Life & Culture

Dynamic conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya is leading from the front

The Jewish Russian-American from Chicago is making her debut in London next week


About 30 years ago, a work written in the 1970s by a reclusive Polish composer, Henryk Górecki, unexpectedly began to climb the classical record charts.

His Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, captured hearts and minds with its meditative beauty and compassion. Although it has only one singer, it is now being staged for the first time at English National Opera.

The production, by director and designer Isabella Bywater, opens later this month. It is conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, music director of Chicago Opera Theater, who is making her ENO debut.

In the US, however, the Jewish Russian-American Yankovskaya, 37, has been making waves for some time. She is a staunch campion of new and hitherto under-performed repertoire, cutting a swathe through the risk-averse attitudes that she often challenges in the classical music world.

It’s not for nothing that the Chicago Tribune named her Chicagoan of the Year in 2020. She has already conducted more than 40 world premieres, including 17 operas, while the initiatives with which she is involved variously cultivate new opera makers, female conductors and composers, and a new generation of artistic leaders.

Musical leadership, Yankovskaya suggests, can be a model for leadership styles further afield.

“As a conductor, my job is just to be a conduit for the music making. I wave a stick around — I don’t make any sound!” she says, speaking to me between rehearsals at ENO.

“My job is to bring people together to inspire them and help guide a unified interpretation. I think it would be healthy if all leadership were approached more like that, and less from a standpoint of beating people into submission, forcing something or proving something. Great music making isn’t about that and never can be.” Symphony of Sorrowful Songs carries deep, personal resonances for her.

“Much of it is about loss, some from a child’s perspective and some from a mother’s. When I was a teenager, my sister passed away, aged 27.

"I watched my mother go through all of this. It’s many years ago now, but those emotions are difficult to express in words. To me, the most powerful thing about music is its ability to encapsulate not only the universality of such emotions, but also the individuality, in a way that no other art can.

“Górecki himself wished to distance the symphony from any specific moment — but one of the texts he set in it was found written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell. In a wonderful documentary, he talked about the piece while walking around Auschwitz.

"My family was profoundly affected by the Second World War and I have family members who were in concentration camps.

"My grandmother was also in Stalin’s prison camps, twice.”

Yankovskaya was born into a Jewish family in St Petersburg.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, her parents elected in 1995 to emigrate, she says, “largely to escape the antisemitism that was rife in Russia at the time. Like many Jews, we left when it was possible to do so.” On their passports, the designation “Jewish” was given as a nationality.

“When I came to the United States, I had to learn what it means to be Jewish. I was Jewish, ethnically, but we weren’t observant in any way.

"When we first moved to the States, I was put into a Hebrew day school, so I was learning English and Hebrew at the same time.

“To me, my Jewish heritage is about culture more than anything, and about shared experience. One thing I love about it is that there’s an embracement of the unknown.

"We don’t have a name for God. Instead, much of the religion is based on our actions. It is often more abstract than other religions and I feel that ties in strongly to the nature of music, which is such an abstract artform.”

She went on to study music and philosophy at Vassar College.

She was further nurtured through opportunities such as the Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors and the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, and her mentors included such luminaries as Lorin Maazel, Marin Alsop and Vladimir Jurowski.

Fast-forwarding to the present, this season alone she is making debut appearances not only at ENO, but also at the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic and Santa Fe Opera, where she conducts Dvorák’s Rusalka this summer.

There is one cause that is especially close to Yankovskaya’s heart: the Refugee Orchestra Project, which spotlights the cultural and societal relevance of refugees through music.
When the Syrian refugee crisis began, she says, “I was horrified by the xenophobic rhetoric I was hearing in the US, from politicians and others. It was shocking, because the US is thought of as a country of immigrants.

“In Europe, where thousands of people were coming across the border on trains every day, people seemed more welcoming. I was travelling there and would see German towns just opening up and welcoming refugees, while in the United States, where we were separated by an ocean, there are extremely stringent immigration rules.

“I wondered what I could do, not being a politician, so I joined forces with a number of colleagues to do a fundraising concert for refugee aid and to raise awareness. It was so successful that we were invited to do more in different places.”

The organisation has continued its work ever since, focusing on the music of refugee composers — from Chopin, who was exiled from Poland, through to Jewish immigrants in America such as Irving Berlin and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and a new wave of musicians from Afghanistan, including the current artist-in-residence, Milad Yousufi.

“The beautiful thing about music,” says Yankovskaya, “is that so many people from across the world, many of whom are refugees, come together to perform.”

The war in Ukraine has been making a powerful impact, both on the project and on Yankovskaya herself.

“All my Russian family have left Russia, but I still have family members living in Ukraine and I spent my childhood summers there,” she says. “It’s a place that was pivotal to me, so it’s very difficult and disheartening to see what’s happening now.

“A number of Ukrainian musicians have arrived as refugees at different times and for different reasons, and also some from Belarus and Russia.

"One baritone who just performed with us had a great job at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, but he stood up against the government there, then found himself immediately put on a list and threatened along with his family.

“Some Ukrainian musicians who have performed with us in the past are still living and performing there. There’s a bass-baritone who sang with the Refugee Orchestra Project several times who works at the Odesa Opera Theatre.

"They stopped for a few weeks, but then continued to perform, and he has been singing there regularly. It seems that the people who are still there need art more than ever. Even when they’re struggling with life in a war zone, they still go to the theatre.

"We hear that there are massive audiences every night. It’s a reminder of how important art is, especially at a time like this, when so many people have lost loved ones.”

We in more fortunate locations would do well to take note and nurture the art we have. Speaking of which, will the Górecki Symphony No. 3 work on stage?

“No spoilers,” says Yankovskaya, “but the soprano flies!” Literally or metaphorically? We will soon find out.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, English National Opera, April 27– May 6

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