Yakov Kreizberg: One of the finest conductors of his generation

Yakov Kreizberg was one of the finest conductors of his generation, a man whose musicianship, intellect and integrity produced performances of a passion and intensity far superior to those by some better-known names. In May 2000, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall, he conducted a reading of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11 searing in its power and concentrated ferocity – the best Shostakovich 11 I have heard and one of the most transcendent experiences I have had in a concert hall: it both exposed the tragedy of Shostakovich’s awful times and, with Putin then tightening his grasp on power, seemed to give the music appalling renewed relevance.

Kreizberg was one of the few conductors of his generation who could be relied upon to find the transcendental in a piece of great music and bring out layers of meaning you had not heard in it before. The critic Bernard Jacobson found that another Kreizberg Shostakovich interpretation – the Sixth Symphony in Philadelphia in 2005, “a performance of breathtaking virtuosity and at the same time of gripping emotional depth” – had a political impact akin to that of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. That extra dimension made Kreizberg’s concerts special events even for the critics: regular reviewing makes you blasé but a Kreizberg concert always stood out in the memory.

Kreizberg’s longest connection with Britain came with his chief conductorship of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from 1995 until 2000. Tony Woodcock, the manager, on the look-out for a new chief conductor, went to hear him conduct Janácék’s opera Jenufa at Glyndebourne and found it “electrifying. When Kreizberg came to Bournemouth to conduct a trial concert, it was again Shostakovich – the Fifth Symphony – that revealed his exceptional qualities: the performance had “structure, clarity, light, drama, but most of all it was something beyond the normal overblown workhorse that we have come to expect”. The musicians confirmed Woodcock’s decision and so began a golden time for the orchestra.

The BSO toured, making their Carnegie Hall debut in 1997. An appearance at the Proms in 1998 brought a work that was to become one of his calling cards: the Fourth Symphony of the Austrian Franz Schmidt. In 2002 he recorded it for PentaTone, the Dutch company for which most of his recordings would be made.

Woodcock looks back on that period with unalloyed pleasure: “My experiences with Yakov were among the happiest in my professional life. And

the best times were on tour. He was enormously disciplined, never drank alcohol, studied scores voraciously, but had the twinkle, energy and sense of the absurd to make touring a party.”

Kreizberg was born in Leningrad: his doctor father, Max Bychkov, was a military scientist, and his elder half-brother – from whom he was later estranged – is the conductor Semyon Bychkov. His musical training began with piano lessons and by his teens his enthusiasm for conducting was such that he was able to study with the venerated Ilya Musin at the Leningrad Conservatory. He also studied composition, and enjoyed some performances, but later confessed that he “gave up composing when I realised I didn’t have enough talent for it”.

Semyon, seven years Yakov’s elder, emigrated in 1975; his father, deemed a security risk, took the selfless step of divorcing his wife so she and his second son could follow him. They arrived in 1976 penniless; Yakov had been forced to leave his compositions behind, and they were lost. His studies came to his rescue: as a fine sight-reader of orchestral scores at the piano, he earned a living accompanying singers.

Enrolling in Mannes College, New York, like his brother before him, Kreizberg was awarded conducting fellowships at Tanglewood, where he studied with Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa and Erich Leinsdorf, and at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, with Michael Tilson Thomas. His first professional appearances were made as Yakov Bychkov, but he soon took his mother’s name to avoid confusion with his brother – and there was a family precedent: his maternal grandfather, Yakov Kreizberg, had been an operatic conductor in Odessa.

He was named music director of the orchestra at Mannes, remaining for three years, won the Stokowski Conducting Competition in 1986, and in 1988 was appointed music director at Krefeld and Mönchengladbach, where he was the youngest chief conductor in any German opera house. He stayed six years (completing his education, he said), before taking up the same post at the Komische Oper in Berlin. He stayed for seven years; Goldschmidt’s Die gewaltige Hahnrei and Henze’s König Hirsch were among his more adventurous works. He left with some relief – normally the most relaxed of men, he spoke of poor organisation and resigned when funding was compromised.

In spite of his commitments abroad, he continued to make music for British audiences. His Proms appearances began with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1993; he returned every year until 2000. His debut with the English National Opera came in 1994, with Jonathan Miller’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and he was back in Glyndebourne in 1995, with Don Giovanni, and in 1998, with another Janácék opera, Kát’a Kabanová – one worked there, he said, “under the best conditions in the world”. He first conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in 2003. His Covent Garden debut followed in 2006, conducting Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth.

In 2003 he was named chief conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra, bringing the NPO to the Proms in 2008; he was due to step down later this year. He was made principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 2003, remaining for six years. In January 2008 he took up the post of artistic director of the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, becoming artistic and music director in September 2009 – his dedication to the task underlined when he moved there with his wife, the American conductor Amy Andersson (they met as students), and their two sons. He was particularly pleased to have helped set up the Orchestra’s own CD label, OPMC Classics, which has issued his recordings of Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky, and had ambitious plans for its future.

In the 2008–09 season he was the first conductor to be named artist-in-residence at the Alte Oper Frankfurt. He also conducted a number of concerts with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Frankfurter Museumsgesellschaft. He had occasionally played in public at fund-raising recitals in Bournemouth, tackling the two-piano versions of the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – immediately after he had conducted full symphonic concerts. Now he returned to the piano, giving chamber concerts.

By this time Kreizberg was already suffering from the illness that would cut his glittering career short. From autumn 2009 he was forced to cancel the occasional concert, and last year had to take several months away from the podium. But he and his wife decided not to reveal the nature of his malady so that media pressure would not eat into the time and energy he had left; as a result, there has been a rash of speculation on the internet as to the cause of his death. Kreizberg himself felt that the illness deepened his music-making, describing it as “a tremendous gift”, and he kept working right up to the end: his last concert was on 14 February, and his diary was full.

Kreizberg was a thoroughly decent man, warm, approachable, always ready to help – he inspired affection wherever he went. The pianist Stephen Hough found him “a musician of great elegance and passion, with an intense focus and a warm, lovable personality – not a series of qualities automatically found combined in the same person”. Cristina Rocca, who was head of concerts and programming in Bournemouth during his time there, described him as “the most charming, down-to-earth, easy-going and flexible, loyal and faithful to people and to music as well”. An enthusiastic teller of jokes, Kreizberg also had a legendary appetite for food: concerts seemed to make him hungry, before and after, but he worked with such intensity that he never seemed to put on an ounce.

Lean and sinewy in build, he wasn’t always elegant to watch: his gestures were often angular and impassioned. But as the American conductor Jonathan Sternberg put it, “his movements were hardly geared for the public”; instead, “orchestras listened with thorough respect to his comments at rehearsal and responded with extraordinary tailored performances”.

At the end he was forced to modify his style. The soloist in that last concert, the violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, reported that “his conducting had changed dramatically from the all-action, intensive approach to a much more calm and less moving style purely because his body would not allow it. It was an incredibly sad and emotional situation and the Orchestra absolutely played their heart out for him.”

Yakov Kreizberg, conductor: born Leningrad 24 October 1959; married Amy Andersson (two sons); died Monte Carlo 15 March 2011.

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