After more than four decades of conducting, Victor Yampolsky will soon be hanging up his baton. The distinguished maestro, the Carol F. and Arthur L. Rice Jr. Professor in Music Performance at Northwestern University since 1993, will retire at the end of the 2021-22 academic year, marking the finale of a 37-year teaching and conducting career at Northwestern.
As part of his season-long farewell tour, Yampolsky and graduate assistant Jake Taniguchi will conduct a program of Beethoven and Brahms in a Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra concert at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 23, at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive.
“Retiring was not a hard decision to make,” said the 79-year-old former Evanston resident who now makes his home in Toronto near two of his adult children. “It was totally logical. With advancing years, family relations become front and center.”
His greatest professional legacy, he said, has been the legion of students he has taught, most of whom have gone on to professional conducting careers at conservatories, universities and orchestras in the U.S. and around the world.
His students feel the same way. “He’s easily one of the most influential people in my life,” said Foster Beyers, Director of Orchestras at James Madison University, who studied with Yampolsky from 2004 to 2006. “He never stops being my teacher to this day. What a colossal effect he’s had on thousands and thousands of musicians around the world.”
“He’s definitely one of those life-changing teachers,” agreed Aviva Segall, Musical Director and Principal Conductor of the Omaha Area Youth Orchestra, who studied with Yampolsky in 1996 and 1997. “I have so much respect for him because he has this amazing ability to be larger than life and yet has such a deep and genuine caring for all his students.”
“He was an inspiration,” said Emanuele Andrizzi, Director of Orchestras at the College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University in Chicago, who studied with Yampolsky from 2007 to 2009. “Everybody knows he’s been such an influence to so many conductors.”
“Studying with Yampolsky was the best decision I ever made. It changed my life,” said Tara Simoncic, Music Director of the Louisville Ballet. “Everywhere I go people know who he is. He’s an amazing musician and an amazing teacher.”
Chia-Hsuan Lin, Associate Conductor of the Richmond (Va.) Symphony Orchestra, who studied with Yampolsky from 2012 to 2014, recalled walking from coffee shop to ice cream shop with Yampolsky as he helped her study the Tchaikovsky symphonies. “It was Tchaikovsky, Victor and ice cream,” she laughed, before tearing up when discussing his caring personality. “He was always giving, always sharing.”
Guy Bordo, Music Director of the Richmond (Indiana) Symphony Orchestra, marveled at Yampolsky’s musical skills. “He can sit at the piano and play any major composition being worked on, he can then pick up a violin and play the violin part at a spectacular level, and he can conduct any major work with a facility and understanding that are remarkable.”
Yampolsky said his teaching approach reflects the thinking and style of his conducting mentors, playing violin under Kirill Kondrashin in the Moscow Philharmonic and Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony, as well as Leonard Bernstein, who arranged for him to come to the United States.
“Bernstein had this unbelievable passion for the art of music and an unstoppable desire to share it with youngsters, so I try to share with my students everything I know,” said Yampolsky. “We are not only teaching intellectual knowledge; we are teaching emotions and life skills.”
Yampolsky was born in 1942 in the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan and grew up in Moscow. His father, Vladimir Yampolsky, was a famous pianist, and frequently accompanied the legendary violinist David Oistrakh in recital. Victor studied violin with Oistrakh and joined the Moscow Philharmonic at 23, eventually becoming assistant concertmaster and assistant conductor. He saw the famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich haunting the halls before rehearsals and at concerts of his music.
During his eight years with the orchestra, 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.’”
His life 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 Soviet emigration policy, he was able to make his way to Italy, where he arranged a meeting with Bernstein, who was then conducting in Rome. The famed maestro heard him play violin and asked his friend, Senator Ted Kennedy, to help arrange for Yampolsky to go to America on a scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Center, summer home of the Boston Symphony. Within two weeks of his arrival, Yampolsky had won a seat in the Boston Symphony. Within two years, he was principal second violin.
“All this was a dream come true,” he said. “Bernstein was like a godfather.”
But his real dream was to conduct. He had earned a degree in conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory. In Boston he closely observed such greats as 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 in Boston 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 time he also taught at the Boston University School of Music and subbed 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, then Assistant Dean of the School of Music. “He had the musicianship, the passion, the ability.”
He arrived in Evanston in 1984 to take command of the program. Since then, he has taken the Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra to new heights, and also helped develop the Chamber Orchestra as a training ensemble for freshmen, and along with Stephen Alltop, created the Philharmonia for non-music majors.
And during that time he mentored and inspired hundreds of conducting students.
Aside from his Northwestern career, Yampolsky directed the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin, where he was recently appointed conductor laureate. He has led more than 80 professional and student orchestras in North America, Europe, South Africa, South Korea and New Zealand. He has also lectured and given master classes at schools around the world. He is honorary director of the Scotia Festival of Music in Halifax in Nova Scotia, former music director of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and former principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In addition, he has recorded for Pyramid and Kiwi-Pacific Records. He also serves as music director emeritus of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and honorary director of the Scotia Festival of Music in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Yampolsky led the Omaha Symphony in its debut recording, “Take Flight” in 2002 and led the world premiere of Philip Glass’ Piano Concerto No. 2, which was honored by the Nebraska Arts Council. He holds honorary doctoral degrees from Doane University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Yampolsky’s former students include Giancarlo Guerrero, a six-time Grammy Award-winning music director of the Nashville Symphony; Roderick Cox, who won the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award; Daniel Black and Taichi Fukumura, both of whom have won the Solti Career Assistance Award; and Elizabeth Bennett, who was named one of 10 finalists for the 2020 Music Educator Grammy Award and received the 2014 University of Chicago Educator of the Year Award. Joana Carneiro, principal conductor of the Portuguese Symphony Orchestra, is the recipient of a Helen M. Thompson Award from the League of American Orchestras. Emanuele Andrizzi was a recipient of the Illinois Council of Orchestras’ 2021 Conductor of the Year Award.
Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra concerts planned for the 2021-22 season will feature composers that have shaped Yampolsky’s career as well as his musical legacy.
“My programs will represent a musical homage to great masters of orchestral music,” Yampolsky said. “You will see the deep thanks to Beethoven and Brahms [on Oct. 23]; to Debussy, Messiaen and Honegger [on Nov. 13]; and to my time as a violinist of the Boston Symphony, performing light classics for the holidays, with a program conducted by my students” on Dec. 4.
In recognition of his Russian heritage the winter concert, scheduled for Jan. 29, will feature Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and the spring concert on April 16 will include Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances” as well as contemporary American composer William Bolcom’s Violin Concerto performed by soloist Desirée Ruhstrat.
His final conducting performances on June 4 and 5 will include Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. “I learned this symphony under Kondrashin my first summer with the Moscow Philharmonic in June 1965. We took it on a 10-week international tour of North America and Cuba,” he said. “It’s fitting that, exactly 56 years later, I will conclude my Northwestern career with this magnificent piece. Mahler is one of the composers I love to conduct. His music has so many solo sections that enable us to explore and showcase the talents of our wonderful Northwestern musicians.”
All performances take place at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Admission is free and advance reservation is required. Seating for all fall events is general admission. Tickets can be reserved online at concertsatbienen.org, by phone at 847-467-4000, or in-person at the ticket office located at the southeast entrance of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. Ticket Office hours are Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m.