It would be hard to find someone more dedicated to Charleston's arts scene than Yuriy Bekker, concertmaster of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Bekker arrived in town in 2007 and quickly fell in love with the place. He recognized the passion for, and devotion to, the city's orchestra and quickly seized opportunities to cultivate more of both.
Bekker soon joined the faculty at the College of Charleston and taught for a while at the Charleston Academy of Music. After the death of CSO Music Director David Stahl, the violinist stepped in as acting music director, seeing the orchestra through a couple of extremely trying years and setting the stage for its current blossoming.
He programs the Spotlight Concert Series and World of Jewish Culture series for Piccolo Spoleto Festival, plays lots of chamber music, conducts at the Miami Music Festival and travels to Europe in the summers to perform and teach.
Q: As concertmaster of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, you set an example musically, but also collaborating with Music Director Ken Lam and other section leaders to create the desired sound. What’s the most challenging aspect of being concertmaster? The most fun?
A: Being concertmaster is a balancing act. I am balancing the demands and beats of the conductor while leading the violins and strings and trying to sound as one. In other words, I need to be an interpreter of what the conductor wants and at the same time be there for the string section and make sure that we sound together with good quality.
The most fun aspect of my job is performing. I try to treat every orchestra performance like chamber music. I enjoy communicating with Ken and other musicians and making music in an intimate way even on the big stage. It is so much fun when we do something spontaneous and unrehearsed during the performance. This is what chamber music is all about.
Q: You are also music director of the increasingly popular Pops series. Why do you think the series is gaining so many fans?
A: I am so excited about our Pops series. I like to build things and Pops is a good opportunity with tremendous potential. I think that our Pops programming is very interesting and it relates to the wider community. I am so looking forward to next season’s Pops. It will be more orchestra-oriented in its programming, which is something unique to the Charleston area, but the themes will continue to appeal to a wider demographic.
The goal of our pops programming is to expose the community to symphony music in a fun and very laid-back atmosphere. Through our Pops, we can bring in a new audience in a user-friendly way.
Q: And as if that weren’t enough, you also perform as a soloist or chamber musician. Most recently, you’ve been preparing Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous and challenging violin concerto. How do you approach such a demanding piece, especially one with a long history of magnificent performances?
A: I was very fortunate to learn this concerto with two of my teachers, Nelli Shkolnikova and Herbert Greenberg. Both played it so differently but learning it twice left such a great effect on my playing. This concerto was part of my Masters recital at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and was also my audition concerto for the Charleston Symphony 10 years ago.
After I got the job with the CSO, I put it away for 10 years and picked it up again this past August, seven months before the performance. When I picked it up, the feeling was as if I had never played this concerto before. The reason is that it is one of the most difficult and awkward concertos ever written. At one point, the original dedicatee, Leopold Auer, said that it was so difficult it was unplayable. But this concerto is indeed playable. By the way, Auer is related to me and to most Russian and American violinists through teacher and pupil relationships.
I feel that I can connect to this piece deeply because of my background. This work has so many Russian folk songs throughout that are very similar to what I heard growing up. This work is gorgeous, lush, virtuosic and epic. Sometimes soloists take very fast tempos in some sections of the first movement because of violin tradition. My approach is to do exactly what the composer wrote in his markings. I may take slightly slower tempos than other soloists, but in order to sing and accentuate the melodic lines and for each section to really speak. In other words, you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.
Q: You and your wife Jenny recently had a baby. Congratulations! Has fatherhood changed the way you think about music, or your career goals?
A: I think that becoming a father is one of the greatest joys and blessings an artist can experience. I experienced new feelings and emotions that I never knew existed, and they will surely contribute to my performances and growth as a musician. I realize I have new paint brushes and colors to work with in my performances. I will continue to pursue my career goals as a violinist and conductor, but of course family comes first and factors in greatly when considering new opportunities. I will work even harder but also more diligently and efficiently.
Q: What’s in the hopper? Are you preparing to dig into a new concerto? Or conduct some grand symphonic work? Or are you in a lullaby phase?
A: I am not in a lullaby phase even though Jenny and I sing lullabies to Nathanael. This May, I will be featured as a soloist in Spain. Then Piccolo Spoleto will be busy as usual, although I narrowed down the number of my concerts this season. This summer, I will conduct a Fourth of July concert for the Miami Music Festival. I am also looking forward to conducting next year’s Pops season. It will be filled with great and fun programming from Bernstein to John Williams. I’m also excited about performing the well-known Bruch Concerto with the CSO and Ken Lam in next year’s Masterworks series.