Conductor. The most famous Soviet classical conductor of his time, noted for his gutsy, impassioned performances of the Russian and Romantic repertories. He became an international star during the Cold War era and politics played a pivotal role in his career. Kirill Petrovich Kondrashin was born in Moscow into a musical family. He studied conducting under Boris Khaikin at the Moscow Conservatory from 1931 to 1936, and was a finalist at the 1938 All-Union Conductors Competition, losing to Yevgeny Mravinsky. In 1936 he was appointed a conductor at the Maly Theatre in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and from 1943 to 1956 he was associate conductor of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, leading both opera and ballet. He then turned to the concert hall, his style conditioned by his theatrical experience. Unlike the commanding Mravinsky, Kondrashin embraced a warmer, more democratic approach to music making. He preferred to conduct without a baton, relying on coaxing hand gestures and eye contact with the musicians to get what he wanted. This personal interaction made him a superb accompanist in concertos, as evidenced in his work with pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and other top Russian virtuosi. In 1958 he stepped onto the world stage at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, accompanying the winner, American pianist Van Cliburn. This event and their subsequent appearances together in the USSR and the US were a triumph of cultural diplomacy at a time when relations between the two nations were at a bitter stalemate. The RCA Cliburn-Kondrashin recordings of Tchaikovsky's 1st and Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concertos became bestsellers and are still considered classics. From 1960 to 1975 Kondrashin was music director of the Moscow Philharmonic, during which time he made vast improvements to its performance standards. Along with the music of his countrymen (both 19th and 20th Centuries) he specialized in Mahler and was strong with Wagner, Liszt, Bartok and Hindemith. He was especially close with Dmitri Shostakovich, whom he called "the moral conscience of music in Russia", and gave two important premieres of his works. Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 (1961) was written 25 years earlier but never performed because of a Stalinist campaign that branded the composer an "enemy of the people"; its resurrection under Kondrashin was seen as a step forward in the post-Stalin "thaw" of the arts. More controversial was Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar", 1962), a choral setting of poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko that sharply critiqued Soviet society. The authorities attempted to sabotage the premiere by having the lead vocalist and his understudy reassigned at the last minute, but Shostakovich and Kondrashin had secretly coached a third singer and the concert went on as scheduled. The work was finally proscribed for several years. Kondrashin went on to record all 15 Shostakovich symphonies, the first conductor to do so. Apart from the "Babi Yar" episode he appeared to be a model of political orthodoxy. He was the recipient of two Stalin Prizes (1948 and 1949) and was named People's Artist of the USSR in 1972. Thus it came as a shock on both sides of the "iron curtain" when, in December 1978, Kondrashin sought political asylum in The Netherlands during a concert tour. He was immediately named Principal Guest Conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Relishing his newfound freedom, he launched into a hectic schedule of concertizing and recordings. In September 1979 he succeeded Rafael Kubelik as head of Munich's famed Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in what was then West Germany. Although he was never officially named music director for that ensemble - perhaps to avoid antagonizing Soviet Bloc East Germany - he functioned in that capacity until his death. Kondrashin died of a heart attack hours after celebrating his 67th birthday with a Mahler concert. Burial was in Amsterdam. His extensive recorded legacy was banned in the Soviet Union after his defection to the West, but began to reappear in the late 1980s.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards