From Music in Cincinnati

Conductor Leonid Grin Always Looking Ahead

Posted in: 2008
By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Oct 24, 2008 - 5:18:02 PM

Leonid Grin rehearsing the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (photo by David Phillippi)
Ukrainian-born Leonid Grin has a favorite story.  As an immigrant to the United States, just off the boat in May, 1981, he was walking past Avery Fisher Hall in New York:

   “I saw the ad:  ‘Haydn-Stravinsky Festival’ conducted by Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas.  I just got stunned – you know, here’s Leonard Bernstein -- so I went backstage and asked where the rehearsals for the concert were.  The man said ‘Right here, now.’”

   Grin explained that he had just arrived from the Soviet Union and ‘Please’ could he hear the rehearsal?  At first the guard said ‘No,’ but finally he called the management.

   The management explained that there would be an intermission in ten or fifteen minutes and that Grin could “Go upstairs and ask maestro’s permission.”

   Grin went upstairs and the door to the conductor’s room was open.  “He was sitting there.  There were many people in the room.  I was waiting.  Our eyes crossed and he looked at me and said, ‘And who are you anyway, baby?’

   “I looked at him (and said) ‘Maestro, my name is such-and-such.’  He says, ‘What’s your name?   Leonid?’  He jumped off his seat and said ‘Leonardik, my little brother.’  That was the beginning.”

   Bernstein not only let him into rehearsal but gave him tickets to the concert and invited him to lunch.  “I could not believe it.”  Shortly afterward, Grin was invited to be a fellow at the first Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute led by Bernstein, where he conducted at the Hollywood Bowl.

   “After that, I saw him many times, said Grin, speaking by phone from Philadelphia where he now makes his home.  "He was so kind and generous in offering his time.  As they say, he was a mensch (Yiddish for “human being,” a good person).  He never forgot his humanity.  Being the great Leonard Bernstein, he was always accessible to people around him.”

    Grin will make his debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 at Music Hall (Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with guest artist Tai Murray).  He treats life, he says, “like a book, an unread page every day you wake up.  I think it’s very important for people to have an openness for the next.  I am always looking forward.”

   Grin was music director for 10 years of the San Jose Symphony, a 123-year-old orchestra that despite being based in well-off Silicon Valley, was forced to seek chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003.  Still,  Grin has found his “half-full” approach to life to be the best of all possible worlds.

   His optimism and enterprise have led to things like studying with the conducting elite of the former Soviet Union, immigrating to the United States, his plucky encounter with Bernstein and friendships with people like Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, father of CSO music director Paavo Järvi (before emigration, Grin guest conducted Neeme Jarvi’s Estonian State Orchestra in Tallinn).

   Grin gave CSO music director Paavo Järvi conducting lessons in the early 1980s after both had left the Soviet Union -- Järvi in 1980 from Estonia, Grin in 1981 from Moscow. Järvi was 17; Grin, a 1977 Moscow Conservatory graduate and associate conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic, was in his early 30s.

   Järvi bused into New York City from his home in Northern New Jersey for classes with Grin on weekends and followed him to the University of Houston when Grin was appointed professor of music there.  (Järvi also studied with Bernstein at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute and later graduated from Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, where he completed his training.)   

   Grin, who had been trained by legendary pedagogues Nikolai Rabinovitch in Leningrad (master teacher of Neeme Järvi) and Leo Ginsburg in Moscow, infused Järvi with both streams of Russian conducting.   The two approaches differ, said Grin, in the Germanic influence on the Moscow school as opposed to the more Russian nationalist orientation in Leningrad. 

   “Leo Ginsburg studied with Hermann Scherchen in Berlin, then was assistant of Otto Klemperer in Theater Kroll in Berlin.  He also observed Furtwängler’s work in Berlin for a number of years.  All the major conductors in Moscow have been the students of Leo Ginsburg, so I kind of combined both Leningrad and Moscow schools.”  

   Pursuing conducting at the Moscow Conservatory “was not an easy decision,” Grin said.  “I was on one hand encouraged tremendously by my piano teacher in music college (Dnipropetrovsk Music College in Ukraine) to go to Moscow, since she was a graduate from Moscow Conservatory.

   (Pianist Mariam Gordon, a 1949 graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, died in July just short of her 90th birthday.  Grin had planned to return for her birthday celebration.  "She was like my second mother in my life," he said.)

   At the same time, the young Grin had started conducting because of a “love and inner feeling for it.”  He was introduced to Rabinovitch and began going to Leningrad to study with him.

   Then love stepped in.  “I decided to get married.” (Grin’s wife, who died in 1997, was pianist Marina Guysak-Grin).

   Rabinovitch said ‘Your wife is from Moscow.  You should continue there with the great professor Leo Ginsburg.  We remained very close friends.  He blessed my wedding with my to-be-wife and to continue our informal meetings with him.”

   In Moscow, Grin was awed and inspired.  “The whole institution of Moscow Conservatory is music history living.  You enter the building and here’s the marbles with names of those who graduated -- Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff.  I still talk and have goose bumps from the memories of those times.  For me, coming from a provincial town to the capital and seeing all these phenomenal musicians, professors around you, to be your professors, you know, being accessible . . .”

   He felt the same way conducting the Moscow Philharmonic, “who have seen conductors of many generations -- great names and you are 27 years-old.  But the musicians were incredibly friendly, open, supporting, and I treasure the memory of that time.”

   As a conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic, he toured with them inside and outside the Soviet Union.  “Being on a tour with the orchestra in 1979 in United States I met a lot of my friends who were already here.  I looked around and I made up my mind.”

   His first two years in the U.S. were “not particularly exciting,” he said.  Then Neeme Järvi invited him to fill a cancellation with the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden (where Järvi was music director).  “I flew immediately in and that was the beginning. I will always remember that with gratitude.”

   Grin distinguished conducting history includes his decade-long position in San Jose, where his and the orchestra’s artistic success did not translate into adequate community support (partly because of competition with the San Francisco Symphony) and six years as principal conductor of the Tampere Orchestra in Finland.  In Tampere, he presided over the construction of a new concert hall and made a series of highly praised recordings for the Ondine label, including the complete symphonies of Finnish composer Erkki-Mellartin (an early 20th-century composer eclipsed by Jean Sibelius). 

   As for the future, Grin will fill conducting engagements in Finland, Belgrade and Bucharest (an Enesco festival with cellist Mischa Maisky next spring).  “I am moving ahead and I love it.”

   Would he accept another permanent post?

   “”When the right opportunity will come, I would certainly welcome it,” he said.

   Leonid Grin guest conducts the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the Symphony No. 5 by Tchaikovsky, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto featuring guest artist Tai Murray and Dvorak’s Scherzo capriccioso at 8 p.m. Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 at Music Hall in Cincinnati.  Tickets are $12-95, $10 for children 6-18, at or call 513-381-3300.

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