Yakov Kreitzberg, the Russian-born, American-trained conductor was Music Director and Artistic Director of the Monte Carlo Philharmonic, Principal Guest Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and outgoing Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. He died March 15 after a long illness. He and Tony Woodcock were close friends from the time he led the Bournemouth Symphony.
In 1993, I was running the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the U.K. , a truly great orchestra which was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary with then Music Director Andrew Litton. Andrew had announced his decision, after a great tenure with the orchestra, to move to the U.S. to become Music Director of the Dallas Symphony. So I was in Music Director search mode, big time. Many people had mentioned to me a young Russian conductor, Yakov Kreizberg, who was building a great name for himself at Glyndebourne Opera, the international opera festival on the south coast, and with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London.
I took time out to see Yakov conduct and, in particular, spend time at Glyndebourne Opera where he was conducting Janacek’s Jenůfa. He had made a huge reputation for himself with this work because of his clear passion for it and his ability to mold an ensemble of intense musical and dramatic presence. The effect on stage was electrifying. After the performance, my wife, Virginia, and I were expected backstage to make the necessary obeisance to the young maestro. Contrary to our expectations, we found a very human, very humble, very un-maestro-like mensch, who greeted us with joy and a warm welcome. We talked music and opera with enthusiasm and truth. It was the start of something.
I became a Yakov groupie, following him around the country seeing him conduct other orchestras such as the City of Birmingham Symphony (Simon Rattle’s band) and the BBC Symphony. He was consistently a huge hit and I was deeply impressed. We began to talk, and this talk led him to conduct the Bournemouth Symphony in a programme that included the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5.
This performance did it for me. It had structure, clarity, light, drama, but most of all it was something beyond the normal overblown workhorse that we have come to expect. Yakov became number one on my list of Music Director candidates. The orchestra voted and he was overwhelmingly their choice as well. So began something that touched many lives, mine very much indeed.
Yakov became our Music Director in 1995. He was then in his mid-30’s. Young but with an astonishing worldliness and musical maturity. He was driven. Driven by his own ambition but perhaps more, driven by his vision for music-making. His energy was boundless. His charm was Russian and therefore undeniable. His appetite for food was fathomless. Now that’s an important point. Yakov could eat more than anyone I have ever known. Before a concert . . . a time when most artists are so nervous and consumed by performance anxiety as to leave them without appetite . . . he was, conversely, consumed with hunger. Pre-concert, I have seen him devour an enormous pizza and then look around for anything you might have left on your plate. His engine was a blazing furnace and it needed a huge amount of fuel. (During his time with the orchestra I could easily pack on 10 additional pounds trying to keep up with him, what with pre-concert meals and post-concert dinners.) Despite all of this, Yakov remained an amazingly svelte 160 pounds, very athletic and totally healthy.
There began a golden time for the Bournemouth Symphony with Yakov at the helm. We undertook major national tours, gave London concerts, appeared at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and paraded our virtuosity on international tours in Europe and the US. The orchestra made its Carnegie Hall debut with Yakov in 1997, and a picture of this with him in full flight during Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique has pride of place in my office at NEC.
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. On one occasion, we were undertaking a massive two week tour of England with stops in Leeds, Huddersfield, Manchester, Birmingham – all those English hot spots! Yakov conducted a stunning Symphonie Fantastique with Jon Kimura “Jackie” Parker
playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. During rehearsals for the tour, Yakov tore a muscle in his back and we had to find him emergency medical cover. Probably for the only time in his life, he cancelled a rehearsal. The press somehow got hold of it and an overly creative PR Director, when asked how Yakov would conduct if he couldn’t raise his arms, answered “with his eyebrows.” Dear, dear, dear me. After a brief pause of a day or so, the press took up this idea and there was a veritable barrage of news enquiries from T.V., radio, and the papers, all about the “Eyebrow Conductor.”
I shielded Yakov from the limelight, but I was caught in its full glare fighting off Breakfast TV which wanted him to appear and demonstrate. Then . . . the tour started. Jackie Parker is not only a fabulous pianist but also a great wit. Jon Carney, our concertmaster (and now the Concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony) was also something of a comedian. And I have been known to tell a scatological joke from time to time. Between the three of us, the joking about “Maestro Eyebrows” was to prove incandescent.
At the start of the tour, someone, possibly me, told a ribald joke that centered around the phrase “I love you so much . . . “ Written out on tiny slips of paper, this joke kept reappearing. Sometimes it was a billet-doux in the concertmaster’s music folder; sometimes a post-it note secreted inside the piano, uncovered when the soloist lifted the lid; and most famously a book mark in the conductor’s score revealed during the concert. I bet James Levine never had this happen. The effect was not just barely suppressed internal laughter but joy, huge joy in music making that shone from the concert platform.
And then there was the last concert of the tour at the Hexagon Reading, somewhere to the west of Heathrow. By this time we were seasoned troupers, ready to face any musical or humorous hurdle. Driving into Reading through the slow-moving rush hour traffic, Yakov saw a huge billboard with the legend . . . “Eyebrow Concert Comes to Reading.” Yes, we were big in Reading. Yakov buried his head in his arms.
I have many memories of Yakov conducting: his Shostakovich 5, and Symphony No. 11 which he very much championed, Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique with a last movement that contained no bar lines only raw improvised energy and power; a high octane Symphonie Fantastique that drove us, along with the work’s programmatic hero, to the gallows; and…the Elgar Enigma Variations, a work every orchestra player in the U.K. learns before birth (much as players in this country know Copland 3 or Appalachian Spring). Rehearsing the Elgar was generally considered unnecessary. But not with Yakov. He demanded four three-hour rehearsals. He was determined to scrape away the barnacles of tradition. The result was the finest performance of the Enigma I have ever heard, every line transparent, every phrase special and energized, the whole magnificently bold. This was music making in the grand tradition of Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini. How my heart soared.
Yakov and I would spend much time listening to new repertoire. He was focused on the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks; I was enamored with the Austrian Franz Schmidt. We premiered much of Vasks, and, for Schmidt, Yakov fell in love with the Fourth Symphony, which we gave at the Proms in London in the late 1990’s. It is a work of the latest late Romanticism. Opulent, vastly chromatic, sensuous. Deeply felt and deeply tragic. It became a favorite of Yakov’s and a work that he championed with many orchestras, in particular the Vienna Symphony where the work had been banned by the Nazis. Yakov gave the first Viennese performance. His recorded performance with the Netherlands Philharmonic is a must .
Schmidt – Symphony No. 4 In C Major I. Allegro Molto Moderato
In 1996, following the success of our national tour, the Bournemouth Symphony and Yakov let down their hair, and played an Open Air concert at one of the great palaces in the south of England to an audience of thousands. The owner of the estate was a landed aristocrat who panicked when introducing Yakov to his guests. Out of the side of his mouth, he mumbled, “This is Mr. Kreizsky.” At that moment and forever after in BSO lore, Yakov became Mr. Kreizsky and I, reciprocally, became “Mr. Woodsky.” And that is how it has remained through e-mails, when we meet, over the phone . . .
After Bournemouth, Yakov became the Music Director of the Netherlands Philharmonic, and, a few years ago, he assumed the same position with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic. With that orchestra, he confessed, he felt a greater rapport and affection than for any other ensemble in his career. Last July, my wife and I visited him and his lovely wife Amy in Monte Carlo. I found him, although ill, to be musically content and still possessed of a ridiculous sense of humor.
I have adored this man for many years as a unique artist, musician, pianist, and wonderful conductor, but mostly as my great friend and collaborator.
Yakov Kreizberg, 1959—2011