Meet the Musician: Cellist Igor Zubkovksy

Photography by Danielle Cho

Where did you grow up? Do you come from a musical family? 

I grew up in Moscow, Russia.  Both my parents are professional musicians - my father is a pianist, teacher and composer and my mother is a pianist who does a lot of accompanying - obviously, there was never a shortage of practicing with the piano which, of course, was and still is very beneficial.  

This is a video of me performing Tchaikovsky's Pezzo Capriccioso with my mother, Susanna Kolker.  

You can hear the piece Waltz "Recollection" composed by my father, Sergey Zubkovsky.  

Where did you do your musical studies?

My parents took me to the Gnessins Moscow Special School of Music when I was 5, and there was a very good cello teacher who I stayed with through the high school.

Then I entered the Moscow State Conservatory, and at the end of my first year there I got into the American Soviet Youth Orchestra that was made up of 50 young musicians from the United States and 50 from the Soviet Union, we toured numerous cities in both countries as well as Europe - Joshua Bell was the soloist and Leonard Slatkin one of the conductors.  Many of the students who were there are now in the top orchestras, including Michael Mayhew (who was my roommate on the tour), the horn player at the Cleveland Orchestra and Eric Lee, our own Associate Concertmaster.

What made you decide to pursue your musical career in the States?  Did you play in any ensembles previous to KCOHO?

Shortly after I finished my studies in Russia, I got a call from my friend who went to US a few years before and was studying at the Peabody Conservatory, and he said - hey, we need a cellist for the string quartet, would you be interested in applying for Peabody? I thought - sure, why not.  So I sent an audition tape and got a full scholarship for Graduate Performance Diploma.  It was a good experience, I especially enjoyed working with Earl Carlyss, the former violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet - not only going to his chamber music and string quartet classes but we actually got to perform together on numerous occasions and received critical acclaim.

At my second year at Peabody I started taking orchestra auditions and got an Assistant Principal position with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra which I keep to this day.  With this orchestra I performed Beethoven's Triple Concerto as a soloist, as well as many other symphony programs and their annual July 4 concert series.

HSO July 4th Concert

I also was a member of Pittsburgh Opera for one season, before winning an audition for Louisville Symphony in the summer of 2003 - but I only got to play one summer concert there because just a couple of months later I got my current position with KCOHO.

What is your position in the orchestra?

I am a member of the cello section.  Since there are only six cellos in our orchestra, on some occasions we all get to play principal.  Last season I have been acting principal for several WNO productions and played solo cello parts in operas Don Giovanni, Rigoletto (as part of “Justice at the Opera” concert that featured Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), and Champion, "An Opera in Jazz", where my job was to lead a cello section against the jazz quartet.  And in one number, called "Seven Babies", which is a big aria that Denise Graves was singing, there was a big cello line that accompanied her so that was quite an experience.

You have a very active chamber and solo career. What sorts of concerts have you played? Where have you performed?

Over the years I played in all sorts of chamber groups, starting at the Moscow Conservatory where first I became a part of the "Moscow Soloists" chamber orchestra conducted by famous violist Yuri Bashmet, then I was a member of the "Brahms-Trio" - we won top prizes at the chamber music competitions in Italy and Germany.  

Brahms Trio Announcement

Also, as a Grand-Prix winner at the 1st Tansman Competition in Poland, I performed solo with Lodz Symphony Orchestra and also recorded a CD (which is available on and Prestoclassical).  Here's the other CD with my solo appearance which is also available online.

Lodz Philharmonic program

Later, we formed a Capitol Piano Trio with pianist Anna Ouspenskaya and violinist David Chernyavsky who was then Assistant Concertmaster of the WNO Orchestra (currently he is a member of San Francisco Symphony).  We played locally and recorded a CD with trios of Mendelssohn and Babajanian. 

For about 7 years I've had a group called Marquis Ensemble - piano/clarinet/cello.  One of the highlights was the series of concerts in Paris.   Since the repertoire of our ensemble was limited, I've done some arrangements for the group, one of them - Gliere's Andante, originally for coloratura soprano and orchestra.

Also I performed at the Merkin Hall in NY, and was a soloist with Altoona Symphony, playing Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations.

Also, in recent years I traveled to Russia and performed concerts at the Rachmaninoff Hall in Moscow as well as in Yaroslavl and other cities.  Last year I returned to Bedford, MA where I played before.  You can watch part of my recital below.  

What has been your favorite musical experience at the Kennedy Center or elsewhere?

I really loved playing Puccini's Turandot.  And of course, - because I love playing Russian operas, - Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans which we performed in 2005 with Mirella Freni singing the title role.  I also collaborate with the local opera company Bel Cantanti, which only uses a string quartet instead of the full strings.  It's a combination of chamber music and opera - every musician is responsible for their parts since everything is so magnified.  The director of the company, Katerina Souvorova, is also Russian, and we got to perform such operas as Glinka's Russlan and Lyudmila, Rachmaninov's Aleko, and this season they are staging Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko.

Igor warming up before the Bel Cantati performance of Menotti's, The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore.

What are you most looking forward to this season? 

This season we have two Verdi's operas that I have never played before.  We just finished "Aida" which I enjoyed very much, and now I am looking forwar to "Don Carlo" with our Music Director Philippe Auguin in March.

Do you have any hobbies outside of the orchestra?

I've done some arranging - mostly duos and trios with a cello.  I teach privately and publicly.  This year, I was on the faculty at the Miami Music Festival where I did private lessons and masterclasses, performed at the faculty recital (with a WNO violinist Michelle Kim) and also played in the orchestra with students.  We performed an all-Wagner program with our KCOHO colleague Michael Rossi conducting.  Michael is the second trumpet player and a conductor who founded this great music festival in Miami.

Also this year I will be one of the judges for the Friday Morning Music Club High School Competition and the Washington International Competition for Strings (preliminary round).

Please visit my YouTube channel where you can see my other videos.