Yuriy Bekker: a versatile virtuoso among Charleston artists
By Patra Taylor
Yuriy Bekker lives an amazing life. Not only does he serve as the artistic director for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, but he is also the 86-year-old organization’s principal pops conductor and an artist (violin) for its Masterworks series. If that’s not enough to fill his professional life, Bekker also serves as the director of orchestra at the College of Charleston.
A remanent of Bekker’s Eastern Slavic accent hints at his beginnings. Born in Minsk, Belarus, his family immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y. when he was 10 years old. There he first demonstrated his proficiency in the universal language of music. As a teenager, he started a successful orchestra in his high school, completed an internship with the New York City Opera, and organized an orchestra to play an outdoor concert in Battery Park for the filming of an HBO special. “I had so many wonderful opportunities there when I was a teenager,” states Bekker. “I developed a passion for conducting alongside my passion for playing violin.”
After high school, Bekker applied to study at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. “It has a wonderful music school,” he says. “That’s when I realized it is so hard to do two things well. I had to make a decision. That decision was to put conducting aside and focus on violin.”
As he began his college career, Bekker admits the conducting bug never left him. He enrolled in a class for non-conducting majors, impressing the professors from the conducting department. He even applied and was accepted to pursue a double masters in violin and conducting at Indiana University, but ultimately opted to focus on the violin. “I’d come such a long way as a violinist, I didn’t want to jeopardize that because I love violin so much. I again decided to get better as a violinist … that was my priority!”
Bekker earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Indiana University School of Music; and a graduate performance diploma from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. Bekker’s debut CD, “Twentieth Century Duos,” received worldwide acclaim and a nomination for the International Classical Music Awards.
Bekker landed his first job as a violinist in Houston with the Houston Symphony and the Houston Grand Opera and Ballet Orchestra. It was during his first year there that fate’s hand moved. “David Stahl recruited me to audition for a concert master position with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra,” recalls Bekker. “I won that audition, but it wasn’t long after things started to go downhill due to the 2008 Recession. The orchestra shut down in 2010, and David Stahl passed away. It was a terrible, tragic time.”
David Stahl was an American conductor who served as the music director and intendant of the Staatstheater am Gärtnerokatz in Munich, and the music director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra from 1984 until his untimely death in October 2010. A student of Leonard Bernstein, he was famous for his interpretation of Mahler’s works.
From 2010 to 2014, Bekker served as the interim artistic director for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and with the help of board members, musicians and contributors orchestrated a comeback for the organization through the development of a new operating model. About the same time, the conducting bug reared its glorious head again. “I was asked to become the conductor of the College of Charleston Orchestra.” Bekker smiles. “I accepted. How can one get better at conducting? Well, you get better by doing it … there’s only so much you can do by waving in front of a mirror.”
“Yuriy is my friend, collaborator, and colleague,” state Edward Hart, dean of the School of the Arts at the College of Charleston, and one of the most influential voices in the world of classical music who walks the walk time and time again. “I believe that he is the single most important and influential figure in the Charleston music community. In the Pantheon of Charleston arts leaders, he is right up there with David Stahl, Gian Carlo Menotti and Ellen Moryl.”
“I’ve been conducting the college orchestra for 12 years now,” adds Bekker. “I love the students and am so proud of them. The orchestra has been asked to perform at Kennedy Center later this year. It’s very exciting.”
Even as he took on the director position with the College of Charleston Orchestra, he poured his energy toward the Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s comeback.
“I am very proud that during the four years when I was interim artistic director, the organization’s membership grew,” he continues. “We doubled our audience during that time, and things started to improve. Then we hired a music director. When his contract ended, the board appointed me to the role of artistic director. I oversee artistic operations. We invite world renowned, Grammy winning, Emmy winning guest conductors to conduct the Masterworks. I conduct the Charleston Pops and I do occasional concerts. I love our orchestra. We have a fantastic organization, and it’s very much committed to our community. We like to call ourselves, ‘Charleston’s Symphony’ because it’s for everyone in the community.”
The Holiday Pops! concert held in December exemplifies the orchestra’s commitment to the Charleston community. Expanded to three performances, the concert offerings included a wide range of selections from classic Christmas carols to a Chanukah Overture to modern songs from the stage and screen. The nearly 80 orchestra musicians included the orchestra’s 24 permanent members, with the rest drawn from the best of the best professional musicians from across the country. Also on stage during the concert was the Charleston Symphony Chorus, under the direction of Dr. Robert Taylor, along with the Cane Bay High School Chorus, directed by William Bennett. Their collaborative vocals warmed the hearts and spirits of audience members despite the unusually cold temperatures outside.
“We are fortunate to perform in the beautiful Gaillard Center,” Bekker notes. “They are our partners, and we have a wonderful relationship with them. They help make our success possible.”
Visitors to YouTube may discover Yuriy Bekker interviewing none other than Yuriy Bekker, a video that encapsulates his joy and playfulness toward his organization and his efforts to take the symphony to the masses. Dig a little deeper on YouTube and relive the day in 2018 when he played a rare 1686 Ex-Natchez Stradivarius in concert before an appreciative crowd, then later turned around and played that historic instrument for cancer patients and their caregivers in an intensive care unit. When Bekker says it’s for everyone, he means everyone.
Dean Hart had his exclamation-point moment experiencing his friend play a Stradivarius for his “Under an Indigo Sky” concerto 11 years ago. “Yuriy is one of the finest violinists I have ever heard,” states Dean Hart.
Every step Yuriy Bekker has taken him from Belarus to Brooklyn to Bloomington, Ind. to Baltimore to Houston and finally home to Charleston has been an important one in his journey to becoming a world-class violinist … and conductor. “I love Charleston,” he says. “Charleston is home for me. I’ve lived here for 15 years now, and this is the longest place I’ve lived any place in my life, so this is truly my home. I embrace this culture. I love what Charleston has to offer, and I enjoy it deeply. I wish, in some ways, I had more time to enjoy nature and the beaches, and just stroll around.” He also said that someday he’d like to go fishing … maybe just once.
Bekker spends his off time with family. His wife, Jenny, is a part-time pharmacist at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Medical Center and the full-time mother to the couple’s two young children.
After months of planning, tickets have gone on sale for the orchestra’s 2023-24 season. Check out the preview now available online at charlestonsymphony.org. Bekker’s little secret is finally out: He’ll be conducting one of the Masterworks concerts.
“It’s a big honor for me,” he concludes.