Recenly, I wrote about the new direction I am taking with this space, and as a part of that, I am excited to introduce my new Spotlight Series. One Wednesday each month, I will interview a totally fierce, ultra-talented female who is taking the music world by storm. I am going to have a mix of performers, composers, conductors, managers, and other lady bosses who are involved in the classical music world in some way.
Today, we have conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, I had the pleasure of meeting Lidiya in Boston a few years ago when we were both doing some work with the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras. It wasn’t long before she was whisked away to do project after project–collecting kudos and rave reviews everywhere she went. She is currently serving as Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater, Artistic Director of The Refugee Orchestra Project, and Artistic Director Emeritus/Conductor of Juventus New Music Ensemble. Here, she talks to us how she prepares for a performance, shares her tips of the trade for traveling and practicing, what advice she would give her 18-year old self, and tells a terrifying story of life in an opera pit!
What is your morning ritual or routine?
LY: Since my schedule varies wildly from day to day, I don’t have a routine (and don’t particularly enjoy having one). However, I generally plan out my schedule (including score study time, etc.) at the beginning of a week for that week or at least for the next few days. If I don’t have a morning rehearsal, I will generally go jogging, go to the gym or do something else active in the morning.
Must-haves for air-travel?
LY: Scores—airplanes are great for score study. Bring a big warm scarf/sweater in case the plane is super cold. Comfortable clothing. Airborne in case I end up next to someone who is sneezing and coughing. Generally, I try to pack as little as humanly possible while traveling.
What was your scariest moment on stage?
LY: Last season, I conducted an opera in which a chorus of women was ‘gathering water’ by scooping clay pitchers over the pit. Someone in props decided to give them pitchers made out of actual clay, and at one point, the handle of a pitcher broke off as a woman in the chorus did the scooping motion. The pitcher fell into the pit and shattered directly between a cello and a violist—a few inches to the left or right and it would have fallen on someone’s head or someone’s instrument!!
What has been your most rewarding moment as a musician?
LY: There are so many. I really love my job and there is nothing like the magic of everything coming together the way you mean for it to in a performance. Luckily, I get to have this feeling often!
Practicing: Love it or Hate it?
LY: There are things I love about the study and rehearsal process even more than performances. It’s exciting to discover something the composer put into the score for the first time, or to come up with a new way to shape a phrase. Of course, it’s also very rewarding to bring the final product to the audience, but I really love the discovery and musical shaping that takes place as I learn a new piece (or rediscover an old one).
What about when you were a kid?
LY: I liked to practice, but was also very impatient about sitting still for long periods of time. I would want to work very intensively for about 20 minutes, then get up and do something else, then come back to work. I came from a musical culture where I was asked to sit at the piano patiently for 3+ hours in order for the practicing to be seen as effective, and I learned to do this over time. Of course, we now know that it’s actually much more productive to work in shorter spurts. I do wish someone recognized this when I was a kid and allowed me to take full advantage of the practicing style that was most natural for me. These days, I find that I’m most productive in 45-minute increments. Work intensely for 45 mins, take a stretch or grab some water or thing about something else; get back to work.
Who were some of your role models as a young musician?
LY: I had some spectacular teachers. Probably the most important were my high school piano teachers, the duo-piano pair Vladimir Pleshakov and Elena Winther. They didn’t really have other students and, after a long solo career in Europe, retired to upstate New York, where they occasionally concertized in their piano museum and concert hall. Each weekend, I would drive an hour and a half to their home in Hudson, NY and spend an hour with one and then an hour with the other. They approached music making in an incredibly deep, nuanced, and cross-disciplinary way that has stuck with me throughout my career. They also had this huge collection of pianos from different periods and different places and had me play all my repertoire on the instrument of that time, which gave incredible insight into the work.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a professional musician?
LY: Although I studied music very seriously my entire childhood, I didn’t think I would pursue it professionally. I toyed with the idea of getting a conservatory piano degree, but realized that I wanted to study other things and also that sitting alone in a practice room for so many hours a day was not for me. In college, I studied music, philosophy and languages, but realized that music was the one thing I couldn’t live without. By the end of my time in college, I realized that conducting was the most natural path for me, and a perfect way to combine my various skills and interests.
Have any pre-concert rituals?
LY: Relax, stretch, eat lots of food and drink lots of water to energize for a performance. When possible, I like to go for a long jog or do something else active to clear my head in the afternoon the day of a concert.
Favorite city to perform in?
LY: I like variety. Each city has something different to offer, and it’s often the city you least expect that is the best place to stay for a short while and that has the most enthusiastic audience.
What is the hardest part of being on the road?
LY: Not having loved ones with you.
What advice would you give to your 18-year old self?
LY: You have lots of time—don’t feel that you have to have everything figured out now. Also, sometimes, sleep is more important than fitting in every single thing you want to learn and accomplish; sometimes resting more will allow you to take more advantage of what life has to offer, not less!
If you could have dinner with any classical musician, dead or alive, who would you choose, and what would you ask them about?
LY: Mendelssohn—he was such an incredible overall musician and human being. Mahler—how did he really want his symphonies to sound? Wagner—I’d be curious to learn how such a seemingly horrible person could be reconciled with such superb music. Anton Rubinshteyn—he accomplished so much in his lifetime, basically building a classical music tradition in Russia. Obviously, choosing just one is hard for me!
Where can people find you?
www.LidiyaConductor.com (where you can also sign up for my mailing list!) @LidiyaConductor on FB Twitter, instagram, etc.
Thank you so much, Lidiya, for this glimpse into your amazing life!
Photos by Kate Lemmon.