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Vladimir Spivakov: Filling a deficit of love
Toronto Star
12 November 2010
William Littler

When Show One brings Vladimir Spivakov and his Moscow Virtuosi to Toronto Nov.18, expect a small table to be set up in the lobby of Roy Thomson Hall, similar to the one that appeared last Saturday in San Francisco's Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.

For sale on that table, in addition to the usual compact discs, will be a non-profit DVD bearing a photograph of one of Russia's foremost violinist-conductors, surrounded by a stage full of small children, some of them carrying bouquets of flowers, some of them musical instruments. The DVD, a documentary film, carries the title Vladimir Spivakov: Because I Love.

That title says much about the man who won the Montreal International Violin Competition and so many others (including the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow) in the late 1960s, launching one of the most brilliant solo violin careers of the past half century.

That career continues, but as the man with the Stradivarius reflected, over a post-concert bowl of udon noodles in one of San Francisco's ubiquitous Asian restaurants, "I eventually grew bored with the lonely life of a soloist. I like company."

And so, after making a conducting debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and without direction from the all-powerful Soviet Ministry of Culture, he gathered together a group of friends and colleagues and founded the Moscow Virtuosi in 1979.

It wasn't the first modern Russian chamber orchestra. That distinction belonged to Rudolf Barshai's Moscow Chamber Orchestra. But it was the first to have launched itself independent of government sponsorship and for that act of bravado it initially paid a price.

Its founder still remembers early tours of Siberia, during which people brought food from their own kitchens to feed the musicians. Had it not been for an invitation to take up residence in Spain for three years, the orchestra might not have survived.

But survive it did and with a change in Kremlin leadership ("the mayor of Moscow gave us a warm welcome"), its value as a cultural ambassador came to be recognized by the Russian government. By April, 1992 it had already played its 1,000th concert and recorded an impressive number of albums for the BMG/RCA Victor Red Seal label. Two years later the Russian Space Centre celebrated its principal conductor's 50th birthday by naming a small planet Spivakov.

Today, Vladimir Spivakov still craves company. Expanding his orchestral duties to lead the Russian National Orchestra and, more recently, the National Philharmonic of Russia (which he brought to Roy Thomson Hall last season), he is as busy with his baton as with his bow.

Less well known is how busy he has become with the subject of that documentary DVD, his humanitarian and charitable activities. Days after the earthquake in Armenia and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, he and the Moscow Virtuosi were flying to the affected areas to perform charity concerts. Hundreds of similar events have taken them throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union.

In 1994 he expanded these activities by founding the Vladimir Spivakov International Charity Foundation to improve living standards for orphans and disabled children and to nourish young talent through scholarships and grants.

"When the Soviet Union fell apart," he explains, "those who suffered most in the early years were older people and children. I asked myself, 'what can I do?' So I founded a foundation and gave part of my performing fees to it. Other musicians with good hearts joined me.

"Since then more than 10,000 children have been helped by the foundation. In the film you see a boy of 2 years and 11 months who needed open heart surgery. Now he is playing the violin. His parents never told me so but I learned that they visit the graves of my parents and pray there.

"Each year we have a big festival in Moscow and bring children from all over. Many of them are disabled but they all play and dance together. The best of them play with the Moscow Virtuosi."

When asked why he does all these things, Spivakov looked puzzled:

"I don't really know. But the foundation is probably the most important thing I do. The biggest deficit in the world today is not a deficit of energy; it is a deficit of love. Children should grow up knowing that somebody loves them."

Somebody does.