Female Phenom

Lagniappe Weekly

Mobile, AL

Kevin Lee

When the Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) takes the Saenger Theatre stage at month’s end, a pioneer will lead them. But that’s what trailblazers do, isn’t it?

Special Guest Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya is otherwise known as Music Director for Chicago Opera Theater, the only woman to hold that position in a multimillion-dollar opera company in the United States. So how did she land the Azalea City gig?

“[MSO Music Director] Scott Speck works with the Chicago Philharmonic and the ballet as well and I worked with the philharmonic last year. They enjoyed my work and he was looking for a guest conductor in Mobile so he suggested me for this,” Yankovskaya said.

How she arrived in Chicago is spellbinding. St. Petersburg, Russia was home until Yankovskaya was nine years old. That was when an economic collapse led to more frightening events for her ethnically Jewish family.

“I remember as a child seeing demonstrations in the streets with Nazi flags flying and people handing out pamphlets with ‘Kill all the Jews, they’re ruining our economy,’” Yankovskaya said.

Somehow, contemporary Russians sympathized with Nazis although German invaders killed tens of millions of Russians in the 1940s. The conductor confirmed World War II still resides in European consciousness and nods to the contradiction.

“But If there’s a large minority in a given place then that large minority ends up getting blamed for whatever those local issues might be,” Yankovskaya said.

Considering past as prologue, her family fled to Albany, New York.

Even though she spoke no English, the young immigrant assimilated quickly. She credited her previously “rigorous” education as vital to her excellent performance in the classroom.

Music educators would also credit her artistic training. Yankovskaya was in a “very intensive” children’s chorus at age five.

“I sang my entire life and studied voice in college and grad school and I also was a violinist throughout my childhood years, school years and into the beginning of college,” Yankovskaya said.

Piano was her chief instrument and it led to the podium, that and an insightful high school teacher. She was already leading sectionals, rehearsals and accompanying choirs. As the ensemble prepared for a Mozart concerto, the teacher explained how the group was led from the keyboard in the composer’s era. He prompted Yankovskaya to do so in a later Dvorak symphony and she was intrigued.

She earned a B.A. in Music and Philosophy from Vassar College, then an M.M. in Conducting from Boston University. Afterward, she spent a decade working in some of the realm’s most prestigious institutions and leading some exalted orchestras.

As to her singular status right now, she said early skepticism from some quarters has given way. Besides, musicians only care about competence and merit.

“The hard thing is getting your foot in the door and getting the opportunity. Until you’re up there, people are looking at more superficial criteria,” Yankovskaya said.

Her experience with opera would lend itself to the Mobile program. Along with Christopher Theofanidis’ “Rainbow Body” and Ottorino Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1” is Carl Orff’s spectacular “Carmina Burana.”

“I do a lot of work with singers and the Orff is in many ways such an operatic piece. It’s big with huge forces, dramatic underpinnings and tells a story,” Yankovskaya said.

The March 30 concert begins at 7:30 p.m. The March 31 matinee is at 2:30 p.m.

The 32-year-old’s long journey to artistic liberation also spurred another creation: she’s the founder and director of the Refugee Orchestra Project. Its musicians and composers held the status at one time or another.

The goal is to showcase refugees’ contributions to our culture and society. So much of American culture was shaped by people who came here to escape persecution elsewhere,” Yankovskaya said. “Irving Berlin who wrote ‘God Bless America’ came to the U.S. as a refugee. Opera composer Donizetti had to flee Italy for a period for political reasons.”

Its ensembles vary, some full orchestra, some chamber-sized according to the pieces performed. In various forms, she’s taken it onto international stages and delighted those she’s encountered.

For now, she’s eager to explore new surroundings on the Gulf Coast and leave behind a common denominator of both her birthplace and American residences.

“I’m very much looking forward to Mobile. I’ve never been there before and I’ve heard it’s a fantastic town. In Chicago, it is still 30 degrees Fahrenheit so I am thrilled to get down there,” Yankovskaya laughed.

NewsBeth Stewart