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Profile: Victor Yampolsky

His career is a thank you note to Leonard Bernstein

- This story is part of Showcasing Northwestern Symphony in Asia

Known as “Uncle Victor” to his students, Maestro Victor Yampolsky has taught conducting and ensembles at the Bienen School for more than 30 years. He holds the Carol F. and Arthur L. Rice Jr. University Professorship in Music Performance.

The son of two Ukrainian pianists, he started playing violin at age seven. After graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, he joined the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, where he had a chance to tour the West.

"Leonard Bernstein was the person who brought me to the United States."

That experience taught him how fascinating and transformative the experience of visiting another culture can be, and he’s eager for the students to embark on the Symphony Orchestra’s first international tour.

Joy and care

He also looks forward to demonstrating the orchestra’s mastery. 

“Bienen School students are individually talented and dedicated to their education,” Yampolsky said. “The playing level of each student in the orchestra is extremely high. But what is unique to Northwestern is the camaraderie. They help one another. The learning, feeling of joy and care for one another here is absolutely amazing and unlike anywhere else.”

In looking for repertoire that would show the orchestra’s strengths, Yampolsky turned to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 for the instrumentation and emotional impact. “We want to bring the audience something that moves and amazes them, so the next morning they will tell their friends what a melting pot our student orchestra is and how incredibly musical and compelling the playing was.”

Nod to Leonard Bernstein

Yampolsky wanted to complement the symphony with a work by a great American composer. He decided on Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” partly because of the worldwide celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday, but he emphasizes there is more to this selection.

Leonard Bernstein
Yampolsky and Bernstein

“Leonard Bernstein was the person who brought me to the United States. I met and auditioned for him in Rome, and he gave me a scholarship to work with a young orchestra at Tanglewood. That’s how I started my career in the United States, which led to my position at Northwestern and a life of fulfilling my artistic aspirations.”

Yampolsky thinks of his professional and educational life as his “thank you note” to Bernstein.

“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. It is a pleasure to guide them through the process of reading their music, sometimes with interesting stories about the composer. We are not only teaching intellectual knowledge; we are teaching emotions and life skills.”

Yampolsky points out another interesting connection in the repertoire. “In the way that I am in debt to Bernstein, he himself was under the great influence of Gustav Mahler and was always studying and conducting Mahler’s music,” he said.

“Northwestern is a wonderful place to teach. I can only say that I am enormously lucky to be appointed here and to be given the opportunity to teach so many young musicians how to play in an orchestra and conduct,” Yampolsky said.

“This tour will be a climactic point in my tenure at Northwestern, but it also will be a tremendous opportunity for the students to show our brand of performance — a combination of great enthusiasm and outstanding talent.”