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The conductor gives a sharp downbeat, and the orchestra of 60 responds as one, flooding the practice room at Pick-Staiger Hall with a richness and depth of music (Dvorak) that is breath-taking. The conductor – Victor Yampolsky – 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 and turns to the first violins. “No, no,” he says. “The vibrato has to come before you move the stick, so when you catch the bow, it is already hot.”

That the rehearsal is hot – alive and exciting – is no surprise: It reflects a lifetime in music. Prof. Yampolsky, maestro extraordinaire, is Carol and Arthur Rice University Professor of Performance and Conducting at Northwestern University.

Prof. Yampolsky was born in Russia. His father, Vladimir Yampolsky, was a famous pianist, and frequently accompanied legendary violinist David Oistrakh in recital. The young Victor studied violin with Mr. Oistrakh and, at the age of 23, joined the Moscow Philharmonic, eventually becoming assistant  concertmaster and assistant conductor.

The orchestra’s music director, 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, Prof. Yampolsky 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, he says, 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,” he says. “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 says he was able to make his way to Rome, where he met Leonard Bernstein. The famous maestro heard him play the 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 says, he closely observed such greats as Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, Rafael Kubelik, Sir Colin Davis and Maestro Bernstein.

He says 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 says, 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 Prof. Yampolsky arrived in Evanston to take command of the program. Since then, he has led the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra to new heights, and also helped develop two other orchestras – the Chamber Orchestra, 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, Wis. 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,” says 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 entertains no such notion. “Retire from what? Being a musician? Being a conductor? No, it’s impossible! Besides,” he adds, “there is still so much more to learn.”

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently three consecutive Northern...