Update: The Orchestra at Temple Square have made more tickets available for both the Friday and Saturday, Oct. 26-27 performances of their Fall Masterpiece Concert. Check lds.org for details.
SALT LAKE CITY — Internationally-renowned and Grammy Award-winning musician, violin soloist and orchestra leader Igor Gruppman didn’t plan to be a conductor. It wasn’t until he was asked to substitute for a sick conductor 28 years ago that he realized his passion for it.
“I was very nervous … and a musician said, ‘We liked that, you did so well, let’s do it again’ and I said, ‘Well, as long as they don’t throw tomatoes at me, I will do it again,’” Gruppman said in an interview with the Deseret News. “I started taking it more seriously and it evolved into a career driven by word-of-mouth because I only go where people invite me to come.”
It was precisely this word-of-mouth technique that landed Gruppman and his wife Vesna Stefanovich-Gruppman, who is also an accomplished violinist, on the committee that helped form the 110-member Orchestra at Temple Square in 1999. At the time, Gruppman was a professor of violin at Brigham Young University; three years later, he became the principal conductor of the Orchestra at Temple Square, a position he has held for the past 15 years.
Gruppman is back in town to conduct the Orchestra at Temple Square’s fall concert, Oct. 26-27, at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
“(The Orchestra at Temple Square) is a volunteer orchestra, so that makes it very different," Gruppman said. "The performances … are always extremely powerful spiritually — they're inspiring people because so much is given by this position. … They are there to share the spirit of music with people."
From humble beginnings to international fame
Today, Gruppman is well-known as both a conductor and a violinist throughout the world, having held a number of esteemed positions, including concertmaster of the San Diego Symphony; guest leader for the London Symphony, London’s Royal Philharmonic and St. Martin in the Fields; and music director of the Mariinsky Orchestra in Russia. Currently, Gruppman serves as concertmaster of the Rotterdam Philanthropic Orchestra in the Netherlands.
This impressive list of accomplishments is a long way from Gruppman's childhood in Kiev, Ukraine. Like many young people, Gruppman has his grandmother to thank for seeing his ability.
“It’s always a grandmother,” he said, "(who) recognizes that this child has a talent."
On his grandmother's encouragement, Gruppman’s parents enrolled him in the Central Music School in Kiev where he planned to study piano but soon found that all the spots were full. His parents figured he had “good hands for violin and good ears,” he said, so he became a violinist — and hasn’t looked back since.
Gruppman explained that good musicians need an early start, good teaching and a good environment — fortunately for him, he had all three. His Kiev teachers helped him gain acceptance into the Moscow Conservatory, one of the world's finest music schools, when he was just 15 years old.
While Gruppman obviously had ample natural musical ability, a life in music is still a difficult path. “A couple of times I quit," he remembered. "I said, ‘No, I want to be psychiatrist,’ (but) music won.”
Gruppman is clearly glad today that he stuck with it and now, thanks to hindsight, he has a better understanding of what a life in music requires.
“You have to have intelligence, dedication, love for what you do," he said, "ability to work hard and focus, consistency, trust and humility. … It takes stamina to be a professional musician. It’s so taxing. … It requires sacrifice.”
Finding love and finding God
Gruppman met his wife Vesna Stefanovich at the Moscow Conservatory when they were teenagers. Coming from former Yugoslavia, Stefanovich-Gruppman was a “wonder child,” Gruppman recalled, who had received a scholarship to study the violin.
While looking for a spare bed in the main dormitory of the conservatory, Gruppman remembered seeing a “beautiful girl come down the stairs” asking him if he was new. She told him he did not want to live in the run-down dormitory and would be better off renting a flat outside of town.
“We always joke that even in the first meeting, she was always taking care of me,” Gruppman said.
Gruppman and Stefanovich-Gruppman, the school's top two violinists, took all the same classes and were constant competitors. They eventually began dating and later moved to the United States, where they married in Los Angeles in 1980.
Just a year after moving to LA, the Gruppman’s neighbor began telling them about two missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints they were meeting with. Although the Gruppmans weren’t actively seeking religion, they were interested. One day, they heard a knock at their door and opened it to see the two missionaries looking for their neighbors. Stefanovich-Gruppman quickly invited the pair in, eager to hear their message.
“It was a miracle because we lived in an apartment building in California and missionaries weren’t allowed to proselyte at apartments,” Gruppman said. “My wife was blown away because she felt like they were two angels. … She invited them in and … was baptized three weeks later.”
Gruppman was baptized just a few months after his wife.
Creating a legacy
After living in California for 13 years, Gruppman and Stefanovich-Gruppman were contacted by BYU to help lead the violin and string department. Today, their former students have their own students, and Gruppman leads musical workshops for the students of those he taught three to four times a year.
Besides his work at BYU, Gruppman and Stefanovich-Gruppman have started the Gruppman International Violin Institute, where they share their expertise with young musicians. They host two-week intensive sessions throughout the world, inviting musical experts to work with talented students. All of these roles fit Gruppman's wide interests in his field.
“I love the broad spectrum of music-making — from being a leader of the orchestra, soloist, teacher, chamber musician, all different aspects of the same thing: making music and understanding the language. That (has) always fascinated me; it’s like witchcraft,” Gruppman said.
It's obvious that for Gruppman, music is a calling. Conducting the Orchestra at Temple Square is a natural fit for this man who sees music as "the language of the Spirit, it is the language of communication," he said. As he and the orchestra work this week to hone their concert program, which will include Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 and feature musicians from the orchestra as soloists, Gruppman has a hope for his group's performance.
“We’re not here to dazzle people," he said. "We’re here to touch their hearts.”
If you go …
What: Orchestra at Temple Square 2018 Fall Masterpiece Concert
When: Friday and Saturday, Oct. 26-27, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square
How much: Free