It was with shock and huge sadness that I learnt of the death of Yakov Kreizberg, Russian-born conductor of international renown. His death on 15 March, at just 51, cut short an active and highly acclaimed career.
His maternal great-grandfather, also Yakov Kreizberg, was a conductor too, at the opera house in Odessa.
He showed a musical inclination very early in life, studying piano at 5, and began composing at 13. Conducting lessons soon followed, with Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatoire.
Here’s what he had to say about Musin: "Musin had an incredible system, where the student would conduct and Musin would play at the piano, criticizing; then the roles were reversed, and Musin would comment again…Musin would use Beethoven sonatas, which contain a world of feeling and expression, to teach conducting various articulations such as staccato, legato, phrasing, breathing. Only after a while he gave me the first orchestral work, Beethoven’s first symphony, saying: ‘Remember everything you’ve done, but now you do with strings, oboes and horns.’ "
In 1976, he emigrated to the US. The Soviet authorities forbade him from taking any handwritten material, and he had to leave behind his compositions, which are now lost. The experience seems to have frustrated him, and he did not compose thereafter.
Kreizberg did his graduate studies in conducting with Gustav Meier at the University of Michigan, where he became the first student to earn a doctorate in both orchestral and operative conducting. He took up conducting fellowships at Tanglewood, studying with Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa and Erich Leinsdorf, and the LA Philharmonic Institute, where he worked with Michael Tilson Thomas.
[Leonard Bernstein left a huge impact. Here is an excerpt from an interview to Gramophone magazine (2006): “The conductor I most admire and respect is Leonard Bernstein. He had a phenomenal musical talent. Not only was he a great conductor but also a wonderful composer, fabulous pianist, and a powerful educator of young audiences. One could agree or disagree with his approach to a particular score but ultimately he was so unbelievably passionate about music, and so convincing in his reading of the piece, that one couldn’t help but feel that his way of interpreting it was the only right way. He even made works that, generally speaking, were not considered the most important seem like masterpieces.”]
Before long, Kreizberg had won the Eugene Ormandy prize, and in 1986, the Leopold Stokowski conducting prize.
His career has spanned several continents, working with the best ensembles there.
In Europe: Berliner Philharmoniker, Münchner Philharmoniker, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Staatskapelle Dresden, Gewandhausorchester, Orchestre National de France and WDR Sinfonieorchester. In addition he had previously held the posts of Principal Guest Conductor of the Wiener Symphoniker and Generalmusikdirektor of the Komische Oper Berlin. At the time of his death he held the posts of Artistic and Music Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, and Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Netherlands Philharmonic and Netherlands Chamber orchestras.
In the UK: London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony, Bournemouth Symphony, London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia orchestras. His partnership with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was historic, leading it out of provincial obscurity to international standard and fame.
My introduction to Yakov Kreizberg came in 1998, when he conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at that year’s BBC Proms, in a superlative concert that featured Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila overture, Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto (Arcadi Volodos, soloist), and the Proms premiere of Franz Schmidt’s 4th Symphony. I remember being extremely impressed with his baton technique, with his crisp clear directions, and his scholarly musicality. I kept an eye out for his concerts after that, attending them whenever I could. At one time, I was lucky to hear him conduct the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
He was a frequent guest at London’s BBC Proms and last appeared there in 2008 with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.
In the US: the Philadelphia, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony and Minnesota orchestras, as well as the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics.
In Asia: he NHK and Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestras.
On the operatic stage: in addition to directorship of Komische Oper Berlin, he has conducted productions at the Chicago Lyric Opera, Canadian Opera, English National Opera, Bregenz Festival, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, De Nederlandse Opera and the Royal Opera House.
There is more information about him, and his recordings (his partnership with Julia Fischer is widely acclaimed) at his official website.
That he should have died so young is a tragic pity.
He is survived by his wife (Amy Andersson, conductor) and their two sons.
Here is a set of 3 videos, an interview with violinist Hilary Hahn and Florian Zwiauer, concertmaster of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra:
Here he talks about Mahler’s 4th Symphony:
Watch him in action, conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique d Monte Carlo in the 3rd movement (Scherzo) of Beethoven’s 9th:
I’ll end with a few quotes from him, which I found extremely inspiring and insightful:
"Every performance is a living, breathing organism"
"You can fool a lot of people, but not an orchestra."
"Working in opera is the single best experience a conductor can get. Without it, he will never develop into what he could be. Singers, good and bad, teach you to be more flexible and to learn things a symphony orchestra will never teach you."
"Music allows us to really find our inner self, to be free to search for those things that we normally don’t have the opportunity or the time to search for. It opens up many, many doors within us. It opens the doors to our soul, to our feelings, to humanity as a whole."