Inherited genes make for interesting discussions, says Victor Yampolsky, doyen of American conducting teachers, who is in Cape Town for two concerts with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and Len van Zyl Conductors’ Competition.

Conductor Victor Yampolsky with Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra
Conductor Victor Yampolsky

Perfect pitch and a good memory

“I inherited wonderful things from my mother – perfect pitch and a good memory, but also her bones! When I realized that my finger in first position on the violin was actually in third, I knew that arthritis was telling me to stop performing. That was in 2002. I am very grateful that I have another profession that doesn’t require me to play an instrument.”  (Only one of his four children inherited the music gene – Armen plays guitar in his own band and writes songs, after his day job in computer technology is done).

But what a profession. Since he joined Northwestern University outside Chicago more than 30 years ago, he has taught over 70 conductors. One of whom is Daniel Boico, who will be back with the CPO in November. Most of the others are also still conducting or teaching in conservatories across the country.  He has made his mark on many!

It wasn’t always a given that he would be a conductor.

“While I was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, the Big Oistrakh (David, of course!) and my father (the great pianist Vladimir Yampolsky) suggested I look into conducting, because they could see that my interests were wider, across all aspects of music. On graduation in 1966 I took up a position as a violinist with the Moscow Philharmonic where people told me I should go back to school – so I did. I studied conducting from 1968 back at the Leningrad Conservatory while playing in Moscow – this meant sending harmonisations and essays on musicology by the postal service to Leningrad and going to courses on the Moscow Philharmonic’s break while also taking conducting lessons in Leningrad with Rabinovich.  Six weeks a year for four years …. Today it would be much easier with the internet!”

Everything he does revolves around music

He met Leonard Bernstein in Rome, and Bernstein, who became almost like a godfather to him, awarded him a Scholarship to attend Berkshire’s Tanglewood Music Center, where he won a position with the Boston Symphony.

Once he was settled with his wife and two very young children, he was free to explore – and became the music director at the Plymouth Symphony, a community orchestra about an hour from Boston. So he could combine conducting with his orchestral position. In 1976, he accepted the position of music director of the Atlantic Symphony (now Symphony Nova Scotia) in Halifax in Canada.

In 1984 he joined the faculty of Northwestern University and is today Director of Orchestras at Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University.

There’s one thing Yampolsky regrets. “I feel sorry for myself,” he says. “Others get so much pleasure out of playing or watching golf, hockey, baseball or basketball. Me? I don’t have any hobbies. Everything I do is around music – teaching (he also been teaching violin and viola students), conducting, preparing bowings or doing schedules!” He recently took an 88-piece student orchestra to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, where they played Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, his own personal tribute to mark the 100th birthday of his godfather. He doesn’t regret that he is not a composer, too – “I have no talent,” he adds.

Yampolsky has been visiting South Africa since 1983, sometimes twice a year and he loves Cape Town – for the warmth of the orchestra and his friends, one of whom is Len van Zyl, with whom he shares Bernstein’s vision of sharing, and who started the Len van Zyl Conductors’ Competition to enable some formal tuition for fledgling conductors.

“I discovered that I am a born teacher. I have Bernstein’s unstoppable and unlimited desire to share – everything about music to help open eyes and share the beauty of the human genius that is composers who made such great music. “

Yampolsky was involved at the outset of the establishment of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted masterclasses and was happy to have given lessons to two of the three winners – Brandon Phillips and Chad Hendricks.

“I am so proud of them both, and look forward to the masterclasses I will give in the fourth Len van Zyl Conductors’ Competition in June, in preparation for the finals next February.”

Read more about the maestro:

Who:  Conductor Victor Yampolsky
What: Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra
Where: Artscape Opera House, Foreshore, Cape Town
When: 14 and 21 June 2018
Info, book: Artscape Dial-a-Seat 021 421 7695,