Mar 232017

Evanston RoundTable, March 23, 2017

“Hi, come in, nice to finally meet you,” Karen said at the door. “Let me take your coat.”

I was excited about my new viola lessons. Karen had taught in New York before moving to Chicago with her cellist husband, who was taking a position in a local orchestra. She had studied with some of the world’s great violists, had recorded with many famed musicians, and performed in recitals around the world.

“Do you mind taking off your shoes?” Karen asked as I slipped off my jacket. “New carpet.”

She must have seen me frown. I haven’t liked padding around in my socks since I was a kid. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Think of it as walking in sand. It will feel nice.” And she turned and walked down the hall to her studio. I followed, slightly disgruntled. OK, get a grip on, I thought. Focus on what’s important: the lesson, not the leggings.

After the usual preliminaries – rosining the bow, tuning the instrument – I pulled out the music we were to start on, a viola sonata by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. It was the last piece he ever wrote. It is both a poignant summing up of his life and a mighty statement of the beauty that lies behind the darkness. A profound work.

The sonata opens with plucked notes, like a harp. “You might want to use the bottom of your finger pads, not the tips,” Karen said. “More flesh means a more resonant tone. And hook your thumb on the edge of the fingerboard. It helps to anchor it there.”

I had studied the piece before, and this was not how I had played it. But I tried. It did not sound good. “Even lower on the finger,” she said. “The fleshier, the better.”

I played a few minutes that way, struggling to master the technique she was recommending. But it still didn’t sound right.

“It’s coming along,” she said. “Anything new takes time.”

I smiled hopefully and suggested we move to another section, an extremely demanding passage where the violist takes huge chords in rapid succession, each requiring different fingerings and hand positions.

We tried it but each time my fingers curled into a tangle of missed notes. It sounded awful. Karen suggested we deconstruct the chords, placing the fingers down one at a time until they were in the right place, then moving on to the next chord. We spent 45 minutes working on just two measures, until I could play the desired notes, albeit at about half the correct tempo.

“That’s good, keep at it, and work the tempo up slowly, methodically, until you have it about right,” she said.

I didn’t think that was likely to happen. There is a world of difference, I said, between half tempo and the right tempo. “It’s very discouraging,” I added.

“But that’s the best thing that can happen,” she said. I looked confused. “How do you mean?”

“My husband studied with Rostropovich,” she said. “And he taught that when you discover something impossible, something you think you cannot possibly play, that is your luckiest day.”

“Luckiest day,” I repeated, uncomprehending.

“Yes, because that is what gives life meaning: the challenge of trying something new, something hard that will require you to work at your best.”

Our time at an end, I padded back down the hallway, thinking of the sand beneath my feet and the good luck to study with a great teacher who taught life as well as viola lessons.

Mar 012012

Evanston RoundTable, March 1, 2012

The conductor gives a sharp downbeat, and the orchestra of 60 responds as one, flooding the practice room at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Hall with a richness and depth of music (Dvorak) that is breath-taking. The conductor is both calm and furiously busy. His eyes dart across the room, watching for precise bowing in the strings, proper breathing in the winds and brass. He listens for balance, intonation and dynamics. He waves his arms to show the beat, emphasize accents and provide cues. His face is alive with information: a smile for a nicely executed phrase in the flutes, a frown at a late entrance from the violas. As the music picks up, he bobs with the beat, shaking his fist to emphasize a sforzando. He chides, prods and encourages the young performers. Then he stops.

“No, no.” he says, turning to the first violins. “The vibrato has to come before you move the stick, so when you catch the bow, it is already hot.”

The rehearsal is hot – alive and exciting – no surprise because it reflects a lifetime in music. The conductor is Victor Yampolsky, maestro extraordinaire and Carol and Arthur Rice University Professor of Performance and Conducting at Northwestern.

Prof. Yampolsky was born in Russia. His father, Vladimir Yampolsky, was a famous pianist, and frequently accompanied the legendary violinist David Oistrakh in recital. The young Victor studied violin with Oistrakh and joined the Moscow Philharmonic at the age of 23, eventually becoming assistant concertmaster and assistant conductor. He saw the famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich haunting the halls before a rehearsal of one of his symphonies.

The music director of the orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin, “was a child of the Soviet system,” Prof. Yampolsky says. “He had dictatorial manners, giving commands like a battalion captain. Within the system, this was the norm.”

During his eight years with the orchestra, he toured more than 30 countries on four continents. “We represented ‘the glory of Soviet life and culture,’ but when we visited the West, it was blatantly obvious they were far better off than we were.”

Nevertheless, there were benefits to life behind the Iron Curtain. Under the Soviet system, health care and education were free. Housing, utilities and transportation were very inexpensive – a fraction of what they would have cost in Europe or America.

His life there changed drastically in 1972 when his brother decided to emigrate to Israel. “I knew right away my career was finished. With a close relative living in a capitalist country, it would be very hard for the authorities to let me tour with the orchestra. I was considered unreliable and a security risk.”

Instead, thanks to a momentary thaw in the Soviet emigration policy, he was able to make his way to Rome, where he met Leonard Bernstein. The famed maestro heard him play violin and immediately arranged for him to go to America on a scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony. Within two weeks of his arrival, he had won a seat in the Boston Symphony. Within two years, he was principal second violin.

“All this was a dream come true,” he says. “Bernstein was like a godfather.”

But Prof. Yampolsky’s real dream was to conduct. He had gotten a degree in conducting at the Moscow Conservatory. In Boston he closely observed such greats as Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, Rafael Kubelik, Sir Colin Davis and Bernstein.

His chance came in 1977, when he was invited to be music director of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “My colleagues at the Boston Symphony were shocked. They said, ‘Victor, there are thousands of young violinists dying to sit in your chair [in the orchestra].’ I didn’t care. I wanted to go where the job was.”

After several seasons in Halifax, during which he was also teaching at the Boston University School of Music and subbing with the Boston Symphony, he got a call from Northwestern: would he be interested in the position of head of orchestras? “He was clearly the top choice,” said Bernard Dobroski, who was then Assistant Dean of the School of Music. “He had the musicianship, the passion, the ability.”

In September 1984 he arrived in Evanston to take command of the program. Since then, he has taken the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra to new heights, and also helped develop two other orchestras: the Chamber Orchestra, as a training ensemble for freshmen, and the Philharmonia, for non-music majors.

Aside from conducting, he teaches music at Northwestern graduate school. Summers he leads the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin. Over the years he has led more than 80 professional and student orchestras in North America, Europe, South Africa, South Korea and New Zealand. In addition, he lectures and gives master classes at schools around the world, and serves on competition juries.

“He’s an incredible musician, certainly one of the best conductors and teachers in the country,” said Rene Machado, associate dean in the Northwestern School of Music. “He can be very demanding on the podium, because he’s intensely passionate about the music. But he’s very dedicated to his students and a wonderful colleague.”

“He’s very warm and caring. It’s been a wonderful partnership,” says Robert Hasty, associate director of orchestras at Northwestern and a former doctoral student of Prof. Yampolsky’s. “We’ve turned out such wonderful artists,” he says, citing former students now with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and other first-rank professional orchestras.

Clearly, at an age when most other people are thinking seriously about retiring, Prof. Yampolsky has no such notions. “Retire from what? Being a musician? Being a conductor? No, it’s impossible! Besides,” he adds, “there is still so much more to learn.”