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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Farewell to a Maestro of Maestros




ST. PETERSBURG -- Ilya Musin used to say that conducting a symphony orchestra was actually quite easy. "You just have to know how it's done," the St. Petersburg Conservatory professor would say.


On that, Musin, who died Sunday at the age of 95, was one of the world's leading authorities.


Denied a brilliant conducting career by Soviet anti-Semitism, he became a teacher to a flock of the world's best conductors.


The list of former students who performed at his 95th birthday concert in January included Yury Temirkanov, principal conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra; Valery Gergiyev, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater; Semyon Bychkov of the Orchestre Nationale de Paris; Arnold Katz of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra; and Vasily Sinaisky, former music director of the Moscow Philharmonic.


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Musin's international recognition grew as students from all parts of the globe flocked to St. Petersburg to learn from him. Even into his 90s, Musin gave classes three days a week at the conservatory, and master classes in Britain, Japan, Finland, Italy and Israel, trips that he usually rounded off with a concert.


Musin was born Jan. 6, 1904, in Kostroma on the Volga River. His mother died when he was a child. His father, a watchmaker, was a great lover of music and encouraged his son's studies.


After enrolling in the piano department of the Petrograd Conservatory at the height of the civil war, Musin was able to hear symphonies and operas for the first time. He estimated that he went to the theater more than 80 times in his first year - not least because it was the only place in the city that was lighted after dark. In winter, Musin would leave only his hands exposed to play in the cold - a practice he says damaged his hands and foreclosed a career as a pianist.


He switched to the conducting department and, upon graduation, embarked on a 60-year process of deconstructing, analyzing and reconstructing the art of gesture and its influence on orchestral sound.


His method was laid out in minute detail in the book "The Technique of Conducting," with 75 pages alone devoted to various types of upbeat.


In class, however, Musin was less technical. To illustrate the movements he wanted, he would pick up chairs, mime eating soup, and draw pictures in the air, for much of his thinking derived from natural, everyday motions and body language.


Musin was a fount of stories and anecdotes: how he encountered Dmitry Shostakovich scribbling the trumpet part of his Symphony No. 1 while riding a streetcar; how he conducted the orchestra as the body of Sergei Kirov, the assassinated Communist Party boss, lay in state; and how he conducted one of the first performances of Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Symphony in Tashkent, where the conservatory saw out most of World War II.


Since he wasn't sent a score, he learned the long and complex symphony in rehearsal by reading the first page of the violin part, then the first page of the clarinets, and so on. "On the day of the performance - in front of the entire Tashkent Communist Party - the temperature was 36 degrees," he recalled. "The hall was packed, and after five minutes of conducting my shirt was drenched and my glasses so steamed up I couldn't see a thing."


Musin himself never enjoyed the kind of fame his students achieved. He pointed to the sinister climate of the 1950s, where people of undesirable nationality were gradually pushed aside. Being Jewish, Musin was given only concerts with unknown or uninspiring repertoire, while former students leapfrogged ahead of him to the more prestigious programs - though that didn't stop him from guest conducting all over the Soviet Union at the invitation of friends and former students.


"I decided that I would have to live without the Bolshoi Hall, and concentrate on my teaching," he wrote in his memoirs, "Lessons of Life."