Photo by Christian Steiner

Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov brings company for return to U.S.


America welcomed Russian violinist Vladimir Spivakov from the start. After his United States recital debut in 1975, critics compared him to Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh. A Chicago Tribune reviewer wrote,  “He has everything.”

But even though Spivakov has maintained a solo career — including a recent recital tour in Spain — conducting began taking up more of his time after he founded the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra in 1979.

In just a few years, Spivakov, who remains the ensemble’s principal conductor, earned the respect of no less a figure than Leonard Bernstein, who presented him with one of his batons.

“It was a very valuable gift — his blessing for my conducting career,” Spivakov said recently as he prepared to lead the Moscow Virtuosi on its upcoming North American tour, which includes a stop at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles on June 10. “I still carry it and use it to this day.”

The Moscow Virtuosi consists of some 30 musicians, with a string section known for conveying a plush warmth that is characteristic of Russian orchestras. But Spivakov said the sound of the ensemble changes depending on the score.

“We perform Bach and Mozart with a more contained, classic sound than we play [Astor] Piazzolla,” Spivakov said, referring to the Argentine tango composer. “This is a matter of good taste, professionalism and appropriateness.”

The conductor said the musicians, who originally included the most talented students of Oistrakh and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, “look much younger” these days. “But the unified pure tone, spotless technique, tight vibrato and deep appreciation for the composer’s underlying meaning is still there. Call it the Russian sound, or maybe it is just the Russian classical school.”

Spivakov said the Moscow Virtuosi grew out of his love for chamber music. “This was not just any orchestra,” he said. “All of the musicians were soloists or first chairs in the major orchestras in Russia, the crème de la crème of the Russian classical music scene at that time.”

The conductor said the orchestra had been scheduled to make its U.S. debut in 1980, but because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, that tour was canceled. The U.S. debut came seven years later.

For Spivakov, that was not the first time politics attempted to silence his music-making. In November 1976, his Carnegie Hall recital became the setting for an aggressive protest by American-Jewish militants against the Soviet Union’s treatment of its Jewish citizens. During his performance of Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, a man ran down the aisle shouting in Russian, ‘Remember the Soviet Jews,’ and in the middle of his next piece, Bach’s solo Chaconne in D minor, another militant splattered Spivakov with a paint bomb.

“The irony of it all is that I am Jewish,” Spivakov said. “At the time, it was an international scandal, but it reminds us how hard the situation was in Russia for Jews 40 years ago.”

Spivakov, who was born in the Urals in 1944, said being Jewish in the Soviet Union was difficult. “My parents were born in Russia, but growing up in the Soviet Union, being Jewish was forbidden. Me and other Jewish boys in my neighborhood got beaten up really hard for just being Jewish, and that was really hard to comprehend.”

After one particularly bad incident, Spivakov said he decided to learn a sport to become strong enough to hold his own in these fights. “I chose boxing and still practice this sport sometimes to keep in shape,” he said.

He added that although he doesn’t observe any religion, “I do identify myself as Jewish, feel proud of the country of Israel and love performing there.”

After years of providing young musicians with expensive instruments and opportunities to perform abroad, sometimes with the Moscow Virtuosi, Spivakov started the Vladimir Spivakov Charity Foundation in 1994.

“We practically had no organizations in Russia working with kids,” he said. “Since its inception, our foundation has helped over 20,000 kids. We get thousands of letters from all over Russia asking for help, and not necessarily related to music. We also helped with medical assistance. There is no law in Russia that gives a tax break to charities or to people who contribute to charities, so there is not financial incentive to help, like in the U.S.”

For his Ebell Theatre program, Spivakov, who also will perform as a soloist, will present a mix of entertaining and challenging works, including Mozart’s Divertimento No. 1 in D major (K. 136) and Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor (Op. 110a) — an orchestral arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 dedicated “to the memory of victims of fascism and the [second world] war.”

The concert also includes charming orchestral pieces by Grieg and opera hits sung by Russian star soprano Hibla Gerzmava.

Max Bruch’s prayerful adagio “Kol Nidrei” for cello and orchestra, featuring young Israeli cellist Danielle Akta, follows Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony.

For Spivakov, who has three daughters, Akta’s presence is a hopeful sign for the future of music. For him, music-making these days is all about investing in future generations. Indeed, Spivakov’s foundation helped the 14-year-old Akta, who already is a veteran performer of Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei,” which is based on Hebrew melodies.

Akta first learned and performed “Kol Nidrei” when she was 10. A few months ago, she performed the piece in Poland at a cemetery where people who had been executed are buried.

“I played in memory of the Holocaust victims,” Akta said from Berlin, where she is studying at the Barenboim-Said Academy.  “The piece feels so strong and deep. I am taking many of the moments from that concert and ceremony with me for all my life.”

Akta’s relationship with the Moscow Virtuosi began in 2013, when she was awarded a grant from Spivakov’s foundation. She already had won several cello competitions and performed abroad and in Israel. Akta was 12 when she made her debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

“She is an extraordinary talent and also a very inspirational young lady,” Spivakov said. “Her love of music, creative freedom and mature sound make us all treat her like a grown-up peer, although she is just a kid.”

Last year, Spivakov’s foundation also awarded Akta an expensive Italian cello and bow. “That cello is definitely a part of me,” she said.

While Spivakov continues to enjoy a solo career — his last U.S. recital tour was in 2012 with pianist Olga Kern — he also is the principal conductor of the National Philharmonic of Russia, president of the International House of Music in Moscow and artistic director of the music festival in Colmar, France, which he founded in 1989.

“I am wearing a lot of hats,” he said, “and there is less time for my solo career. But I still try to practice daily and really love my instrument. Violin is my life.”

Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, with Hibla Gerzmava and Danielle Akta, will perform on June 10 at 7 p.m. at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 939-1128 or visit ebella.org.

+