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THE COLLABORATIVE CONDUCTOR – Jeremy Siepmann Interviews Dmitry Yablonsky

January 1, 2011

Dmitry Yablonsky

Dmitry Yablonsky was born in Moscow into a musical family. His mother is the distinguished pianist Oxana Yablonskaya, and his father Albert Zaionz has for 30 years been principal oboist in the Moscow Radio and Television Orchestra. Dmitry began playing the cello when he was five and at nine made his début with Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major. He grew up listening to Richter, Oistrakh, Kogan, Rostropovich and others of similar ilk, and enrolled in Rostropovich’s class at the Moscow Conservatory. ‘Rostropovich, of course, was a genius, a great virtuoso, but, you know, there was a certain theatrical element in his character which I never felt altogether comfortable about. I prefer the more noble approach, if I can put it that way, of Knushevitzky, Feuermann or Piatigorsky. Knushevitzky was actually a far more important and lasting influence in my life than Rostropovich. Knushevitzky would go on stage and start playing the G minor cello Sonata of Beethoven and people would start crying. It was that kind of playing. He never made faces or jumped around on the seat. And then when I got to the States I met Zara Nelsova, with whom I studied at Juilliard. All of these people I worshipped.’

Getting to the States, however, was easier said than done. In 1977 the Cold War was still very much on, and Brezhnev still firmly in power. ‘We first applied for a visa when I was 12. We were what was then called Refuseniks, and it was a terrible, terrible time. Today it’s buried so deep in me that I try never to remember it. This was a fascist regime that kept us waiting for two years. My mother was deprived of all her concerts, we didn’t have enough money to eat, she had to sell her piano, and we lived in a building along with a bunch of famous writers who were in a similar position. And all the time there was a KGB car parked right outside. When we finally arrived in the West, of course it was a huge relief, even though all we had was one suitcase between us and $50. My mother had to start again from scratch, she hadn’t touched a note for two or three years, and I remember auditioning for Juilliard right away. Happily, I got accepted, and immediately things looked up.

And what were his feelings on finally seeing the West? ‘For a long time I was passionately anti-Soviet—not anti-Russian, not at all; anti-Soviet—but the advent of perestroika helped me to understand and overcome my bitterness. And you know, it actually helped that I was from Moscow, which in many ways is quite like New York. It’s a huge city, there’s a lot of competition, if you will—you know, with lots of different musicians, lots of different people, struggling to survive, to win a piece of bread—and in some ways New York felt very similar. And in any nation, any city, there’s the musical community, whether English, Russian, Jewish, Spanish, whatever. We’re all in the same boat. In many important ways, I think, musicians don’t have nationalities.’

In 1979, now aged 16, Yablonsky attended the world-famous Marlboro Summer School and Festival of Music in Vermont. He was the youngest player there. ‘I was. An obnoxious kid, who thought the rest of the world came to somewhere below my knee! But I had lots of fun. It was there that I met Madeline Foley, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Marcel Moyse…all those great people. It was really an incredible experience—one that gave me energy for life, even though I was only there for that one summer.’

Dmitry Yablonsky
Following his stint at Marlboro, Yablonsky entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but it was a later encounter that was to prove life-changing. He applied to enter Yale University to study with the great Brazilian cellist Aldo Parisot: ‘I was feeling rather at a loose end after leaving Curtis at 17. I auditioned for Parisot, and he obviously felt great sympathy for me. He actually invited me to live in his house, which I didn’t do. But it was really rather like a father-son relationship, on top of which he was, and still, is a great teacher. And being at Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut, was so different from being in New York with all its seething ambitions, its sense of competition etc. At Yale we were all students together, there were no great rivalries between us. The emphasis was never on ambition, only aspiration—nothing at all like Juilliard. I loved it there. And it was so stimulating being surrounded by all these different subjects and pursuits—you know, law school, med school, anthropology, drama, etc. Marvellous!’

And what of Parisot’s teaching in particular? ‘One thing was his understanding of the fragility of performing musicians, even at a high level of success, experience and reputation. He didn’t just give me cellistic help, he helped me to discover real confidence, and to believe in myself, which is something very different from worldly ambition. And he did this with all his pupils, no matter what their level or talent. He made us all stronger. And every pupil had his complete attention.’

Improbably, some might think, Yablonsky made his conducting debut—in Italy, at the relatively late age of 26—with what’s technically a chamber work: the Stravinsky Octet. Since when does an octet need a conductor? ‘Ah, but this no ordinary octet! It’s as difficult to conduct as The Rite of Spring. In practically every bar you have a different time signature. It was really very difficult for me, because apart from anything else I had absolutely no background in conducting! Of course I’d watched many conductors, and at Yale I’d taken some conducting classes, but this was an opportunity that came about quite by chance—at a festival with Martha Argerich, Yuri Bashmet, Dora Schwarzburg and others, all of whom encouraged me to have a go. To my surprise it went so well that they were all clamouring for me to give up the cello and take up conducting! And that’s how it all began.’

A springboard to international celebrity, however, it was not. As Yablonsky is the first to admit, he had a lot to learn. ‘At the very start of my conducting career, I was…not really obnoxious, but a little bit too ambitious, thinking I could do things in one or two attempts and then be a conductor. Well, I soon discovered otherwise. Conducting an orchestra—especially if you don’t have a chance to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic right away—is extremely demanding. You have to control everything, and to be tremendously self-critical. I still don’t think of myself as a conductor conductor—not like some, who seem to think they have exclusive rights to the Brahms symphonies! I think that’s just silly.’

Yablonsky’s progress was essentially slow but steady. He reckons it took him about 15 years to really feel at ease in his conductor’s shoes, as it were. And he attributes much of his development directly to Klaus Heymann and Naxos. How did that relationship come about? ‘Klaus has had a huge influence on my career. Back in the early 90s, he was extraordinarily bold in entrusting someone in my position with so many recordings. I was basically a cellist, without all that much experience as a conductor, yet the first contract I signed with him was for sixty CDs! Twenty a year for three years! After the first three, I have to say, many conductors thought, basically, that I should be thrown away! Then I moved back—well Klaus effectively moved me back—to Moscow, where I made the remainder of those CDs. And it was that experience that led to my feeling so comfortable today with orchestras like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom I’ve just been working. We’ve all become very close, and I’ve been invited to conduct three concerts in London with them in 2011. One reason we got on so well, I think, is that I’m not one of those dictatorial conductors who demand absolute obedience. I think it’s important for conductors to learn not to get in the way of orchestras. In some ways you have to let them find their own way. You have to remember that in any orchestra there are going to be some fantastic musicians, and that all the musicians deserve your respect. Of course there are the odd exceptions. If somebody keeps repeating the same mistake, etc, well then you do have to be a little bit mean. But that's the way it is. You always have to find a balance. You know that orchestral joke about the two rules about conductors? Rule No. 1: the conductor is always right. Rule No. 2: if you’re sure the conductor is wrong, go back to Rule No. 1!’

Much of Yablonsky’s discography is focussed on Russian and Eastern European repertoire. What is it, I asked him, that makes Russian composers so identifiably Russian? In style, orchestration, approach to form, etc. ‘You know, it’s a very good question, because Russian music from the 19th century and Russian music from the 20th century are really two different things. In the 19th century Russians travelled a lot, mostly in Europe. Tchaikovsky, after all, composed his Violin Concerto in Geneva. Russian writers, too, spent a lot of time living abroad, not only through the 19th century but in the beginning of the 20th too. When I’m conducting, say, Arensky or Lyapunov, I feel so many influences from the music of Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and so on that I don’t even recognise it as Russian, or at least not predominantly so. The fact is, I just make the music that’s in front of me. I really don’t even know what is Russian orchestration, Russian approach to form etc. I never think in these terms.’

Lyapunov is commonly thought of as a miniaturist. Yablonsky, however, prefers to refine that definition. ‘I think of Lyapunov more as a melodist. When it comes to form, to structure, there may be weak parts here and there, and it’s up to the interpreter to make sure that in performance there are no holes. But I’m not given to blaming composers—whether this is strong, whether this is weak, whether the sonata form is incomplete etc. I really don’t like that. Our job is to make the most of what’s there, not to complain about what isn’t. And frankly, I think that if something sounds weak in performance, which is where music lives, then it’s my fault.’

Lyapunov was perhaps most famous as a piano virtuoso, in the Lisztian mould. How does he rate as an orchestrator? ‘I find no problems with Lyapunov’s orchestration. In fact I’d say that he was a particularly gifted orchestrator. But you know, I think this is a particular strength amongst Russian composers. Composers great and small have shown a particular flair for orchestral colour. In Moscow alone, I’d guess, right now, there are probably 30 or 40 musicians who are almost genius orchestrators. One of the most brilliant orchestrators among modern composers, of course, was Shostakovich, and he learnt much of his skill in that field from Lyapunov. Not directly, but from his example.’

Two years shy of 50, Yablonsky has a whopping 80 CDs under his figurative belt. I concluded that he must be either an enthusiast of the recording studio or a masochist. And I wondered what he’d learned, as a musician, from the experience of recording. ‘It’s been an enormous help to me. In fact I really became a conductor in the studio. There you are, faced with something about 500 pages long, which nobody has heard before, certainly no one living, and this is very challenging. Your brain is working away at 500 miles an hour, trying to feel and understand this music within the limited time that you’re given to record. As a musician you grow a lot in the process. You become far more aware of details, because with recording you can see music right away through a magnifying glass, and you have to attend to all kinds of little details which in a concert might well slip through the net.’

One of the chancier aspects of a conductor’s life is working with soloists, as Yablonsky does twice over in his forthcoming Lyapunov disc. For him, I was unsurprised to learn, it’s a basically positive experience. ‘In terms of piano concertos, I was lucky enough to have my mother as a pianist, even though we didn’t do very many CDs. But we did a lot of concerts together. And with Boris Berezovsky I’ve done maybe 20 or 30 different concertos. Actually, one of the main reasons I wanted to conduct was to accompany well. Because many conductors don’t pay too much attention to it. And when they have four rehearsals, or less, for a concert, they’ll often give the soloists just half an hour or 40 minutes to run through something, often just treating it as a nuisance. So I really wanted to do them justice, to put the soloists on a velvet pillow, so that he or she feels very comfortable, and can be truly creative. But sometimes, it has to be admitted, it doesn’t work. Not that we have physical fights or anything, but if there’s a problem…’

If there’s a problem, few if any are better equipped to solve it than Dmitry Yablonsky. Like most of the best conductors, and all of the best chamber players, he is a master of creative compromise.

Dmitry Yablonsky Biography & Discography

Oxana Yablonskaya Biography & Discography


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