The City Magazine Since 1975

Pops Star

Pops Star
October 2017

Conductor, concertmaster, and violinist Yuriy Bekker kicks off Charleston Symphony Orchestra’s Pops series on October 26

PHOTO: Yuriy Bekker and the CSO Pops will open its 2017-2018 season this month at the Gaillard Center.

“When I come out on stage to take a bow, I see my friends in the audience. It’s a really warm feeling,” says Yuriy Bekker, who arrived in town a decade ago when he joined the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) as concertmaster (the lead violinist). The Belarusian émigré—who has performed with orchestras from Austria to Vancouver—then stepped into the role of principal pops conductor in 2016. On October 26, he begins a new season devoted to popular crowd-pleasers with “Happy Birthday, John Williams,” which includes film scores from the likes of Star Wars and the Harry Potter movies. Here, Bekker—also a teacher and conductor at College of Charleston—reveals his favorite composer, talks about his childhood in the former Soviet Union, and fills us in on fatherhood.

Growing up: Until I was 10, I lived in the former Soviet Union in Minsk, Belarus. I experienced many hardships and so much anti-Semitism there, and it was getting worse. My grandfather lived in the States, where many Russian Jews were moving, and he got us a place in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. My parents sacrificed their lives and careers so my brother and I could have a better life. Before emigrating, we sold everything we had—my mom’s books, my great-grandfather’s beautiful piano—all for $70.

Coming to Charleston: In college, I played in the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra. Five years later, in 2006, while working for the Houston Symphony, my teacher suggested I audition for the concertmaster position in Charleston. I flew to town; won the audition; had a celebratory drink with the late David Stahl, the CSO’s music director; and flew back to Houston that same day to play a pops concert with Randy Travis.

On playing: I have always loved the violin, since I was seven. As a performer, I must think about what the composers wanted to say through their works and try to communicate that to the audience. When you’re a soloist, you must also integrate your personality as a musician.

On conducting: I developed an interest in conducting in high school and studied that as well. Conducting is a different art form. I see all the instruments in front of me, and yet, I’m in the middle of all these different sounds and harmonies. You’re the one who has to put the music together and at the same time inspire the musicians. Conducting has made me approach the violin in a different way.

Favorite composer: If I had to name one, I would say Gustav Mahler. (I even named my cat after him.) His music is very complex, but it’s also moving. In every symphony he incorporates a little klezmer [a type of Jewish folk music]. He was Jewish and also experienced a lot of anti-Semitism.

The CSO’s future: Performing in the Gaillard is such a joy, and I feel our orchestra has improved because of it. I would love to see more concerts with well-known musicians like Yo-Yo Ma. As the support grows, we will be able to do bigger and grander projects.

Offstage: I really like basketball. My wife, Jenny, is a Tar Heel, and I’m a Hoosier, so we have a fun rivalry. Nowadays, I spend a lot of time with my nine-month-old son, Nathanael. He has very long fingers, so we’re hoping he’s a pianist. Jenny plays the flute, and I’m a violinist—we need an accompanist.

Catch a Show: “Happy Birthday, John Williams“ takes place on October 26 at the Gaillard Center at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, head to