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Performing Arts

At the Intersection of His Two Lives

San Jose Symphony's Leonid Grin brings his Russian education and love of American music to the Bowl.

August 27, 2000|JOHN HENKEN | John Henken is a frequent contributor to Calendar

In many ways, the symphony orchestra is the ultimate European art band. Not surprisingly then, most of the major orchestras in the United States are led by European conductors in European repertory. Franz Welser-Most, the recently appointed music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, suggested that one of the reasons that these transatlantic marriages are often so successful is that the American musicians deliver awesome technical power while the European conductor gives them aesthetic direction.

A significant variation on this common theme is the expatriate, the European who has moved into the community and often becomes more American than the native maestros in repertory and creative development. Prominent among these would be Leonid Grin, the Ukrainian-born music director of the San Jose Symphony, who leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a characteristic mix of Russian and American music this week at the Hollywood Bowl.

"In all the years in Russia, every Monday we listened to the Voice of America on the radio," says Grin, who emigrated in 1981. "Now that I'm here, I am one of the voices of America. I don't call it 'emigration' any longer. I started a new life here, and I'm very much at home. This is my country--I'm very American, very patriotic.

"I think I have lived two lives. The first I left behind in Russia, a mixture of good and bad. The bad is everything you know about the regime, and as a Jewish man I was persecuted," Grin says.

"But I am most grateful for the culture I was brought up in, and the education I received. That was a lucky time at the Moscow Conservatory, with an unbelievable level of talent. It was incredibly stimulating--there was no second without some musical experience."

That time was the late 1960s and the '70s, a golden era at one of the century's most productive music academies. Entering as a piano and composition student, he founded an after-hours student chamber orchestra there and eventually switched to conducting, working with Kiril Kondrashin, famed for his work with many Russian orchestras and onetime music director of the Concertgebouw in the Netherlands.

"Honestly, I was never satisfied with the sound of any single instrument," Grin recalls. "I loved the sound of the organ, but the churches were closed and there was no place else to play an organ. I was searching for the sound I wanted until I heard one of the local symphony orchestras. That sound became my dream and I pursued it. Only an orchestra can project that range of sound, the shadings and different colors. Nothing can compare with the drama, the depth and dimension of sound you can get from an orchestra."

Grin began chasing his ideal sound as a child. With instruments in short supply in Soviet Russia and no musicians in the immediate family, the pursuit was seldom easy.

"My parents were not musicians, but there was always music in the air --songs around the dinner table, things like that," Grin says. "I started violin and piano very early. The son of one of my father's friends played piano, and I went over there to play. Instruments simply were not available then, even if you could afford it."

After graduation from the conservatory, Grin became the associate conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic, leading that ensemble in concerts throughout Russia and on tours to Spain, Mexico and Canada. He was also a frequent guest conductor with all the leading Soviet orchestras, including the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Philharmonic.

Applying for emigration permission, however, was equivalent to putting yourself on a blacklist, Grin says. When he did in 1979, his career fell into limbo until he was finally allowed to leave, reached the United States and had a storybook meeting with Leonard Bernstein in 1981.

"I had just arrived in New York," Grin says. "For me, you know, the name of Bernstein was legend. I was passing by Lincoln Center and I saw a sign advertising a Haydn/Stravinsky festival, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I went in and asked, 'When are they rehearsing?' 'Right now,' I was told. I talked my way in and met Bernstein, who allowed me to observe the rehearsal.

"He also gave me tickets to the concert and told me about a new program that summer at the Hollywood Bowl. I applied, and was incredibly lucky and honored to be accepted into the first Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. I learned so much there, and those were my first concerts in this country. The whole experience was unforgettable."

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, which ran from 1982 to 1991, was a sort of postgraduate training program for young orchestral musicians. Led by luminaries such as Bernstein, Lynn Harrell and Michael Tilson Thomas, the institute was a very high-profile, productive summer program until scrapped by the orchestra under budget constraints.

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