A well-conducted life
Publication Date: Friday Nov 8, 1996

A well-conducted life

Russian-born Camilla Kolchinsky faced much adversity along the road to the El Camino Youth Symphony

by Jim Harrington

As one of only two women to head a major symphony orchestra in the former Soviet Union, Camilla Kolchinsky was a pioneer in the music world. Yet, she still felt it was necessary to leave the country. She had two major strikes against her: She was a woman trying to make a living in a profession dominated by men, and she was Jewish in a country governed by anti-Semitic policies. In 1976, the pressure became too much. She said goodbye to her friends and family and headed out on an odyssey that took her to Israel, Austria, Guatemala and elsewhere.

Now, she's settled down in the Palo Alto area.

A Mountain View resident, the 50-something Kolchinsky is currently music director of the El Camino Youth Symphony (ECYS). More than 400 young musicians belong to the 33-year-old, Palo Alto-based organization, which provides opportunities for kids, ages 6-18, who perform at a variety of skill levels.

With a resume that includes having appeared regularly with the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Philharmonic, as well as being the permanent guest conductor of the Austrian Chamber Orchestra in Vienna and the National Orchestra of Guatemala, Kolchinsky might reasonably be asked why she chose to lead a Peninsula youth symphony organization.

"Why I'm here? I'm here because I love this work, this orchestra," she answered. "I love to teach. And I love to teach to youth."

Music grabbed hold of Kolchinsky at an early age in the Soviet Union. She claims to have sung before she actually spoke.

"I heard a lot of radio," explains Kolchinsky about her musical inspiration. "My mother loved, very much, music."

Kolchinsky's father, an engineer, wanted his daughter to be a musician. At just 2 1/2 years old, the singing child was brought to a music instructor, who told her parents that she had a good capacity for music. The next step toward a music career happened a few years later when, through a highly competitive selection process, Kolchinsky was admitted to a music school.

Despite the early serenades from the cradle, it wasn't singing that grabbed her; it was the violin. The plans were for Kolchinsky to be a great concert violinist, but a French film about an Italian boy changed her life. She was 13 when she saw the film, which depicted the young boy conducting an orchestra.

She decided that conducting was for her. Part of the allure of waving the baton, she said, is to have the ability to take the orchestra to a place where it can't get on its own. She said that without a conductor, an orchestra could play technically well, yet something would be lacking. "To put soul to the music, to put feeling to the music, only a conductor can do that," Kolchinsky said.

Her teachers were less than supportive of her career choice. Conducting was not a field for woman, they said.

"It started with my parents. They were so upset when I told them I wanted to be a conductor," Kolchinsky remembered.

Still, determined, Kolchinsky pushed on. After graduating with distinction from the Moscow Conservatory (in violin, theory and composition), she went on to the Leningrad Conservatory to study conducting.

She got her first conducting job in 1965, proving the nay-sayers wrong. Yet prejudice against her for being a woman and a Jew, she said, convinced her to leave her native country. The breaking point came when the Russian State Concert Board declined--in her name--an invitation to a European music festival, claiming she was sick.

In 1976, she immigrated to Israel, where she met and married her husband. She traveled throughout Europe before coming to the United States in 1990. In 1991, she left the East Coast for California, where she worked as director of music activities at University at California, Santa Barbara.

She then found out that there was a job opening with the El Camino Youth Symphony. She became the music director in 1994.

Surprisingly for a woman who faces something of a language barrier when speaking English, perhaps Kolchinsky's greatest strength at ECYS is her ability to communicate. According to her students, Kolchinsky tells stories, sings, acts, plays--basically whatever it takes--to get the ECYS members to really understand the music.

"It's a beautiful thing to see," said Cathy Spieth, mother of an ECYS member. "It's so precious."

For example, Kolchinsky will tell stories about Beethoven' hard life and show portraits of his angry-looking face to help the young musicians understand the composer's music.

"If they understand what is behind the notes, they will really begin to be artists," Kolchinsky said. "They need to feel what is there."

Her international conducting credentials include the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, the Jerusalem Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic, Brussels Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic. She also has worked with the likes of soloists Mstislav Rostropovich and Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Rostropovich once said that "Camilla Kolchinsky does not only possess a remarkable technique as a conductor, but she makes the very best use of her technique to reveal her interpretive intentions and great musical talent."

The late Leonard Bernstein, with whom Kolchinsky studied, also spoke highly of the conductor.

"She has great authority, real power of communication and true musicianship," Bernstein has been quoted as saying.

Kolchinsky was featured in the documentary film, "Women Conductors: Biography, Working Rehearsals and Concert," which was broadcast recently in the United States on PBS.

Kolchinsky conducts the ECYS's Senior Symphony in its season opener at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16. The performance will include Bernstein's "Overture to Candide," Tchaikovsky's "Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor, Opus 23" and, of particular note, Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Opus 67."

"It's very unusual to perform, with school-age children, such great piece as Fifth Symphony of Beethoven," Kolchinsky said.

She believes in challenging young musicians with difficult pieces. The Nov. 16 piece also features guest pianist Alexander Peskanov.

"I believe that for kids that it is extremely important that they meet with such great soloists," Kolchinsky said.

Kolchinsky says that these soloists serve as good examples for the ECYS members. Yet, some ECYS musicians would contest that they already have a good role model.

"Her extreme knowledge of the music, and everything in her life that she's gone through to get to where she is now, is incredible," said 16-year-old Senior Symphony cellist Sara Spieth.

Some visitors, Kolchinsky said, attend ECYS with low expectations and with the assumption that since the musicians are so young, their music will be lacking. But, Kolchinsky explains, they soon become believers.

"After first visit, they start to be permanent listeners."

The Senior Symphony plays a holiday concert at Spangenberg Theatre in Palo Alto on Dec. 22. It also plays at Spangenberg on Feb. 16 and May 31, and at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts on March 23. The ECYS's Sinfonietta Chamber Orchestra plays at Cubberley Community Theatre in Palo Alto on Nov. 24 and Feb. 8, at Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center on March 16, and at First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto on May 23.

The ECYS's El Camino Flute Ensemble plays March 15 and May 3 at the First United Methodist Church. The symphony's Junior Ensembles play March 2 at Smithwick Theatre on the Foothill College campus in Los Altos Hills and at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts on May 18.

What: Senior Symphony (El Camino Youth Symphony) with guest pianist Alexander Peskanov, in concert

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Castro and Mercy streets

How much: $6 general, $4 students and seniors

Information: 327-2611 

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