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Maxim Vengerov joins the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra for its Silver Jubilee

  • January 13, 2023
  • 4 min read
Maxim Vengerov joins the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra for its Silver Jubilee

There are many violinists who are claimed by their agents to be great but in each generation only two or three really are; those that bear comparison with Heifitz, Menuhin and Ricci or, looking back a century or two, Joachim, Viotti and Corelli. One of those that can is Maxim Vengerov. “There are five elements that make concerts a success,” he says, “the instrument, the hall, the work being played, the audience and the players.” Giving concerts in the UK has been frustrating for Vengerov in the last few years. The 2020 season was meant to include a Royal Albert Hall concert marking 40 years of his playing in public but, thanks to the COVID shut downs, the celebratory concert with friends and students had to be postponed. Each time he rearranged it, another obstacle was chucked in front of him: first another COVID shut down, then the uncertainties caused by the war in Ukraine and finally, in perhaps the unluckiest twist of the lot, the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the cancellation because the concert would have coincided with her funeral.

Finally, there is another chance to celebrate, though, this time with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (OPO) for its 25th anniversary celebrations in the Barbican Hall on 6th February. He will play Mendelssohn’s E Minor Concerto, conducted by the pianist and orchestra’s founder, Marios Papadopoulos.  The orchestra is not full time but is made up of some of the most recognisable freelance musicians living in Britain, like Garfield Jackson, the Principal Viola, who has been part of the Endellion Quartet for over 40 years, the violinist (much younger) Tereza Privatska from the Jubilee Quartet, or Principal Oboe, Gordon Hunt, who is just as established as a soloist around the world. Last June, Papadopoulos led his elite forces in their first visit to New York’s Carnegie Hall, to glowing reviews from the city’s notoriously sniffy critics.

Concerts have been a part of Vengerov’s life since early childhood because his mother was a choral conductor. “I went to my first one when I was five, and of course I wanted to be a conductor but there was a violin maker, round the corner from our home, and he had an instrument that was small enough for me.”  He was born in 1974 in Novosibirsk, in the centre of southern Siberia, on the plains that border the Altai Mountains, over which is Mongolia. It sounds out of the way and secluded but Novosibirsk is the cosmopolitan centre for a huge hinterland. “When I was growing up it had five orchestras and ensembles as well as the opera and ballet,” Vengerov says.

His father was Principal Oboe of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic, conducted since its founding in 1956 by Arnold Katz who also took the orchestra of the Conservatoire. “The quality was very high,” Vengerov remembers, “…because in Soviet times many very fine musicians had been sent there from the big cities in western Russia. That meant I had somewhere really good to study and the best teachers. It was a city that took education seriously so that when I eventually went to Moscow, I found I was already well ahead.” That is an understatement. He won an international prize and made his first recording at the age of 10.

His main teacher was the Kazakh violinist Zakhar Bron, who also taught Daniel Hope and Vadim Repin – an impressive roster – and he followed Bron to western Europe when he left Siberia at the end of the 1980s. It was a good move because he was in the right place to go in for and win the 1990 Carl Flesch competition in London while still 15.

“Since then world has opened for me,” he says. Vengerov went on to study here at the Royal Academy of Music, left Russia permanently and took Israeli citizenship, but now lives in Monaco. He became UNICEF’s first ever Goodwill Ambassador in 1997. He has had a special relationship with the OPO for a decade, becoming its first Artist in Residence after his debut with them in 2013. This has given him the chance not only to play concertos but to develop his conducting. “But the violin is my mother tongue,” he shrugs. “…it will always be with me.”

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Simon Mundy

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