Leading a powerful tradition Music: Ilya Musin, 94, has spent most of his life teaching his students how to conduct an orchestra. Yuri Temirkanov was one of his pupils.

November 16, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Ilya Musin was 16 when he first heard the magical sounds of an orchestra. The music overwhelmed him, a young boy fresh from provincial Kostroma, one of Russia's old, onion-domed cities on the Volga River.

Musin is 94 years old now, and his life has been dedicated to the orchestra -- and even defined by it -- ever since hearing those first fateful notes. They signaled an extraordinary career, in which he went on to teach some of the world's greatest conductors their art and in doing so essentially defined conducting in the last half of this century.

His students are known around the world: Yuri Temirkanov, who will succeed David Zinman as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in January 2000; Valery Gergiev, music director of the Kirov Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Metropolitan Opera; Semyon Bychkov, music director of the Orchestra of Paris; others in Britain, Italy and China.

Musin first inherited and then bequeathed a powerful musical tradition. He studied at the renowned St. Petersburg Conservatory under Nikolai Malko, who was taught by Rimsky-Korsakov. Six of his own students now teach at the conservatory. Despite his age, he continues working, and his classes are filled with students from around the world. Invitations to teach master classes arrive steadily.

Despite the requests and the acclaim, Musin is a modest man, full of warmth, joy and amazing recall of events that happened 75 years ago.

"My destiny has been unusual," he says, sitting on an old green fold-out couch in his apartment in the center of St. Petersburg. "I grew up in a town where concert music didn't exist. Until age 11 I never heard any music at all. People sang, but there weren't any records. We didn't have radio.

"I loved drawing. It was my talent. But my father wanted to make a musician of me. He forced me to play the piano against my will. Every day he sat next to me at the piano while I practiced. Every day.

"Then one day I heard someone behind the wall playing 'Eugene Onegin,' Tchaikovsky's opera, on the piano. I liked it. I began looking for the music. Then I told my father I was going to study at the conservatory."

Those were turbulent, troubled years for Russia. But off in the provinces, and later immersed in music, Musin more often heard the booming of drums than the thunder of cannon.

"I never noticed the Revolution," Musin says. "It didn't get to Kostroma."

Two years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Musin arrived here to study piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He studied during the bloody Civil War, when Russia could barely feed itself or even keep warm.

"There was a small iron stove in the classroom," he says, "and every student was required to bring something for the fire."

Russians are well-schooled in making do, and Musin made full use of this national trait.

"All the negative factors were like a stimulus for my development," Musin says. "The conservatory was very cold. So every day I went to the Philharmonic building to listen to rehearsals.

"That was my school. The fighting was going on around the city, but we still had lessons. And going to the Philharmonic gave me a chance to get acquainted with all the musical literature."

The cultural capital

St. Petersburg, which considers itself Russia's cultural capital, was full of artistic ferment in those days. The young man from the provinces leapt into the center of it.

"Until I came to St. Petersburg I had never heard Mussorgsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, not one," he says. "The first person I met at the conservatory was Mita Shostakovich. And we became friends."

"Mita" was Dmitri Shostakovich, a fellow student and great composer. Shostakovich's First Symphony was written in those early years, first performed May 12, 1926, by the illustrious St. Petersburg Philharmonic and conducted by Musin's teacher, Malko.

Highly assessed

Malko began his first conducting class in 1925, and Musin enrolled right away. "In 1924 I had the chance to conduct a small amateur orchestra," he remembers. "There were only eight in the orchestra. But it turned out I could direct. And when I started taking Malko's class I appeared to be one of the students he assessed very highly."

While he was enrolled in his second course with Malko, Musin was asked to direct the Bolshoi Drama Theater, a position that would be held many years later by one of his students, Yuri Temirkanov.

Musin graduated in 1930 and began teaching in 1931. In 1937 he was asked to establish a music festival in Belarus and direct the orchestra in Minsk, that republic's capital. While he was in Minsk, World War II began, and Musin, his wife and son were forced to flee. They walked more than 300 miles to catch a train to Voronezh, a city south of Moscow where Musin's sister lived.

"The St. Petersburg [then Leningrad] Conservatory was evacuated to Tashkent, and since 1941 I've been on the faculty," he says.

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