HOOKED ON CLASSICS ‌ Old Soul 

The CSO's young new concertmaster is a seasoned vet

My first idea was to write about parking. When I asked Yuriy Bekker, the new concertmaster for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, to come over to the bookstore to talk, the city was paving King and there was no on-street parking anywhere nearby.

Considering all the moaning I get about parking even when the meters are open, Bekker's response was a relief.

"Oh, please, I grew up in New York," he says. "Parking here is a joke."

We talked a little about the relatively simple restrictions and how low the fines are here. But as he told me more about his background it became clear he's handled bigger challenges in his 25 years than finding a nice spot on John Street.

In the early '90s, as the Soviet Union was crumbling, Bekker and his family left their native Belarus and settled in Brooklyn. He was 10 years old. Back in Minsk his father was "a big guy on campus," Bekker says, the head electrician for an office building. But in the U.S., both parents had to start over.

"Their degrees from Russian universities were not exactly valid here," he says, "so my parents had to go back to school."

They lived on public assistance. His mother, a teacher, earned three degrees in four years and got her teaching license.

"It's very difficult to get a job in music," Bekker says. "She was so persistent, I learned a lot from her. The same issues you run across in any job search: underqualified, overqualified, politics. I remember helping her fax her resumes -- she had a stack of rejections like this." He holds his hands a few inches apart.

Four months after finally getting work, Selima Bekker died unexpectedly, having been given the wrong medicine at a hospital. Yuriy was only 15. He looked older than that, though. To bring in extra cash, he started taking freelance gigs, sitting in with the Connecticut Grand Opera, the Hunter College Symphony, Ricky Martin at Madison Square Garden.

"Best gig I ever had," he says of the Latin bootie-shaker. "I was 17, got paid $100 for five minutes, all air-bow. A little secret: Whenever you see musicians on TV with a rock band, I'm telling you, it's air-bow."

Bekker found that if he kept a smile on his face and acted professionally, no one questioned his age. But with all the gigging, practicing suffered. For seven years he'd gone to the Lucy Moses School, a community arts school near Lincoln Center. His teachers suggested he get out of the city, and he went off to Indiana University, where he gave up freelancing to focus on practicing. And before he put himself, as he puts it, "under construction" for those five years, he used part of the malpractice settlement from his mother's death to buy an 1850 Villaume fiddle.

On the surface, Bekker is lighthearted and convivial, skills which helped him as an underage freelancer. He's a fan of the NBA and The 40-Year-Old Virgin -- although he worried admitting to the latter wouldn't be the right image for a symphony member. I told him the whole point of my column was to take the hot air out of classical music, something Bekker does naturally.

Regarding his mother's death, he seems to prefer to let his music be his emotional outlet.

Before leaving he talked about his bows, thumping the Brazilian pernambuco wood to show the resonance. He has three -- one heavy for your Brahms and your Mahler, one lighter for Mozart and such, and one beater for outdoor concerts.

He left for a rehearsal at the Gaillard. CSO musicians get their chits validated in the garage on Alexander Street, but we exchanged a few other parking tricks for the lower Calhoun area, secrets that I'll keep.


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