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Master of all classes

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His second life began on November 24, 1996: while conducting a performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Mikhail Jurowski suffered a heart attack. Fortunately, the theater doctor was there immediately, the 61-year-old made a quick recovery in hospital, and six months later he was back in front of an orchestra.

Michail Jurowski was a choirmaster in the best sense of the word, an unassuming mediator between the musicians and the audience, who always put the music first, working with the score to the best of his knowledge. “I’m not proud,” he told his biographer Michael Ernst on the occasion of his 70th birthday, “I’m happy.”

In the Soviet Union he suffered from anti-Semitism.

It really wasn’t easy for him in his life as an artist. Jurowski’s grandmother died in a pogrom and his father was so seriously injured when he was a child that he suffered from back pain for life. And Mikhail, who was born in 1945, repeatedly had to live bitter experiences with anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. For example, that as a Jew you always “had to start ten kilometers further back”. When he competed in a directing competition in 1971, he was advised in the second round that he call in sick.

In Moscow he could only work at the Stanislavsky Theater, the Bolshoi was closed to him. When the Komische Oper wanted to hire him in 1978, the official decree was made: but only for ballet performances. Not in vain, in 1990, when he was already 45 years old, he took the opportunity to go west with his whole family to start a second life. Thanks to his iron discipline and his tireless work ethic, he made it.

It was in high demand in Berlin in the 1990s.

Jurowski was much in demand in Berlin, especially in the Russian repertoire, becoming a regular guest conductor at the Radio Symphony Orchestra (RSB) and the Deutsche Oper, and of course continuing to conduct at the Komische Oper. He held senior positions with the Northwest German Philharmonic Orchestra in Herford, the Volkstheater in Rostock, the Leipzig Opera and the WDR Radio Orchestra in Cologne.

In his adoptive home in Berlin, he settled with his wife and three children in Berlin-Spandau. How inspiring the atmosphere was in the musicians’ home is also demonstrated by the fact that the daughter and both sons have gone on to professional careers in classical music, most successfully Vladimir, who has been director of the RSB since 2017.

Michiel Jurowski saw himself as the composers’ servant: “We don’t play music, we speak it,” he explained. He felt that conducting was the “art of transmission”: abstract notes become wordless through emotional identification in a communicable manual skills and percussion techniques in the other language. Mikhail Yurovsky has died at the age of 76.

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