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Yuli Turovsky: From cellist to conductor, From life’s chances to the heart’s necessities

“Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.”
? Democritus

“Man at last knows that he is alone in the immense indifference of the universe, whence he emerged by chance. Neither his fate nor his duty are written. The choice of making his life a heaven or a hell is his alone.”
? Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity

When one asks Yuli Turovsky “why the cello?” he responds “by chance.” And in the same breath he adds that much of what came afterwards was also the result of life’s chances. As the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus remarked, everything that exists, exists by chance, but also by necessity. So while the cello may initially have been a “choice” resulting from a combination of circumstances, with very little left to personal will, what he subsequently accomplished with the instrument was more the result of the heart’s necessities and of the ability to grasp the passing moment, the chance that may never come again. This is the essence of the poet Horace’s famous phrase Carpe diem—seize the day. This is shaping one’s own destiny.

Born in the former USSR on June 7, 1939 on the eve of World War II, young Yuli had reached primary school age shortly after it ended, in 1946, when music burst into his life unexpectedly. His father was a lawyer and the family lived near Moscow’s Central Music School, a primary and secondary school renowned for its music concentration program. One day a piano teacher consulted Yuli’s father about a legal matter. Having come to know the boy’s parents quite well, the piano teacher asked them whether they had considered enrolling him in the nearby music school. To determine whether young Yuli had an aptitude for music, she had him sing back a few melodies and rhythm exercises. The results were so encouraging that she took him under her wing and prepared him for admission to the school. When it came time to choose an instrument, one of the school’s faculty suggested the cello. When Yuli asked “why the cello?” the teacher answered “it’s written all over your face!” and Yuli Turovsky’s fate was sealed.

After completing high school, he was admitted into the Moscow Conservatory in 1957, where until 1969 he studied with the renowned Galina Kozolupova, whose imperial presence reminded Turovsky of Catherine the Great. After completing his undergraduate work in 1962, he was admitted to the Conservatory’s “Aspirantura” level (graduate school), completing the equivalent of a doctorate in 1965. In 1969, he won first prize at the USSR National Cello Competition, and the following year, second prize at the Prague Spring International Music Competition. About this time, he became an associate to his illustrious teacher at the Conservatory while teaching the younger students at his former school. Even more decisive, he earned the position of principal cello in the famous Moscow Chamber Orchestra, conducted by the legendary Rudolf Barshai. Then there were numerous recitals with, among others, Conservatory friends such as violinist Vladimir Spivakov (who, in 1969, won first prize at the Montréal International Music Competition). With his many rehearsals, concerts and recitals, finding time for individual work became increasingly rare, and Turovsky would take advantage of every chance he got to practice. On tour with the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, he would even occasionally practice on the tour bus.

But he recalls that the tensions of daily life under the Communist regime were so great that while the idea of leaving one’s homeland was unthinkable, for some there came point—at a time when even remaining silent, remaining inconspicuous and living only for music was considered suspicious—that remaining became harder than leaving. For Yuli Turovsky and his wife, a violinist and talented pedagogue, the critical threshold came in 1976.

Why Canada? Why Montréal? Chance, answers Turovsky yet again. In those years, the world was divided in two: Russia and the rest of the world—a vast, nebulous, poorly defined place. If the Turovskys chose Montréal, it was that during a recording session in Russia, Yuli had met a Canadian soprano then living in Montréal with her husband, a violinist (many Montréal music lovers will no doubt remember with nostalgia Gaelyne and Taras Gabora). When they learned that the Turovskys had left the USSR, they encouraged them to come to Montréal.

After the Turovskys settled into their new city, Yuli renewed his acquaintance with two other recently emigrated Russian musicians: violinist Rostislav Dubinsky and his wife, pianist Luba Edlina. Dubinsky had been, until that point, the first violin and soul of the famous Borodin Quartet, which he had founded some 30 years earlier, in 1946—just as seven-year-old Yuli was first discovering music and the cello. Before emigrating, they had discussed the possibility of working together once they arrived in the West. They met again in New York, in their agent’s apartment, where they put together a series of four concerts, each comprising three trios for piano, violin and cello.

Thus was formed, in 1976, the Borodin Trio, with whom the cellist would record almost all of the standard trio repertoire for the Chandos label (along with less well-known but nonetheless interesting works), in addition to giving hundreds of concerts around the world. He also began to take on the concerto repertoire, appearing as a guest soloist with major orchestras, and he formed the Duo Turovsky with his wife.

In addition to his intense performing career, he was also a teacher. From 1977 to 1985, he taught at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal and, since 1981, at the Université de Montréal. In 1983, he realized that the number of students he and his wife had trained since their arrival in Montréal six years earlier was sufficient to form a chamber orchestra, and an old dream began to haunt him: to found and conduct a small string ensemble, similar to the one he played in under Barshai before leaving for the West. Many of his colleagues thought the idea far-fetched in Montréal’s already teeming chamber music scene. However, Turovsky managed to interest the French arm of the CBC, Société Radio-Canada, in the project (can one really speak of chance now, as opposed to determination?), suggesting his students record Handel’s Concerti grossi, Opus 6. The program director of SRC’s former “Chaîne Culturelle,” Jacques Bertrand, loved the idea. Shortly thereafter, Turovsky played the result to some executives from Chandos, the British label that recorded the Borodin Trio. The response was so enthusiastic that they offered a three-record deal, with the first to be recorded immediately. However, the ensemble, which had not yet even performed in public, needed a name. Turovsky chose “I Musici de Montreal” in honour of the famous Italian ensemble I Musici di Roma, which he had always admired.

I Musici de Montréal gave its first concert on November 8, 1984, just as the first recording was hurriedly being placed on record store shelves. The year that followed saw the group’s first American tour and first Montréal concert series. In a very short time, I Musici de Montréal had become one of Canada’s most active chamber ensembles, and in 1993, Turovsky left the Borodin Trio to dedicate himself to his new project full time. Now, as the ensemble’s 25th anniversary approaches, I Musici de Montréal has over forty recordings to its credit and every year performs over 100 concerts around the world. And the adventure continues.

Originality of style is often the sum of many different influences. Some artists refuse to recognize this; but for others, like Yuli Turovsky, knowing where one comes from, being able to put one’s finger on the precise impact of a teacher or a colleague, is a sign of maturity. Turovsky likes to quote Pablo Picasso: “If there is something to steal, I steal it!”

Beyond the solid training he got at the Kozolupova Conservatory, Turovsky speaks of three colleagues who had major influences on him over his career. Under the baton of Barshai, he discovered the specific sound quality of each centimetre of the bow, and of how the bow is for the violinist or cellist like the artist’s palette of colours. Turovsky recalls that Barshai’s bowing technique had a mathematical precision, yet it never lost sight of the ultimate goal: the expression of emotion. To develop cohesion and ensemble playing, Barshai also developed unusual rehearsal techniques that Turovsky still uses with I Musici. For instance, Barshai sometimes had his musicians play a passage holding the bow above the strings—in other words, playing silently, concentrating on the movement of the bow and on the other musicians, and trying to harmonize their movements. With Spivakov, his friend from the Moscow Conservatory, Turovsky learned to weigh the emotional content of each note and to make “each note speak.” And from Dubinsky, “a master at understanding form,” he developed not only his analytical powers but also the ability to immerse himself in a work’s formal structure.

All of these elements helped shape the style of Yuli Turovsky the cellist and that of I Musici de Montréal.


This box set—an assemblage of the main works for cello and chamber orchestra recorded by the virtuoso and his orchestra over the years—is a wonderful illustration of both. It contains Baroque and Classical concertos, either in their original versions or transcribed for cello (a common practice in the 18th century). But it also features a variety of modern works, highlighting both the openness of spirit and the spirit of research that have characterized the artistic process of I Musici de Montreal and its conductor from the ensemble’s very beginnings. These choices resemble less the fruits of chance than the results of an uncommonly strong will—a will that in always striving to push boundaries has, out of life’s chances, forged creations of absolute necessity.

© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen

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