For a long time he was the mystery man, the one candidate to succeed Joseph Silverstein as music director of the Utah Symphony no one on the search committee would admit was a candidate. Then last month the official silence was broken, and this week Utah audiences will actually get to see and hear Victor Yampolsky conduct the orchestra in concerts Friday, July 11, at Abravanel Hall, and Sunday, July 13, at Snowbird.
Like several of the other candidates, Yampolsky brings a distinguished musical pedigree to the table. Born in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Kirgizia in 1942, he was, by his own admission, "born into a family of pianists," his father being Vladimir Yampolsky, probably most familiar to Western music lovers as accompanist to violinist David Oistrakh.Yet it was the violin that beckoned Victor, as it had a number of other celebrated Yampolskys. Indeed, during a phone interview from Canada's Prince Edward Island, where he is vacationing with his wife's relatives, I ask whether he is related to Abram Yampolsky, for many years professor of violin at the Moscow Conservatory.
"No, we are not related," Yampolsky replies. "But my violin playing is related to him because I'm a student of his disciples."
One of those was Mikhail Garlitsky, with whom young Victor studied for 11 years after being accepted at Moscow's Central Music School in 1949. From there he progressed to the Moscow Conservatory, where Oistrakh was his teacher for the next five years.
"And that's the career I was planning, as a violinist," Yampolsky explains. "However, it was suggested to me, first by my father, then Garlitsky and Oistrakh, that I should look into conducting because it was apparent that my musical interests were deeper and wider than just violin playing. Then, during my first season as a violinist in the Moscow Philharmonic, in 1965, I realized that many of our guest conductors did not have qualifications to be on the podium, that their experience in leading the orchestra was way below that of the musicians who were playing in the orchestra."
Hence, once he had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, Yampolsky enrolled in Nicolai Rabinovich's conducting course at the Leningrad Conservatory. There his classmates included Neeme Jaervi and Mariss Jansons, both of whom have also gone on to significant international careers. Yampolsky's first conducting post, however, was with the Moscow Philharmonic, of which he had remained a member even while studying in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
"It was a nerve-wracking experience," he says of that first audition with his own orchestra. "When I got up on the podium most of the guys were actually laughing at me, saying, `What are you doing up there, cowboy? You get back to your seat.' " But as he began taking them through the slow movement of the Brahms Second Symphony, Yampolsky says, the laughing stopped. "Actually, even before then," he recalls with a chuckle, "because I wouldn't start until they stopped."
Someone else who wasn't laughing was Kiril Kondrashin, then the orchestra's music director. And even though Ministry of Culture rules prevented the assistant conductorship going to someone who was already a member of the orchestra, Yampolsky remembers Kon-drashin getting around that by appointing another man to the assistantship but using both of them. "So I had the job but was not paid for it," he says. "But that wasn't so bad, because he got 100 rubles a month as assistant conductor and I got 230 as a violinist."
Yampolsky continued both careers after immigrating to the United States in 1973. "I left on an Israeli visa," he says, "but went directly from Vienna to Rome, where I auditioned for Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein."
The upshot was that Bernstein awarded him a scholarship to Tanglewood, where Yampolsky met Gunther Schuller, Seiji Ozawa, Aaron Copland and Joseph Silverstein, among others. He was subsequently given a chance to conduct the student orchestra and play in the Boston Symphony, of which he became a member that same year. Two years later he won the position of principal second violin in the BSO, all the while expanding his conducting horizons as well.
Thus in 1977 he was named music director of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Halifax, Nova Scotia (which is where he met his wife - "my second and last wife," he says with a laugh), to be followed by an appointment as adjunct professor of violin and director of orchestras at Boston University.
Since 1984 he has been professor of music and director of orchestras at Northwestern University, since 1986 music director of the Peninsula Music Festival in Door County, Wisc., and since 1995 music director of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra.
("I was also principal conductor of Johannesburg's National Symphony and resident conductor of Chicago's Civic Orchestra," he says, "but I've just stepped down from those.")
He says his relationship with the Omaha Symphony, an orchestra with an annual budget about half that of the Utah Symphony's, caused him to be secretive about his candidacy.
"My conversations with Utah started when I had literally just started my work in Omaha, and it was simply too sensitive, too delicate for me to let it out at the time. But now it is OK, because my reputation in Omaha is established and the trust I treasure with the musicians is not going to be diminished."
As for what he might bring to the Utah job, Yampolsky's inclined to be similarly guarded until he has had a chance to conduct the orchestra and take the measure of the community. "And," he says, "that's exactly the same stance I took in Omaha. I was asked, `What are you going to change?' and I said, `Nothing, simply because a person has to live in a community first and get to know its history and chemistry, then apply his own knowledge and judgment."
Just the same, Yampolsky says he much prefers being a music director to being a guest conductor because the former "gives you the opportunity to build an orchestra and go much farther than producing one program after another."
"My strength, I think, is tuning every musician into my own musical thinking so that we can share the intellectual and emotional joy in every piece. Also there is the matter of training the orchestra in a specific tone and balance, and here, as you realize, every conductor has his own sound in mind and that takes time.
"My own model is the Boston Symphony, though I certainly love the Vienna Philharmonic as well as Cleveland, the Concertgebouw and Leningrad - the old band, with Mravinsky."
Yampolsky had a chance to compare the new with the old on a return visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1994. "I felt I came in between times," he says, "when the old system was still in shambles and the new system was not yet working. Whatever the reason, the musicians did not seem to have any enthusiasm for making music, and I concluded that my student orchestra at Northwestern made much better music than the Leningrad Philharmonic."
Still, it is a taste of his homeland he will be bringing to Utah audiences, by way of an all-Russian program consisting of Shostakovich's "Festive Overture," Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" and the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto, the last with 1994 Gina Bachauer silver medalist Dmitrij Teterin as soloist. And, to my surprise, Yampolsky discloses that, although he has led the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff works before, this will be his first time conducting the Shostakovich - a longtime Utah Symphony standby.
Meaning that those who attend next weekend's concerts will not only get to hear his first encounter with the orchestra - they'll get to hear his first encounter with one of the pieces.
Starting time for Friday's performance is 8 p.m., with tickets priced from $13 to $25 ($6 students). The Snowbird concert will begin at 3:30 p.m., with general admission $19, or $60 per family; $25 cabaret seating with food and beverage service is also available.
For information call 533-NOTE.