Mark Ermler

Conductor with prodigious capacity for hard work
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The Independent Online

Mark Ermler, conductor: born Leningrad 5 May 1932; married Dina Gergievna Koroleva (one daughter); died Seoul 14 April 2002.

The most important Western conductors of the first three-quarters of the 20th century paid their dues in long years of relative obscurity, working away from the limelight in operatic repertoire theatre. They reaped the rewards of that experience in their authoritative command of a far wider range of music than is available to the youngsters suddenly pitched centre-stage in today's rush for instant gratification. Furtwängler, Goodall, Jochum all made their way to the top slowly; Günter Wand, who died in February, was one of the last products of that system.

But it survived in the Soviet Union far longer than in Western Europe. The Russian conductor Mark Ermler did his many years before the mast at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, patiently acquiring the kind of professional command that earned him the deep respect of the musicians he worked with. International recognition came some 25 years ago, and his stature had been growing steadily ever since.

Ermler, born in Leningrad in 1932, was the son of the eminent film director Fridrich Ermler and film designer Vera Bakun. He started the piano at the age of five and by eight was good enough to be enrolled in the music school attached to the Leningrad Conservatoire. So it was natural that, after wartime evacuation with his family to Alma Ata, in Kazakhstan, he should, at 18, become a student at the Conservatoire.

Conducting was already his main aim: he had watched Mravinsky, Sanderling and other outstanding figures direct the concerts of the Leningrad Philharmonic, and he had picked up the baton for the school orchestra in his last year there. His principal teachers at the Conservatoire, where he also studied piano, were Boris Khaikin and Nikolai Rabinovich.

Ermler was only 20 when, in 1952, he first stepped before the Leningrad Philharmonic, and a year later he made his operatic début in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail in the operatic theatre of the Conservatoire. He began his long association with the Bolshoi Theatre in September 1956, soon after graduating: as a trainee conductor, he did whatever he had to turn his hand to – working with the chorus, as répétiteur, and on any other odd jobs that came his way.

With his theatrical background it was natural that he should feel at home there – and, indeed, vice versa: his wife, Dina Koroleva, was a soprano at the Stanislavsky Theatre before her marriage, when she gave up her career to support her husband in what proved to be a long and happy partnership.

Ermler's chance to prove himself came in May 1957 when Vassily Nebolsin, one of the staff conductors, fell ill and he was given two days' notice to conduct Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. He had earned his stripes and, now a full member of the conducting staff, he began to work his way through the operatic repertoire, adding ballet from 1964, when he conducted new productions of Fokine's choreography of Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka.

It was ballet that first brought him to Britain, in 1974, when he conducted the Bolshoi Ballet at the London Coliseum in Swan Lake and Giselle. Other Bolshoi tours took him to Montreal in 1967, Paris and Tokyo in 1970, Milan in 1974, New York and Washington a year later, Berlin in 1980, and on other important tours, as well as appearing in his own capacity at prestigious opera and ballet companies – he was, for example, appointed chief guest conductor of the Royal Ballet in 1985, and recorded all the Tchaikovsky ballets there. Other engagements took him to Munich, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Seattle, Montreal, Prague, Leipzig and elsewhere.

He had a number of important premieres to his credit. Prokofiev's Story of a Real Man, for example, mauled by the authorities at a private performance in Leningrad in 1948, was given its first staging at the Bolshoi, Ermler conducting, in October 1960. The British premiere of Tchaikovsky's The Oprichnik was Ermler's doing, with Scottish Opera at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. Some premieres were less obvious: Alfred Schnittke, denied a public hearing by the conservative authorities for his stylistic experiments, would put the boat out in his film scores, which Ermler was happy to conduct.

In spite of an increasingly high international profile – he worked with the London Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, Tokyo Symphony, Japan Philharmonic and many other orchestras – he was happy in 1996 to accept the position of music director and chief conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, leaving after two years when he returned to the Bolshoi Theatre as music director. He was appointed chief conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic in South Korea in May 2000.

Ermler's capacity for hard work was astonishing: at the Bolshoi alone he conducted over 2,000 performances, and he recorded some 20 operas there, both Russian (including Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades, Borodin's Prince Igor) and other (Bellini's Norma, Puccini's Tosca).

His musicians held him in high esteem, both professionally and personally. The Ukrainian violinist Eduard Idelchuk, for example, who worked under Ermler in Moscow and Kiev, found him

very warm. He was a real professional and very calm. When he spoke, it was always tranquillo, but the result was very good and very beautiful. But then he was a very beautiful, gentle, aristocratic man. He was never nervous or shouted. If he could help, he always did.

Martin Anderson