of conductor Camilla Kolchinsky

Camilla Kolchinsky was born into a family of Jewish intellectuals. Her parents, Alexander and Rayisa, both had musical talents of their own (Alexander with perfect pitch and Rayisa with a lovely singing voice).

Camilla first revealed her musical talent at an early age, showing a particular interest in the violin. She had her first violin lessons with Elizaveta Gnesina at the renowned Gnesin School of Music.

Soon after that, Camilla enrolled in a school for musically gifted children that operated under the auspices of the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory. She later went on to attend the Conservatory itself, graduating in 1958 from the programs in violin, viola, and musical history and theory.

While still in school, Camilla had developed an interest in conducting. Georges Lacombe’s film Prelude to Glory (Prélude à la gloire), which was released in 1949 and starred the Italian child prodigy Roberto Benzi (later to become a distinguished conductor in his own right), only added fuel to that fire.

After graduation, Camilla was engaged as a violinist with the Symphony Orchestra of Cinematography in Moscow. She applied on several occasions to the Moscow Conservatory’s Conducting Department, but was turned down every time. The prevailing opinion there was that conducting was no job for a woman.

So she made up her mind to sign on with a symphony orchestra, any symphony orchestra, where she could learn the art of conducting from the inside. Moving to Dnepropetrovsk, she joined the local symphony as a violinist. At about that time, a conducting spot opened up with the Dnepropetrovsk College of Music’s student symphony orchestra. She put herself to the test there and did very well.

Word of the orchestra quickly spread, and the plaudits started rolling in. But yet another application to the Moscow Conservatory’s Conducting Department went nowhere. The venerable conductors on the auditions panel were still adamant that no woman could ever join their ranks.

It was, however, a different story at the Leningrad State Conservatory. After passing the entrance exam, she was accepted into the Conducting Department. There she studied with the eminent Ilya Musin, whose students included such great conductors-to-be as Yuri Temirkanov, Valery Gergiev, and Vassily Sinaisky.

Beginning in 1960, Kolchinsky conducted concerts performed by Leningrad Conservatory’s Student Symphony Orchestra and its Opera Studio Orchestra, producing masterful renditions of Gounod’s Faust, Dargomyzhsky’s Rusalka, Bizet’s Carmen, and other challenging operas. In 1963, her first tour, to Novgorod and Petrozavodsk with the Opera Studio Orchestra, was a huge success. In the same year, she attended master classes for young conductors with the well-respected Igor Markevich, and later, in Leningrad, with Maestro Herbert von Karajan.

In 1964, she graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory’s Conducting Department and in fall of the same year competed for the vacancy of assistant to Yevgeny Svetlanov, the highly regarded conductor of the Bolshoi Theater’s Symphony Orchestra. The only woman among 32 candidates, she outdid them all and got the job. A year of honing her skills culminated in a concert at the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses (now known as the State Kremlin Palace) and with performances of Massenet’s opera Werther and Krylatov’s ballet The Magic Seven-Petal Flower at the Bolshoi Theater.

In 1965, she topped her competition for the position of conductor of the Yaroslavl State Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. There, in Yaroslavl, she began to grow, both professionally and creatively, expanding and diversifying her repertoire to more than 70 symphonic works and some 100 accompaniments. She often toured with the Yaroslavl Symphony, visiting Dnepropetrovsk, Khabarovsk, Murmansk, Tomsk, Arkhangelsk, Kirov, and other cities of the USSR. She conducted the country’s best orchestras, in Moscow and elsewhere. From 1967 through 1973, in Moscow, she gave 15 symphonic performances, 11 with the USSR’s State Symphony Orchestra (which rarely issued invitations to young conductors) and the rest with the Moscow State Philharmonic and the Moscow Regional State Philharmonic symphony orchestras.

The soloists who performed with her included such prominent Soviet and foreign luminaries as Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich, Daniil Shafran, Bella Davidovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, Leonid Kogan, Gidon Kremer, Vladimir Spivakov, Tatiana Nikolayeva, Mischa Maisky, Natalia Gutman, Lazar Berman, Nikolai Petrov, Vladimir Feltsman, Mikhail Pletnev, and Josef Páleníček.

Kolchinsky also put a lot of effort into preparing young Soviet musicians to perform in international contests, including the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition. She promoted symphonic music and the works of Soviet composers, often combining the role of conductor with appearances on the lecture circuit. In late 1966, she made a strong showing in the Second All-Union Conductors Competition but was awarded only a certificate of merit.

Her performances were already receiving frequent press coverage. But in the early 1970s, pursuant to a formal request submitted by the Soviet Women’s Committee, the Leningrad Documentary Film Studio (now known as the St. Petersburg Documentary Film Studio) featured her in a documentary titled A Woman of a Rare Profession, which was directed by Izya Gerstein and was broadcast across the Soviet Union and abroad.

After returning to Moscow in late 1972, Kolchinsky conducted the symphony orchestras attached to the House of Scientists and the House of Teachers, to considerable acclaim. She was also repeatedly engaged for the subscription concert series put on by the Moscow State and Moscow Regional Philharmonic Societies in the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall, the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall of the Moscow State Philharmonic Society, and the Kremlin’s Palace of Congresses. She toured to various cities of the USSR, including Gorky (now known again as Nizhny Novgorod), Ulyanovsk, and Kazan.

In 1975, she was awarded a Smetana Medal and Diploma for her services to modern Czech music.

Meanwhile, though, anti-Semitism was on the rise in the Soviet Union, prompting increasing numbers of Jews to leave. Since the Ministry of Culture refused to let her perform outside the country, she had to turn down numerous invitations to appear abroad, including in the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria.

In the spring of 1976, Kolchinsky emigrated to Israel, while her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew stayed behind in the Soviet Union. In the same year, she successfully auditioned for the celebrated Zubin Mehta, principal conductor of the Israel Philharmonic, and was invited to guest-conduct. In the same year, while associate conductor of the Haifa Symphony, she regularly performed with various other Israeli orchestras, including the Jerusalem Symphony, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, which was led by Rudolf Barshai, and the symphony orchestras of Be’er Sheva, Netanya, and elsewhere.

In 1977, Kolchinsky set up a chamber orchestra in Petah Tikva, which began to give regular concerts under her leadership. At that time, she also conducted such notable soloists as Ida Haendel and Gary Karr.

In 1978, Kolchinsky attended master classes at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, with the legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein.

In 1981, she accepted invitations from the Stavanger Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Oslo University School of Music. In 1982, she conducted the Oslo Chamber Orchestra and the Drammen and Kolbotn wind symphony orchestras, both favorites in Scandinavia.

In addition to her work in Norway, Kolchinsky appeared alongside the noted soloist Vladimir Ashkenazy with l’Orchestre Philharmonique de la BRT in Brussels and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She also conducted the Liège Philharmonic Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and, in Hamburg, the North German Radio Symphony Orchestra.

While working in Europe in 1981 to 1989 and later, in the 1990s, Kolchinsky appeared as guest conductor with various orchestras, including youth orchestras. In 1983, she was invited to participate in seminars and concerts at the Stockholm School of Music and the International Menuhin Music Academy in Gstaad, Switzerland. As guest conductor, she led workshops at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and performed there with a chamber orchestra. In 1985, she accepted an invitation from Lund University’s Malmö Academy of Music in Sweden. She was a guest conductor at summer and winter seminars, and for concerts given by student symphony and chamber orchestras in Oslo. She also participated in or judged international competitions of wind symphony orchestras.

In 1986 and 1987, the Swedish film studio Hagafilm made a documentary titled Dirigenterna (in foreign release, A Woman Is a Risky Bet: Six Orchestra Conductors), which was directed by Christina Olofson and told the story of six female conductors, including Camilla Kolchinsky.

At the Nordic Forum (a conference of and for women) in Oslo in 1988, she led a symphony orchestra consisting exclusively of invited musicians in the performance of works by female Scandinavian composers.

After moving to the USA in 1989, Kolchinsky continued to conduct various professional and university symphony orchestras. She also taught at conservatories, music schools, and universities. She brought out the best in groups of string, wind-instrument, and percussion musicians, and worked with choirs, soloists, and ballet dancers. As a professional violinist, she taught both violin and viola, while also continuing to play in and conduct various chamber ensembles.

From 1989 to 1991, Kolchinsky conducted the student chamber orchestra that she had founded at Ramapo College’s Academy of Music in Mahwah, New Jersey, and also taught violin and music theory there. She combined this with the role of associate conductor of the North Jersey Symphony Orchestra in Tenafly, New Jersey, and the Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra in West Orange, New Jersey. She was guest conductor at the Strings Music Festival in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

In early 1991, Kolchinsky was guest conductor of the First Austrian Women’s Chamber Orchestra in Vienna, which paid tribute to Leonard Bernstein at the Schubert Hall of the Vienna Kontzerthaus by performing his magnificent Serenade, with violin virtuoso Nina Beilin, a student of the great David Oistrakh, as soloist. In the same year, she successfully competed for the position of manager and conductor at the UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara) Symphony Orchestra and Opera, securing a two-year contract with the university’s music department. During that time she increased the number of musicians from 24 to 85, expanded the repertoire, and ramped up the performance schedule. She began inviting the best students and teachers, along with established American musicians to be guest soloists. She revived the UCSB Opera, performing Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Verdi’s La Traviata, Bizet’s Carmen (in concert interpretation), and Strauss’ Die Fledermaus during her two-year tenure.

In 1993 and 1994, Kolchinsky was guest conductor of the Indiana University-Bloomington Symphony Orchestra and also gave master classes there. She performed with the orchestras of the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra, and the Santa Barbara University Symphony.

By this point, Camilla Kolchinsky was in demand all over the world as an outstanding conductor with vast artistic potential. In 1995, she received an invitation from Naxos Records to record Dvořák’s Romance and violin concertos by Alexander Glazunov and Antonin Dvořák with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, in Katowice, Poland. She accepted and was joined in those sessions by the famed violinist Ilya Kaler, who had won the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1986. She also guest-conducted the Guatemala National Symphony and the Xalapa Symphony Orchestra, one of Mexico’s best, with which she performed the Mexican premiere of Prokofiev’s Symphony № 7.

In the same year, Kolchinsky conducted the New American Chamber Orchestra in New York City and Washington, DC. That ensemble was the only one of its kind in the USA, as it was made up of first-rate musicians who also happened to be recent émigrés from Russia. The program included Handel’s Concerto Grosso № 1, Shostakovich’s Concerto № 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings (with two well-known soloists, Alexander Peskanov on piano and Yakov Brodsky on trumpet), and Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings.

Kolchinsky had, meanwhile, developed a strong interest in working, as both conductor and teacher, with student orchestras at U.S. universities. In 1994, she had accepted an invitation to fill the Music Director position with the El Camino Youth Symphony Association. At that time, the Association had only three modestly ranked symphony and chamber orchestras.

Under her leadership, the ECYS Senior Symphony (consisting of the most talented musicians in the 12- to 18-year age group) began touring abroad every two years, providing the young performers with a superb showcase for their extraordinary abilities.

In 1996, Kolchinsky took the Senior Symphony on a tour of Austria and Italy, where it won second place at the International Festival of Youth and Music in Vienna and also performed at the international music forum in Abano Terme, Italy. The program at those venues included Dvořák’s Symphony № 9 (also known as From the New World), Paganini’s Concerto № 1, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, and other symphonic works (the solo violinist was the remarkable Philippe Quint).

In 1998, the orchestra toured England and Scotland, and took part in international festivals in London and Glasgow, where it played various popular pieces, including Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

In 2000, the orchestra visited France and Switzerland, giving concerts in Paris, Grenoble, Provence, and Geneva, and performing in festivals held in Savoie and Avignon. The program included Bernstein’s Candide, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony №3 (The Organ Symphony), and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.

In 2001, taking advantage of a gap in the Senior Symphony’s touring schedule, Kolchinsky guest-conducted the Kharkov Philharmonic’s Academic Symphony Orchestra in Ukraine.

In 2003, the Senior Symphony traveled to Italy (Rome, Venice, Florence, and Naples), where it played popular pieces by American and European composers and took part in summer music festivals.

In 2005, the Symphony went on a tour of Central Europe, Germany, and Austria, acquitting itself especially well at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. In Prague, it performed to a capacity audience at the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Concert Hall. The program included Barber’s Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony № 4.

In 2007, the Symphony toured Finland (Helsinki), Estonia (Tallinn and Tartu), and Russia (St. Petersburg and Novgorod), playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Dvořák’s Symphony № 9, and a number of works by American composers.

In 2009, the tour went to Poland (Warsaw, Katowice and Wrocław) and Germany (Potsdam and Leipzig). The program included Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, Barber’s The School for Scandal, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony № 4. The performances in Potsdam and at the world-famous Gewandhaus Concert Hall in Leipzig received excellent reviews in the German press.

In 2011, the Senior Symphony traveled to Spain (Barcelona, Girona, and Pamplona), giving an unforgettable performance at the Conservatorio Profesional de Música Pablo Sarasate. That same year found the orchestra in France (Paris, Bordeaux, Marseille, Bandol, Cannes, and Nice). The 2011 program included Berlioz’s overture to Le Carnaval Romain, Rachmaninov’s Concerto № 2, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.

In 2013, the orchestra visited Europe again. The performances in the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Concert Hall in Prague and the Grand Concert Hall in Salzburg’s Mozarteum University, and in Bratislava and Budapest were a resounding success. The program included Rossini’s overture to The Thieving Magpie, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, Shostakovich’s Symphony № 1, excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and Bernstein’s Mambo from West Side Story.

The Senior Symphony has covered nearly all of Europe and performed at its best concert halls, but it also tours from time to time in its home state of California, always under the leadership of its principal conductor. At present the Association boasts six orchestras, whose total complement of musicians (aged six to 18) has grown from 120 to almost 500. The Senior Symphony has achieved a near-professional level, a fact noted by the seasoned music critics who have heard it play some of the most challenging works of the classical repertoire in country after country. Annual auditions are held for all six of El Camino’s orchestras, to identify the top-performing students and offer them the opportunity to solo regularly with one of the Association’s ensembles.

Camilla Kolchinsky’s orchestra, along with big-name guest musicians, continues to play to packed houses of classical music lovers. Star soloists have included Van Cliburn Competition winners Vladimir Viardo and Jon Nakamatsu; talented pianist Alexander Peskanov; violinist Philippe Quint, a superstar in the making; acclaimed cellist Zuill Bailey; Eugene Levinson, laureate of numerous international festivals and principal double bassist of the New York Philharmonic; and violinist Michelle Kim, assistant concertmaster of the same orchestra. The orchestra has also regularly featured concertmasters from across the United States: from the Philadelphia Orchestra, violinist David Kim (laureate of the Tchaikovsky Competition); violinist Alexander Barantschik from the San Francisco Symphony; Robert Chen from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and Martin Chalifour, principal concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Thanks to the efforts of Music Director and Principal Conductor Camilla Kolchinsky and Executive Director Cathy Spieth, the El Camino Youth Symphony Association is thriving, and its Senior Symphony is ranked among America’s best youth orchestras.