians.
I will explain why it is important. Relations between sponsors and culture are not always easy. Quite often they may be dramatic. I will give you two examples just from the last month. At the end of January took place the 6th Yuri Bashmet Viola Competition. At the press conference the maestro said that three out of four sponsors on the eve of this important international event had reneged on their financial obligations. The competition literally had to be saved and it was only thanks to Bashmet’s reputation that it was held at all. The KIN brandy distillery came to the rescue. At about the same time was scheduled the second Mozart Days in Moscow – a replica of Zalzburg’s Mozartwoche. The first one took place last year. This year’s festival was cancelled literally on the eve of the opening concert as one of the sponsors withdrew. And we are talking about a major international bank with, as it seemed, a reputation to care about. As the competition was held by young musicians who cannot boast Bashmet’s reputation nobody came to their rescue. We supported the festival as media sponsors and took it all to heart.
And on that backdrop we witnessed your flourishing relations with the Gnessin School and decided to solicit this interview. I want to stress that it is a precedent – it is the first interview in the history of our publication with a person not directly related to classical music, someone who is not a musician. And on behalf of my publication I would like to thank you for taking part in the cultural life of the Gnessin School. One does not often see such a sincere and interested attitude.
I want to ask you – why is it classical music and not something else? What is the reason – your personal taste? Or is it the result of some cunning advice you got from your PR-analysts? Or what? (common laughter in the room).
Stuart Lawson: I will tell you straight – not the least! I say it loud and clear – nothing of that kind! (meaning not advice from PR-consultants).
Mikhail Khokhlov: I can prove that.
Stuart Lawson: Let me start by saying that Mikhail is my friend. There was a time when I knew nothing about classical music even though I like it very much. Let me put it this way – for me music played by young children is a window on the Russian soul. I consider myself to be lucky to have the opportunity to be part of it.
Immersing myself, listening to classical music in Russia for me is an opportunity to be part of long-standing traditions. For me as a foreigner, as an outsider it is an opportunity to participate in what is an integral part of Russia’s history and culture, its people. For me it is also a privilege. It takes just one visit to the Bolshoi Theatre, to the Large, Small or Rakhmaninov’s Hall at the Conservatory or the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall to see the people who participate in and promote this historic tradition.
HSBC bank is 145 years old, it is present in 86 countries. But here, in Russia, as a retail bank serving private customers our history dates back only six months. Our bank is a bearer and representative of certain values. For a third year running the HSBC brand was named the most valuable global brand. I think we have achieved that success not just because we operate well as a bank but also because our bank displays such qualities as integrity, commitment to our clients, consistency. All these qualities are present in an orchestra.
That is why what started with our support for the Gnessin School, Mikhail and his team was not accidental. We could have met accidentally but our support was not accidental at all. If you take a closer look at the school, at the children, at Mikhail’s orchestra you will see that their values are the same as our bank’s values. It is a time-proven pursuit of excellence. You obviously know that the Gnessin School is more than 100 years old too. The school, just as Mikhail’s orchestra, strives for constant improvement. If we put it in banker’s language – they try to improve the product they produce. On the other hand they offer something that goes beyond the “value product”. I mean the great Russian musical tradition. When I was thinking who to start a partnership with, to develop them and grow with them, I could not find a better partner than the Gnessin School.
It is also very convenient. When some top managers come over from London and I try to help them understand Russia we just go to a concert. They see these 10-year-olds whose souls fly as they perform. They listen for about 45 minutes and I don’t need to explain anything.
Evgeny Boyko: Does that also imply a special vision of the future?
Stuart Lawson: Children are our future. If we ignore them today there will be no future.
Evgeny Boyko: When I came in I heard Bach’s partitas for solo violin – it is the kind of music that even musically educated people do not listen to that often. There is an instrument in the flat despite you not being a musician. What does classical music mean for you as a European?
Stuart Lawson: First, you have to be careful about me. Over the last 35 years I have lived in 11 different countries. I worked for Citibank for 25 years and every two years I moved to another country. Each time I had to select things that were important and valuable to me. You have to react quickly because if you take too long to sort it out and make up your mind it will be already time to move on.
As I have already said, music – at least as I see it – is a window. Not the only one but one of the windows on the Russian soul. You may not know that I am also a great fan of tango. Because it is also a window onto a certain culture. And when you ask me what classical music means for a European… You are directing your question at a man who spends a lot of time on the move.
For me it is an opportunity to get involved with what is essential for a country, go one step deeper than those who are not interested in it. You just have to go to one of those marvelous concerts at the Conservatory, take your mind off the musicians and look at the audience. You will see it in their eyes. You will see how they absorb music.
Evgeny Boyko: In Russia the responsibility of business to culture is low – it is either PR or a social burden – but not something that is a must. Culture and business – how do you view the relationship between them? How are you building it?
Stuart Lawson: For us it is sponsorship of a musical collective, an annual event to which we invite all our clients. They do not always come because they like classical music and understand the values of what the bank offers but a majority of our clients are true lovers and connoisseurs of art. At the same time we are not a charitable foundation, we are a business. But one of our objectives is in our slogan – The World’s Local Bank. We strive to make our presence in a country comfortable for us and our clients. We must live in the society, in the country where we do business. In that sense the partnership with the Gnessin School promotes awareness of our brand and is to a certain extent our distinctive feature. Music represents what we would like to achieve in our business.
Evgeny Boyko: It is a very nice thing to hear. And quite surprising. We are very glad that we have such a responsible bank, which is not indifferent to classical music and keen to work with children.
Мikhail Khokhlov: I want to say that the bank’s commitment to our students is very highly appreciated at our school. What has been made already is an important contribution. Nevertheless, judging from the answers that we heard today it is not a PR stunt but a move to naturally enter the process of civilized interaction between culture and a financial institution, which wants to feel here at home.
One would be hard pressed to trust a bank, which feels at home somewhere but does not care about problems in that home. In that sense what HSBC is doing is not only what the bank wants to be but what it is becoming.
Evgeny Boyko: I would like to thank you all for taking part in the interview. On behalf of our readers I would like to thank Mr Stuart Lawson and Mikhail Khokhlov for what they are doing to promote the performance of classical music in Russia.
Moscow, February 6, 2010.