Relocation Universities

Viktor Yampolsky: “The postal address does not matter”

On October 14-15, the annu­al RASA con­fer­ence will be held in Chicago. This year it is ded­i­cat­ed to the 150th anniver­sary of the birth of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The out­stand­ing musi­cian left Russia short­ly after the 1917 rev­o­lu­tion and died in 1943 in the USA, but in the his­to­ry of music his fame as “the most Russian com­pos­er” was firm­ly estab­lished. He him­self felt his con­nec­tion with Russia until the end of his life. During World War II, he bought a plane for the Red Army with mon­ey he earned on sev­er­al concerts.

We dis­cussed what Rachmaninoff’s cre­ative expe­ri­ence of emi­gra­tion teach­es, why his works were banned and allowed to be per­formed again in the USSR, and whether clas­si­cal music will stand the test of time in a con­ver­sa­tion with the hon­orary speak­er of the con­fer­ence, the con­duc­tor who per­formed all of Rachmaninoff’s works, pro­fes­sor, Director of the Orchestra Northwestern University Music Biehnen School Viktor Yampolsky. Interviewed by Olga Orlova.


Viktor Yampolsky was born in 1942 in the city of Frunze (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) in a fam­i­ly of musi­cians. His father, Vladimir Yampolsky, a pianist, accom­pa­nied out­stand­ing Soviet vio­lin­ists: M. Polyakin, D. Oistrakh, Yu. Sitkovetsky, V. Klimov, V. Pikaizen, M. Lubotsky. Mother, Faina Zaslavskaya, stud­ied with Vladimir Horowitz.

In 1966 he grad­u­at­ed from the Moscow Conservatory, study­ing vio­lin with David Oistrakh. In 1973 he grad­u­at­ed from the Leningrad Conservatory, study­ing con­duct­ing with Nikolai Rabinovich. He was a mem­ber of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra as a vio­lin­ist and assis­tant con­duc­tor under the guid­ance of Kirill Kondrashin.

Left the USSR in 1973. On the rec­om­men­da­tion of Zubin Mehta, Yampolsky received a Leonard Bernstein schol­ar­ship and immi­grat­ed to Tangelwood (USA), where he won a com­pe­ti­tion for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He con­duct­ed the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra in Halifax (1977-1982) and the Boston University Orchestra (1979-1984). From 1993 to 1994 he was chief con­duc­tor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Johannesburg. He was also res­i­dent con­duc­tor of the Chicago Civic Orchestra (1991-1996) and prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor of the Omaha, Nebraska Orchestra (1995-2005). Graduated more than sev­en­ty grad­u­ate stu­dents in conducting.

T-invari­ant: You con­duct­ed all of Rachmaninoff’s major works. How and when did he appear in your life?

Viktor Yampolsky: My acquain­tance with Rachmaninoff hap­pened very ear­ly, because his music was extreme­ly pop­u­lar in Soviet times. Well, of course, Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto was played on the radio every day! But Rachmaninoff was also per­formed quite often. And the first works of Rachmaninoff that I remem­ber from child­hood were the Prelude in C-sharp minor and the famous “Vocalise” - ver­sion for vio­lin and piano.

Then I entered the school and began court­ing the pianist Tanya Akopyan (lat­er she became my first wife), who was prac­tic­ing Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto. At the same time, the International Tchaikovsky Competition was orga­nized in Moscow, the win­ner of which Van Clyburn played Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto in the final round. That’s when I com­plete­ly fell in love with the Third Concerto.

After grad­u­at­ing from the con­ser­va­to­ry, I was accept­ed into the orches­tra of Kirill Petrovich Kondrashin at the Moscow Philharmonic. And nat­u­ral­ly, I played the Second Symphony and “Symphonic Dances” many times. “Symphonic Dances” was Kondrashin’s favorite work. We played them on all our trips, includ­ing Carnegie Hall in New York and London Symphony Hall, and in Vienna and Berlin - all over the world.

Incidentally, I grew up not only due to rec­og­niz­ing Rachmaninoff as a com­pos­er, but also to those who per­formed him. First of all, it was Evgeniy Fedorovich Svetlanov, who set him­self the task of pro­mot­ing the music of Rachmaninoff and Russian music in gen­er­al. Svetlanov con­duct­ed all of Rachmaninoff’s major works. And, besides, Svetlanov him­self was a com­pos­er. And this is also, prob­a­bly, one of the rea­sons for his love for Rachmaninoff.

Having stud­ied his scores since I was twen­ty-six, I am proud to say that I have con­duct­ed all of Rahmaninoff’s sym­phonies and “The Symphonic Dances”. I also had the chance to per­form “The Bells”: I love this piece! Although in Soviet Moscow “The Bells” were not pop­u­lar because of the reli­gious plot.

 T-i: Didn’t you then have a ques­tion about why a com­pos­er who left Russia in 1918 and died in America is so pop­u­lar in the USSR? For exam­ple, it was impos­si­ble to pub­lish emi­grant writ­ers. Why was it dif­fer­ent for musi­cians? Why was Rachmaninoff not banned by the Soviet authorities?

VY: Well, he was banned. In 1931 there was a par­ty res­o­lu­tion against him and the news­pa­pers wrote that his music should not be per­formed. This was the government’s reac­tion to Rachmaninoff’s sig­na­ture under a col­lec­tive let­ter to the New York Times. The authors of the let­ter object­ed to the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly described his trip to the USSR .

But soon after the let­ter was pub­lished in an American news­pa­per, in March 1931, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, the orches­tra and choir of the Bolshoi Theater per­formed Rachmaninoff’s sym­phon­ic poem “The Bells” based on poems by Edgar Poe, trans­lat­ed by Konstantin Balmont, who, by the way, was also an emi­grant. That’s when the pro­pa­gan­da cam­paign against Rachmaninoff began in the Soviet press.

T-i: Was it pos­si­ble to per­form Rachmaninoff again after the World War II? For his sup­port of the USSR?

VY: This is not entire­ly true. There was a ban in 1931, but it was lift­ed a year lat­er. Then there was a sec­ond ban, in 1937, but it was also soon vio­lat­ed. During the World War II, Rachmaninoff sup­port­ed Russia’s fight against fas­cism not only in words, but also trans­ferred mon­ey from con­certs to the Soviet Army.

T-i: Rachmaninoff left Russia three years ear­li­er than the “philo­soph­i­cal ships” sailed from Russia, but in real­i­ty he “sailed” togeth­er with them. With whom could you com­pare him in terms of the degree of influ­ence, perhaps?

Viktor Yampolsky: According to my feel­ings, in music the impor­tance and rep­u­ta­tion of Rachmaninoff as a bril­liant Russian com­pos­er and pianist sur­passed all vis­it­ing artists, and over the years it has even grown.

T-i: Why is Rachmaninoff usu­al­ly called “the most Russian composer”?

VY: It depends on what you con­sid­er the most Russian. One can con­sid­er the one who includ­ed the most folk melodies in his com­po­si­tions to be the most Russian. Rachmaninoff was not a cham­pi­on in this. But I see him as a suc­ces­sor of the Russian school of com­po­si­tion of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This is the idea of ​​the syn­the­sis of Western European com­po­si­tion tech­niques and cul­ture in the com­po­si­tions them­selves with a Russian spir­i­tu­al prin­ci­ple. It is spir­i­tu­al, which is not always asso­ci­at­ed with folk music, but the spir­i­tu­al, Orthodox prin­ci­ple is cer­tain­ly heard there. Tchaikovsky began this fusion, syn­the­sis, and Rachmaninoff con­tin­ued it. And what dis­tin­guished him from all the oth­ers was that no one had such a gift for melodies.

He was a genius of wide, deep, flow­ing melody. Both in the sec­ond sym­pho­ny and in his piano con­certs, his lyri­cal flow is heard in the fore­ground. Next to him there were Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky and Sergei Sergeevich Prokofiev - both mod­ernists. And Rachmaninoff said good­bye to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry for quite a long time, while his peers had already left for the twen­ti­eth. On the oth­er hand, they were all then Russian com­posers in their own way.

Portrait of Rachmaninov by K.A. Somova

 T-i: Rachmaninoff’s work is usu­al­ly divid­ed into three peri­ods. The last one, the third, is just from 1918 until his death in 1943. 1918 - the begin­ning of his emi­gra­tion. How did emi­gra­tion affect Rachmaninoff the composer?

VY: It had a ter­ri­ble impact. He found him­self thrown out of his home. Instead of cre­ativ­i­ty, he had to earn mon­ey. After all, Rachmaninov always hes­i­tat­ed a lit­tle in three areas: in com­po­si­tion, con­duct­ing and play­ing the piano. But when the rev­o­lu­tion threw him out of his native envi­ron­ment, he lost the foun­da­tion on which his music grew. He became home­less, he had to feed his fam­i­ly, and he made a choice: he became a con­cert pianist. He began to work real­ly hard, play­ing solo con­certs, with an orches­tra. As a result, his life turned into a con­tin­u­ous tour - from one place to anoth­er, from one coun­try to anoth­er coun­try. After all, he played more than a thou­sand solo con­certs. Believe me, it was very dif­fi­cult for him to live like that. But this is how he became out­stand­ing, one of the best pianists of the twen­ti­eth century.

T-i: What, in your opin­ion, is the most out­stand­ing work Rachmaninov com­posed out­side Russia?

Viktor Yampolsky: The best work is “Symphonic Dances”, which he cre­at­ed at the end of his life. With this phe­nom­e­nal thing he struck the final chord. It’s like Mozart, who with his “Jupiter” sym­pho­ny said: this is how I can com­pose, just try it! And so far no one has suc­ceed­ed, by the way. In the “Symphonic Dances” two cur­rents are heard in par­al­lel. One is Orthodox, asso­ci­at­ed with the chants of the Russian Orthodox Church. It appears in almost all of his melodies at very close inter­vals of sec­onds and thirds. And the sec­ond is the ancient Gregorian chant Dies Irae.

It is inter­est­ing that Rachmaninoff’s use of his own piano play­ing tech­niques, in par­tic­u­lar bells and alarms, in the orches­tra­tion turned the orches­tral sound into a gigan­tic church choir and organ.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1923

T-i: War is a time for inven­to­ry­ing valu­ables. Often com­pa­tri­ots, no mat­ter whether they are in Russia or out­side it, ask the ques­tion: how would one or anoth­er of our intel­lec­tu­al author­i­ties react to this sit­u­a­tion? For exam­ple, what would Rostropovich do now? Where would he be? Who would he be with? Or Vysotsky? Or Brodsky? Or Solzhenitsyn? For Rachmaninoff’s gen­er­a­tion, the Second World War became such a test­ing time. Then some rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the White emi­gra­tion: Zinaida Gippius, Vladimir Merezhkovsky, Nina Berberova - sup­port­ed Hitler in the hope that he would defeat Stalin. Others, on the con­trary, despite their dis­like of Soviet pow­er, believed that it was nec­es­sary to help Stalin defeat fas­cism. Writer Gaito Gazdanovfor exam­ple, being a sol­dier in Wrangel’s army in his youth, in the 1940s he joined the Resistance move­ment in Paris and res­cued fugi­tive Soviet offi­cers in the occu­pied ter­ri­to­ry of France. Rachmaninoff also took a clear posi­tion on this issue. What do you think deter­mined this choice?

VY: I think that the posi­tion of Russian emi­grants on such big philo­soph­i­cal issues was con­nect­ed, in gen­er­al, not entire­ly with a polit­i­cal posi­tion, but with what they were aware of and what they were not. We all real­ly sup­port our home­land. But some of us know more about what the Soviets did and what they led Russia to. And some lived in their own world, more roman­tic and abstract, and did not real­ly know reality.

But we now under­stand what a cat­a­stro­phe hap­pened to Russia with the death of the empire. After all, it still can’t get out of this sit­u­a­tion; it’s still in a deep­est pit. And I don’t see a way out of this. And now I’m already read­ing arti­cles about how many parts Russia will split into and where it will go, for exam­ple, the Asian part or Siberia, and how much China will seize, and so on.

T-i: Yes, the plot about the col­lapse of the empire is close­ly con­nect­ed with the war in Ukraine and with the impe­r­i­al dis­course, which in many ways deter­mined the pos­si­bil­i­ty of this war. Therefore, all over the world there is a rethink­ing of atti­tudes towards Russian cul­ture. This is a big chal­lenge for all spe­cial­ists in Russian stud­ies: for soci­ol­o­gists, for cul­tur­al stud­ies, for Slavic schol­ars, spe­cial­ists in Russian lit­er­a­ture. Does this mean that there will be a sim­i­lar revi­sion in rela­tion to Russian com­posers? And the work of the same Rachmaninoff will be rethought and revalued?

VY: I think this process is nat­ur­al. But I would­n’t say it’s a rethink. For me this is a deep­en­ing. When we begin to con­sid­er a cer­tain idea and study it, it leads to a deep­en­ing of our knowledge.

T-i: Will Rachmaninoff pass this test?

VY: Absolutely! Sure! Because his music express­es the deep­est fea­tures of the Russian soul. And I’m not sure that he knew this well, because very often a young man does not know the depth of his tal­ent. But now we see that its sig­nif­i­cance in Russian music is absolute­ly incredible.

T-i: What metaphor could you use to describe the fig­ure of Rachmaninoff in your musi­cal world?

Viktor Yampolsky: For me, he is Moses, whose bush was burn­ing in his hands. His fire burned, but did not diminish.

T-i: Did Rachmaninov have followers?

VY: I think they were. There were com­posers who fol­lowed his tra­di­tions and used his meth­ods. Firstly, this is Myaskovsky, who loved his music very much. And although he was very close to Prokofiev, in terms of his the­o­ret­i­cal prin­ci­ples in com­po­si­tion, he, of course, was not with Prokofiev, but, on the con­trary, fol­lowed Rachmaninoff.

The sec­ond per­son who loved Rachmaninov very much and real­ly grew up on his foun­da­tion was Georgy Sviridov. All his mag­nif­i­cent choral music, for exam­ple, “Poem in Memory of Sergei Yesenin,” was close­ly con­nect­ed with the choral works of Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff. I can’t say that this is some kind of copy, no! But one sens­es respect for the direc­tion of his choral music.

T-i: Did Rachmaninoff influ­ence Shostakovich?

VY: No, they belonged to com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent musi­cal eras. Shostakovich began to take his first steps as a com­pos­er already in the Soviet coun­try. Rachmaninoff at that moment was an emi­grant, delib­er­ate­ly for­got­ten by the Soviet author­i­ties. Therefore, they did not have a per­son­al acquain­tance. And when Shostakovich final­ly began to turn to Rachmaninoff’s music, he was already a com­plete­ly inde­pen­dent com­pos­er with his own musi­cal lan­guage. And there­fore, for him, this influ­ence of Rachmaninoff could only be on the intel­lec­tu­al lev­el, but not on the com­pos­er lev­el. But there was, for exam­ple, Gliere, extreme­ly respect­ed by both Prokofiev and Shostakovich. However, Gliere, like Rachmaninoff, was look­ing back at that time.

T-i: Could Rachmaninoff be a clas­sic for them?

VY: Absolutely! Just like Tchaikovsky.

T-i: Didn’t it seem archa­ic to Soviet composers?

VY: No, under no cir­cum­stances. You used an inter­est­ing word – archa­ic. The fact is that music is such an inter­est­ing thing (if you can call it a “thing”) that it knows no time. We like music and at this moment we may not real­ize that this is music of the 18th, 19th, 20th or 21st cen­turies. At this point, it does­n’t mat­ter to us when it was com­posed. For exam­ple, here we are lis­ten­ing to “Symphonic Dances” – it doesn’t scare us that it was com­posed at a time when Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were already in the next world. (Laughs). They have already com­posed all of mod­ernism. But we don’t care. All the same, Rachmaninoff is Rachmaninoff. We do not com­pare it to a spe­cif­ic year. There is some kind of cul­tur­al irony in this, since some­times time is too local, but music nev­er is.

 T-i: Rachmaninoff left Russia delib­er­ate­ly because he had, as Lenin said, “antag­o­nis­tic con­tra­dic­tions” with the Soviet regime. And now many of those who leave Russia do so pre­cise­ly because of ide­o­log­i­cal, absolute­ly irrec­on­cil­able con­tra­dic­tions. What can Rachmaninoff’s expe­ri­ence teach today’s Russian emigration?

Viktor Yampolsky: I would say in one sen­tence: your mail­ing address does not play any role in who you are. It could be Switzerland, Australia, the North Pole, but if you are Russian, bring every­thing with you. Take every­thing with you…

T-i: Rachmaninoff car­ried Russian music, despite the fact that he lived in America for 25 years?

VY: Of course. This hap­pened to me in 1973, when I sud­den­ly found myself on the streets of Rome, going to the American con­sulate. And when I found out that we were already get­ting ready to board a plane to the United States, I said to myself and my fam­i­ly: “I am going to America as a Russian emi­grant and I will die there as a Russian emi­grant”. Fifty years have already passed, and I believe that I def­i­nite­ly real­ized this then. My address is now in Toronto, but that does­n’t mat­ter to me. Because any­way, I am who I am. And for me, the Moscow Conservatory and Herzen Street (now it has a dif­fer­ent name) have not gone away. Still, I see myself there, and I see all these cor­ners and build­ings. Together with them, all the feel­ings that flowed through my con­scious­ness between the Merzlyakov School and the Moscow Conservatory are alive. Leningrad has not dis­ap­peared, there I stud­ied con­duct­ing. Russia lives in me every day.

T-i: The same as she lived in Rachmaninoff?

VY: Exactly! I remem­ber when Igor Fedorovich Stravinsky came to Moscow for his 80th birth­day in the 1960s, he walked for a long time near the con­ser­va­to­ry, exam­ined the build­ings, point­ed with his fin­ger and said whose house it was: “This was the house of Count Yusupov. This was the house of Count Tolstoy”. He saw all these hous­es in his mem­o­ry as they remained, and we went com­plete­ly crazy: a per­son who knows whose house it was before the rev­o­lu­tion - can you imagine?!

T-i: When Rachmaninoff came to the States, he had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sup­port him­self with con­certs, he lived in an era when not only in Russia, but even in the West, the entire edu­cat­ed part of the pop­u­la­tion breathed clas­si­cal music. It was impos­si­ble to imag­ine an edu­cat­ed fam­i­ly with­out clas­si­cal music. Therefore, Rachmaninoff’s audi­ence was large, but there were few musi­cians of this cal­iber. The eco­nom­ics of the music indus­try of that peri­od allowed musi­cians to sur­vive pro­fes­sion­al­ly. And Rachmaninoff is an exam­ple of this. A hun­dred years have passed. The sit­u­a­tion has changed. On the one hand, the num­ber of musi­cians has increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly. And their audi­ence, on the con­trary, has great­ly decreased, part­ly turn­ing into musi­cal ghet­tos. They exist in large cities, but they are very nar­row groups of the pop­u­la­tion. In this regard, nat­u­ral­ly, the most gloomy pre­dic­tions about the future of clas­si­cal music appear. And then a few years ago a sen­sa­tion­al book appeared Norman Lebrechton the end of clas­si­cal music. The author actu­al­ly pre­dicts its end pre­cise­ly for eco­nom­ic rea­sons. What do you think about this?

Viktor Yampolsky: I think that music will not die, but will trans­form. It’s like in physics: ener­gy does not dis­ap­pear. It sim­ply pass­es from one form to anoth­er, but does not dis­ap­pear. We see it clear­ly in the audi­ence in con­cert halls. The fact is that in Rachmaninoff’s time, if a per­son want­ed to lis­ten to music, he had to go to a con­cert hall. And now he does­n’t have to go to the con­cert hall. He turns on his screen, and he can lis­ten to any piece he wants…

T-i: …in the car?

VY: Yes, he can lis­ten wher­ev­er he wants. But some­one should record this music in the stu­dio for him so that he can com­pare dif­fer­ent per­for­mances. The process of trans­mit­ting musi­cal infor­ma­tion has changed great­ly. That’s where the peo­ple who are able to per­ceive this musi­cal infor­ma­tion will come from, that’s anoth­er ques­tion… Nowadays it is dif­fi­cult to main­tain cul­tur­al con­nec­tions between gen­er­a­tions. When Rachmaninoff came to the United States, he imme­di­ate­ly received a con­tract for 25 recitals, because at that time peo­ple who came from Europe lived in large cities in the east­ern United States. These were peo­ple of musi­cal European cul­ture. Even I, when I arrived, noticed that in every house there was a piano. But this is the result of European emi­gra­tion. In the USA at that time there was an audi­ence ready to lis­ten to Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff. And the same thing hap­pened to Prokofiev, who also toured a lot.

But now every­thing has changed a lot. And the main thing that wor­ries me most is the bridge: the con­nec­tion between the present and the past. We could not imag­ine our life with­out knowl­edge of our his­to­ry, our past, con­nec­tion with our ances­tors. But in the “new world” this is not the case. People who have no pre­de­ces­sors live here. Therefore, it is not clear why they need clas­si­cal music at all.

Text: Olga ORLOVA


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