As another semester winds down at Brigham Young University this month, a lot of students will be heading out for summer vacation and/or summer jobs.
Violin professor Igor Gruppman will be heading for his summer job, too - as guest concertmaster of England's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But he'll be back in the fall after tour dates and solo performances, many with his violinist/violist wife, Vesna, in cities as far apart as San Diego, Prague and St. Petersburg."BYU is a very important commitment for us," says Gruppman, who joined the school of music faculty with his wife last September. "I try to schedule all my London and other things around it, especially after the semesters are over. And so far it's been successful."
Successful enough that, in addition to his RPO job and a similar post with the London Symphony Orchestra, Gruppman also holds down the directorship of Classics Unlimited, a chamber series he and his wife founded in San Diego, and is the featured soloist on a new Koch International CD of the Rozsa Violin Concerto - the first recording of that piece since Jascha Heifetz's, with whom Gruppman studied after coming to this country from what was then the Soviet Union in 1979.
"I was born in Kiev on July 4, 1956," he recalls, "and I remember my grandmother had this big calendar that showed all the international holidays, and whenever my birthday came up I would see that this was a big holiday in the United States, with fireworks. And I thought, `Gee, it would be great to be there on my birthday because summers in Russia were boring. Everybody was always out on vacations, and I was always by myself."
That changed when, at age 15, he went to Moscow's Central Music School to continue his violin studies and met Vesna Stefanovich, who was there on scholarship from her native Yugoslavia.
"My father and I came to the dormitory to see if they had a bed," Gruppman recalls, "and there was this girl standing there who said, `Go away from here. This is a horrible place, like a jail. Find yourself an apartment.' And that was our first meeting. She had been practicing under the staircase."
Over the next few years they went on to make music together, as Vesna studied at the Moscow Conservatory with David Oistrakh and Igor with Leonid Kogan, Mstislav Rostropovich and the members of the Borodin Quartet.
"We were quite taken with one another," Gruppman says of his relationship with Vesna, "and would have gotten married then. But with the situation at the time it would really have put a snag in our emigration plans, because she was from Yugoslavia and was considered a foreigner, and if I was married to a foreigner, it would have put me in an entirely different category."
Through it all, Gruppman maintains, there was never any question where they would migrate to. "America was the country to go to when you wanted to start a new life," he says, adding that his mother already had a sister living in Los Angeles.
But it wasn't easy. "Even those who were allowed to leave had to go through all kinds of humiliation in addition to losing their jobs," he says. "I had to go to all the deans of the conservatory and talk to them. Then you pack your belongings - each of us was allowed to take only 20 kilograms - and wait, and when the papers came you had only 24 hours to get out."
But get out he did, with his parents, grandmother and younger brother. And he still remembers what it was like touching down at the Los Angeles airport for the first time.
"It was the year of the record fires, and when we came out of the plane the sky was red with smog and sunshine. I thought, `What is this? Did they bring us to Mars?' "
But with Vesna following a few months later, the young couple began to rebuild the careers they had given up to come to this country. They also found the LDS Church - or, rather, were found by missionaries in North Hollywood in 1982 - and began the spiritual journey that last year led them to BYU.
"Both Vesna and I had had an association with BYU," Gruppman acknowledges. "We'd been invited to teach seminars and perform several times over the last few years" (including a concert with the Mormon Youth Chorus and Symphony six years ago in the Salt Lake Tabernacle). "But we never thought this would actually happen because we didn't think we could stand the cultural shock of coming here.
"But I must tell you, we were prompted to do so and felt there was a mission here for us at BYU. Because for us this is the one place that we can teach not only music but share our testimonies of the value and spirituality of music and communicate that it really is a gift of God."
As they gave up jobs to come to California, so the Gruppmans gave up jobs to come to Utah. Igor was concertmaster of the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Chamber Orchestra, and his wife was concertmaster of the San Diego Opera as well as artist-in-residence at San Diego State University. And they did experience a culture shock, only he insists it was a positive one.
"This is a wonderful place to come home to," he enthuses, "especially after traveling somewhere else. You know, in the world of music people can be quite worldly and ambitious, even vicious at times. But here they are entirely different, very compassionate and loving."
Nonetheless the world of music has reached out to embrace them, and not just in Utah.
As a direct result of their recordings, Igor says, he got a call from the London Symphony early last year that led to not only that job but the one with the RPO. He and Vesna recently soloed in the Bach and Arnold two-violin concertos with Canada's Edmonton Symphony and will play similar programs together in Prague and Budapest in July. And with the two of them joining the BYU Chamber Orchestra for its European tour next spring, they will perform together for the first time in Igor's native Kiev, soloing in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola.
His new recording of the Rozsa should also make new friends, being a wonderfully lyrical complement to the more consciously virtuosic Heifetz account. "You cannot sound like Heifetz," Gruppman says of his former teacher, "so I tried to get as far away from him as possible."
Then, recalling another teacher, he remembers how demanding Kogan was.
"I learned a lot of discipline," he says, "but it was great to learn from a performing musician. Before he came to the lesson, he had probably practiced a few hours himself."
To judge from his busy life, it sounds like Gruppman's BYU students can expect the same thing.