Maestro, Adored Mentor Putting Down Baton For Retirement’s Adventure

Victor Yampolsky conducting the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra.

EVANSTON, Ill. — Leonard Bernstein. Kirill Kondrashin. Robert Marcellus. Zubin Mehta. David Oistrakh. Dmitri Shostakovich. Edo de Waart.

These classical music luminaries all shared in the distinguished career of violinist and conductor Victor Yampolsky, who played in the Moscow Philharmonic and Boston Symphony, held five music directorships, and guest conducted more than 80 professional and academic orchestras on six continents, including the Montreal Symphony, New Zealand Symphony, and Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra. But as his hundreds of former students can attest, he made his biggest impact as a teacher and mentor, especially during his 38 years on the music performance faculty at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Victor Yampolsky is retiring from Northwestern after 38 years.

“He was very thorough, very demanding but very funny, too. I also remember him being very nurturing and kind. So, I was very proud to be his student,” said Joana Carneiro, who stepped down in January as music director of the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra, one of the country’s three main orchestras. She earned a master’s degree in conducting at Northwestern in 1999.

Yampolsky, 79, is retiring at the end of this academic year, leading his final concerts, performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra on June 4 and 5.

“I did not want to retire at a time in my life when I would be able only to sit on a couch and watch TV,” Yampolsky said. “I wanted to retire at a time in my life when I would take my wife and go and travel and see various countries and friends and just have a completely new period of life.”

He was planning to step down two years ago, leading Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony as his farewell program, but the Covid-19 shutdown interrupted those plans. “My dean, Toni-Marie [Montgomery] told me, ‘Victor, you cannot possibly finish your tenure and leave your legacy here on Zoom,’” the conductor said. So he agreed to extend his tenure through 2021-22.

That the native of Russia, then the Soviet Union, would have a life in music was never really in question. His parents were pianists — his father, Vladimir, was a longtime accompanist for David Oistrakh, the great Russian violinist — who met at the Kiev Conservatory of Music. Yampolsky’s uncle, Miron Polyakin, was another noted violinist.

Yampolsky attended a school for young gifted musicians and studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Oistrakh. Before he even earned his master’s degree in 1966, he had gained a place in the Moscow Philharmonic under Kirill Kondrashin, one of the best-known Russian conductors of the 20th century. Although Yampolsky never met Shostakovich, he took part in premieres or early performances of his Symphony No. 15 (1970-71) and Second Cello Concerto (1966), with Mstislav Rostropovich as soloist.  

These experiences helped forge a deep bond between Yampolsky and Shostakovich’s music, and they have provided him with real-life stories that he has regularly passed along to his students. One of the most compelling is his memory of the composer’s attendance at a rehearsal for the Symphony No. 4 (1935-36), which Shostakovich was forced to withdraw before its scheduled premiere when he came under attack by Soviet authorities. It remained under wraps until Kondrashin bravely debuted it in 1961.     

Victor Yampolsky was a violinist before he took up conducting.

In the last movement, there is an extended repetition of two notes by different instruments and in different registers. Yampolsky recalls Kondrashin stopping during a rehearsal and turning to the composer and saying, “Dmitri Dmitrievich, don’t you think we should make a cut here?” And Shostakovich bluntly replied, “Let them eat it all.” Yampolsky laughed at the memory. “In one phrase,” he said, “you could see the life, the problems, the personality, the inner struggle of the composer. In one phrase, there was so much.”

From 1968 through 1972, Yampolsky commuted to what was then known as the Leningrad Conservatory of Music for conducting studies, and he added the post of assistant conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic in 1970. But the Cold War was in full force, and life in the Soviet Union was not easy. Three years after that appointment, the world of the newly minted maestro was turned upside down when his brother decided to emigrate to Israel, a decision that immediately blacklisted the rest of the family.

Yampolsky either had to leave as well or face the ruination of his career. He set his sights on the United States, and he, his wife, and their two young children traveled to Vienna and then to Rome, where he and a fellow musician in the same situation, violist Michael Zaretsky, went to the American embassy to try to secure immigration papers. He was advised to try for a visa for artists, scientists, and others who demonstrate “extraordinary ability” in their field. To do that, he needed a letter from a major musical figure attesting to his talents. Mehta was in Rome at the time, and Yampolsky auditioned for the conductor, who supplied him the next morning with the requisite recommendation. The violinist returned to the embassy and was informed that it was not enough, the praise was not adequate.

So Yampolsky and Zaretsky sought another visiting conductor, and they learned that Bernstein was passing through, so they rushed to audition for him. Afterward, referring to the respected Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Mass., the American maestro said, “Would you like to go to Tanglewood?” And to laughter from Bernstein and his wife and manager, the violinist answered, “And where is Tanglewood? Is it in America?” They assured him that it was. “I said, ‘Of course, I would love to go.’”

Victor Yampolsky conducting the Omaha Symphony.

The next day, Zaretsky and Yampolsky went to an American doctor for physicals. The visas came the following day, and the musicians and their families were soon on a plane to the United States. They arrived at Tanglewood on July 17, 1973. It turned out that Bernstein had made arrangements for the two to be fellows at the music center and had placed a call to his friend, Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who sent a telex to the American embassy and expedited visas for the musicians. It was what Yampolsky called a “completely unreal gift of a new life.”

Tanglewood is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and when the violinist arrived, he saw a notice about auditions two weeks later. He signed up and was appointed to the second violin section, becoming principal second violinist in 1975-77. He reprised his interest in conducting in 1974-76 by serving as music director of the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra, a small community ensemble. And with the help of de Waart, a guest conductor at the Boston Symphony, Yampolsky auditioned for the music directorship of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and won the job in 1977. He left his full-time position in the Boston Symphony, only returning as a needed as a substitute.

All went well for five years, but then the orchestra went out of business, leaving Yampolsky partially in the lurch. The following year, he was able to fill in for a violinist who had been hired by the Boston Symphony but couldn’t start until a season later. And at the same time, he had begun teaching in 1977 as an adjunct professor at Boston University and was able to fall back on that position. He worked half-time with the school orchestra and also mentored nine violin students and two quartets, a job that gave him his first teaching experience.

At the same time, he was hired to lead a top-level high-school orchestra in the summers as part of the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, sometimes persuading Bernstein to spend a few hours with the group. Watching the veteran conductor spur the young musicians to levels of playing they didn’t even know were possible inspired Yampolsky in his own teaching and conducting. “I realized,” he said, “that the greatness of Bernstein was not in conducting necessarily and not in composition necessarily but in his passion for music and his passion for sharing everything he knew.”

Victor Yampolsky with Leonard Bernstein.

But because of a change in administration, Yampolsky lost both Boston University jobs in 1984. And as it had at previous points in his life, chance intervened. “You could say it was a perfect example of the phrase, ‘When one door closes, the other one will open,’” he said. Wondering what he was going to do next, he got a call from Robert Marcellus, former principal clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra. He had served as soloist for an all-Mozart program Yampolsky had conducted with the Atlantic Symphony and was at the time on the Northwestern faculty. “Victor, I know this is a very long shot,” Marcellus said to Yampolsky, “but would you ever consider moving to Chicago?”

Yampolsky jumped at the chance, flew to Chicago for an audition, and was greeted with a stretch limo at the airport — a first for him — to whisk him to Evanston. Since it was June and classes were over, the conductor met other faculty members and worked with a makeshift student chamber orchestra, rehearsing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 for 40 minutes and then leading a performance. The conductor recalls later getting a call from the dean, who simply said, “Victor, we think you are meant for the job.’” And so began the conductor’s 38 years at Northwestern, serving first as director of orchestras and later adding the title of professor of music performance.

Yampolsky acknowledges that he had no training as a teacher and admits that some of his methods might be unorthodox. One technique he employed early in his tenure was playing in the violin section as his students conducted. He would stop and ask them to explain their thinking behind a certain gesture or tempo. “They would say, ‘Maestro, I’m trying . . .,’” the conductor said. “And I would say, ‘No, trying is not my class. I don’t understand the word trying. The word I understand is delivering. No more trying.’” At other times, his students might ask in a rubato passage if it were acceptable to slow down at that moment. Yampolsky’s response was to say that the answer could only be found by looking deep in their souls.

Victor Yampolsky in rehearsal with the Peninsula Music Festival Orchestra.

“It is tough love,” the conductor said, “but it does something to my students, because they realize immediately that they must come to me being fully adult, fully responsible for what they do. They know that I give them a complete green light to being independent and being critical of others, looking and searching for their own individual artistry, because it takes years to find.”

Jake Taniguchi, a Honolulu native who is completing his master’s degree in conducting this June, describes Yampolsky as “very old school,” and he was attracted to being able to work with someone with the conductor’s long and impressive musical history. “We talk about technique, we talk about the music, but he also talks about this idea of being a leader, and I have found that so inspirational and helpful,” Taniguchi said. Yes, Yampolsky can be demanding, but he is also caring. “When he is tough on you,” Taniguchi said, “it’s always because the music deserves better.” 

To validate his methods, Yampolsky points to the high percentage of his students who have gone on to musical careers, including such notable alumni as Carneiro; Roderick Cox, winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, and Giancarlo Guerrero, the Grammy Award-winning music director of the Nashville Symphony.

Because Yampolsky lost his post at Tanglewood, he had no place to conduct in the summers, but that hole in his schedule did not stay empty for long. Again, it was Marcellus who came to the conductor’s aid with another potential position. “Victor, have you ever heard about the Peninsula Music Festival in [Wisconsin’s] Door County?”  Yampolsky recalls him saying. “I have to tell you. This is not an insignificant festival.” The conductor visited the festival and liked what he saw. He won the job of music director, a position he held through 2019.

Victor Yampolsky and the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra during a 2018 Asia tour.

In addition, he was appointed music director of the Omaha Symphony in 1995, topping a list of seven candidates that included Robert Spano, who went on to be music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. “It is the greatest day in my life, because I now have my own first-class American orchestra. It’s a dream day,” Yampolsky told the Omaha World-Herald at the time. He stayed in that post through 2005, when he became music director emeritus.

It has been quite a career by any gauge, especially what he calls the 38 “lucky and happy” years at Northwestern. But his life is set for major change. He and his wife have already moved their primary residence to Toronto to be closer to family members, and he has no plans to pick up a baton again. What feelings are swirling through his head at this important juncture? Happiness? Sadness? Nostalgia?

“All the above,” Yampolsky said, “because when a person is at a crossroads, he has things to be glad for and things to be sad for. Things to miss or things to regret, although I don’t want to talk about those. I’m looking forward to starting a new period of life. I think it will be very interesting and exciting.”