Conductors are usually regarded as uncrowned kings. They build bridges between audiences and music. Their only instrument is a baton. 1. Vladimir Spivakov (b.1944)
Spivakov initially rose to fame as one of the most emotionally expressive, versatile and unique Soviet violinists. Having won medals in nearly all major international competitions between 1965-1970, the young virtuoso zigzagged the world extensively as a soloist, playing with la crème de la crème of world-class orchestras. Despite an overwhelming success, Spivakov realized that his place (and true calling) was actually on the podium. Vladimir took lessons from none other than genius U.S. conductor Leonard Bernstein. He also learned his craft from Lorin Maazel, one of the greatest musicians of his time. Bernstein taught his students that conductors were first and foremost ambassadors and messengers for the composer. As a sign of friendship, he presented Spivakov his baton, which the maestro had kept as a relic.
Spivakov, known for his spiritual quest for perfection, made his conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1979. On the podium, he exuded a powerful charm and tenseness. The following year, the multi-talented musician founded the Moscow Virtuosi chamber orchestra. A much sought-after guest conductor, Spivakov has been revered as one of the world's top maestros, demonstrating a rare ability to master an extraordinary range of styles.
2. Valery Gergiev (b.1953)
His reputation precedes him: Gergiev is known for his hypnotic stage presence. Broad-shouldered and tall, the maestro is conducting with fervor and sensitivity and has an ear for detail. An ethnic Ossetian, Gergiev was born in Moscow, spending his entire childhood and youth in North Ossetia. He studied conducting at the Leningrad Conservatory and made waves back in 1977, when he won the Herbert von Karajan Conductors' Competition in Berlin.
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Shortly after, the charismatic young man debuted with the historic Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theater in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). It was no joke. Gergiev was leading a highbrow production of Sergey Prokofiev's 'War and Peace' as assistant to the company's principal conductor. In the next five years, the Soviet musician moved further and further along the path of establishing high standards of conducting. In 1988, he was finally appointed the principal conductor of the Kirov Theater, which became a real home away from home for Gergiev. Under his leadership, the legendary venue became one of the world's first-class opera houses.
In 1993, Gergiev was named Conductor of the Year at the Classical Music Awards in London. He lent his time and talent working with A-list musicians. He was also principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.
3. Teodor Currentzis (b.1972)
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This 47-year-old Greek-Russian conductor with a Gothic look has no peer when it comes to illuminating music you've probably heard a thousand times. Currentzis had a meteoric rise to fame after being named Music Director of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theater, in 2011. He took an unconventional approach to the repertoire and revamped the relationship between classical music and 21st-century fans. Currentzis turned the Perm Opera into a Mecca for unorthodox music lovers. Last year, he decided to step down to catapult his brainchild, the Musica Aeterna ensemble, into the limelight. Tickets to his orchestra's concerts sell like hot cakes and are booked for months ahead. The trailblazing conductor can reinvent just about anything, from Shostakovich's 'Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District' to Verdi's Requiem, keeping the score buoyant and rich.
Currentzis is also captivating to watch. He is either in almost nonstop motion or frighteningly still, like a predator getting ready to attack. His sharp chaotic movements on the podium and an emotionally-charged approach to music turn his concerts into fireworks shows. He is currently Chief Conductor of the SWR Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart.
Currentzis was born in Athens and began to take piano lessons when he was only four years old. He entered the violin department at the Greek National Conservatory at the age of 12. In 1994-1999, he studied conducting at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory and fell in love with Russia. In 2014, Currentzis was granted Russian citizenship as a reward for his outstanding work. The flamboyant conductor recently made waves in the film industry. Currentzis played legendary Soviet physicist Lev Landau in Ilya Khrzhanovsky's movie 'Dau', which had its world premiere in Berlin in 2019.
4. Yuri Bashmet (b.1953)
Before wielding the baton, Bashmet garnered a reputation as an accomplished viola player, praised for his extraordinary technique and tone. He has performed as a soloist with the world's greatest orchestras, including the Berliner Philharmoniker, New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna Philharmonic. Bashmet, who was born in the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don, took up the baton in 1985. The following year, the ambitious violist founded the Moscow Soloists chamber orchestra. In the early 1990s, Bashmet was forced to re-found his ensemble, when the original members of the company decided to stay in France for good. His newly-formed orchestra was made from the Moscow Conservatory's most promising graduates. At various times, top brass musicians, including Svyatoslav Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich, collaborated with the ensemble.
In 2008, Bashmet and his orchestra made headlines by winning a Grammy Award, praised for their performance of works by Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
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Since 2002, Bashmet has also been the artistic director and principal conductor of the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra. Its repertoire features more than 350 works of Russian and world classics.
5. Yuri Temirkanov (b.1938)
Few conductors have enjoyed as long and prolific a career as Temirkanov, who has stayed loyal to the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra since 1988. Like many Soviet boys of his generation, Yuri studied music as a child. He attended the Leningrad Conservatory and was planning to become a violist. Temirkanov had to put his initial plans to one side, however, after winning the All-Soviet Conducting Competition in 1966. The laureate was invited to tour Europe and the U.S. with the genius Soviet viola player David Oistrakh and the Moscow Philharmonic.
Temirkanov made his debut with the St Petersburg Philharmonic in 1967. He had a chance to literally work hand in hand with maestro Yevgeny Mravinsky. He had also been Principal Conductor of the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra from 1968 to 1988. Temirkanov has led many of the world's great orchestras. According to music critics, few maestros can make Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich sound so magnificent. In 1992, he was named Principal Conductor at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. From 1992 to 1997, he was also the Principal Guest Conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic, the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Bolshoi Theater, to name a few.
6. Yevgeny Mravinsky (1903-1988)
Born into an aristocratic family, Mravinsky was a true legend and, undoubtedly, one of the most respected conductors and teachers of all time. Mravinsky was a shining example of the Soviet school of conducting at its best, in which conducting technique and pinpoint precision were paramount. The outstanding conductor never got stuck in the emotionality of the music his orchestra performed.
Conducting without a baton, Mravinsky created a symbiosis of sound and manner that is still discernible in the musical world today. The Soviet legend conducted the Leningrad Philharmonic for half a century, from 1938-1988. He led his orchestra with poise, dignity and precision. His revolutionary repertoire included the premieres of six Shostakovich symphonies.
7. Yevgeny Svetlanov (1928-2002)
Svetlanov was born with music in his blood. His father was a Bolshoi Theater soloist and his mother was a mime artist. In 1951, Yevgeny graduated from Moscow's Gnesin Institute as a pianist. His teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Heinrich Neuhaus (whose famous pupils included Sviatoslav Richter and Emil ilels) taught him to think of the piano in orchestral terms. He was a true individual and never one to blindly conform to tradition for the sake of quick success.
Svetlanov had worked as a principal conductor at his father's alma mater, the Bolshoi Theater, for two years. Then he turned over a new leaf and left the Bolshoi to conduct the USSR State Symphony orchestra, where he had swung his baton for 35 years (from 1965-2000). Svetlanov was at a creative and personal peak in the 1970-80s, winning accolades for his unconventional interpretations of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and especially Mahler. Svetlanov guided and hypnotized his orchestra, exercising a precise control of the ensemble without putting extra pressure.
8. Mikhail Pletnev (b.1957)
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Mikhail Pletnev was born into a musical family in Arkhangelsk. He followed in his mother's footsteps, studying piano at the Moscow Conservatory. At 21, Mikhail shot onto the international stage as a pianist who won first prize at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition. He toured the world extensively and collaborated with major orchestras as a pianist (Pletnev is considered one of the world's greatest interpreters of Pyotr Tchaikovsky). In an effort to broaden his appeal, Pletnev made his conducting debut in 1980. Since then, he has performed as a guest conductor with a number of leading orchestras, including the London Symphony, City of Birmingham Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In 1990, Pletnev finally set up his own ensemble, Russian National Orchestra (RNO), which rose to become one of the world's best symphony companies. Pletnev's recording of Sergey Prokofiev's opera 'Peter and the Wolf' narrated by Bill Clinton, Sophia Loren and Mikhail Gorbachev, won a Grammy in 2004. According to Gramophone magazine, Pletnev is also "one of the most intelligent and stylish Tchaikovsky conductors".
9. Alexander Vedernikov (1964-2020)
Vedernikov was Chief Conductor of the Royal Danish Opera and Musical Director of St Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Theater. Tragically, his life was cut short at the age of 56. The conductor passed away in October 2020, due to complications with Covid-19. Vedernikov was the son of the Bolshoi Theater bass and a professor of organ at the Moscow Conservatory. Vedernikov was raised to respect music traditions. He started out as assistant to the Chief Conductor and later, second conductor of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra.
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In 1995, he founded the Russian Philharmonia Symphony Orchestra and was Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of this orchestra until 2004. Vedernikov was at the helm of the Bolshoi Theater for nearly 10 years. His presence enlivened the stage, with gentle baton strokes and magnetic personality captivating audiences worldwide. From 2009 to 2018, he was Chief Conductor of Denmark's Odense Symphony Orchestra. In 2018, Vedernikov earned praise for conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Glinka, Tchaikovsky as well as the world premiere of Joby Talbot's Guitar Concerto.
10. Gennady Rozhdestvensky (1931-2018)
Rozhdestvensky made his professional debut at the Bolshoi Theater while still a student. He received impressive accolades for conducting the classic Tchaikovsky ballet 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Shortly after, he became the company's principal conductor. In 1959, Rozhdestvensky conducted the first complete staging of Prokofiev's epic 'War and Peace' opera. He also headed the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra for over a decade.
While the Cold War was in full swing, Rozhdestvensky was one of the few Soviet artists allowed to tour abroad. He also became the first Soviet conductor to be appointed principal conductor of prestigious foreign orchestras: the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony and the Stockholm Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Rozhdestvensky was captivating to watch. His emotional intensity, indefatigable energy and extreme movements enriched the music.