MONTREAL -- Conductor Yuli Turovsky used to tell a joke that began with three parrots in a pet shop. The first one, the customer was told, cost $5,000 because it could sing Bach. The second one, at $50,000, was more expensive because it whistled a Chopin sonata. The third parrot, a shabby-looking bird, had no discernible talent but cost $500,000. "What makes it so expensive?" the customer asked. "I don't know," the bird-shop owner answered, "But the other two birds call him Maestro."
Mr. Turovsky, who died on Jan. 15 in Montreal at the age of 73 of complications from Parkinson's disease, was a cellist who founded and led the chamber music orchestra I Musici de Montréal. He liked his humour on the self-deprecating side, calling himself a "semiconductor," but he was a celebrated musician who rubbed shoulders with some of the titans of 20th-century Russian classical music.
Principal cello in the prestigious Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Mr. Turovsky played under renowned conductor Rudolf Barshai. Having dreamed of starting his own orchestra, he and his musician wife, Eleonora, immigrated to Montreal and did just that - all with no start-up money, too little sleep, lengthy rehearsals, plenty of moxie and a talent for recognizing diamonds in the rough.
"He dreamed big and believed in all of us," said Françoise Morin-Lyons, a violinist with I Musici since it began in 1983.
Yuli Fyodorovich Turovsky was born on June 7, 1939, in Moscow, the only child of Fyodor, a lawyer and Lyusya (née Beilis), a university professor. He was enrolled at a young age in the nearby Moscow Central Music School.
Yuli often practised in the bathroom of his cramped home. His mother, who had big dreams for him, was often nervous during his concerts. From the stage, Yuli could see her in the audience, her eyes shut tight. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory, where the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and iconic composer Dmitri Shostakovich would be among those walking its hallways. It was there that he met 16-year-old violinist Eleonora Leonova, whom he would eventually marry and remain with until her death last March.
In his 20s, Mr. Turovsky decided to audition for the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, just for the experience, but ended up getting in. His career soared, as he became one of a small number of Soviets permitted to travel abroad. By 1969, now married to Eleonora and with a young daughter, Natasha, he had won the USSR Cello Competition. A year later, he finished in second place in the Prague Spring International Competition.
Although his musical world felt wide open and full of opportunity, Mr. Turovsky knew the Soviet Union remained a repressive state. In the early 1960s, his father's legal talent had proved to be a thorn in the side of the political class after he overturned a death sentence for an immigrant youth who appeared to be a scapegoat for a crime committed by an official's son. The young man was eventually executed and Fyodor was sent to a Siberian labour camp.
By the mid-1970s, Turovsky's father and his wife both tried to convince him they needed to leave, the family's Jewish status giving them a greater chance to emigrate. Yuli acquiesced, and he and his young family and his parents received notice that they had three weeks to pack up their belongings.
Their post-Soviet life began with a six-month stay in Italy, where several concerts and some fortuitous connections ensued. Mr. Turovsky got together with two former classmates who were living in Poland, husband and wife Rostislav Dubinsky and Luba Edlina. The three became the Borodin Trio and remained an ensemble for 16 years, touring Europe, the U.S. and Australia, and recording on the Chandos label.
While in Italy, Mr. Turovsky kept in touch with Montreal musician Gaelyne Gabora, with whom he had played in Moscow. She invited him to Montreal, where he gave a concert and got to see the city. Mr. Turovsky had found his new home.
When the family arrived there in 1977, Mr. Turovsky made a courtesy call to Eugenio Festa, the brother of one of his Italian friends.
Festa came right over, picked up the Turovskys and took them out to dinner. A well-connected businessman, he began to introduce the couple to members of Montreal's establishment. Festa later became I Musici's first board member.
Mr. Turovsky's first years in Montreal brought opportunities: He taught cello at the Conservatoire de musique de Québec à Montréal from 1977 to 1985; and a 1981 faculty appointment at the Université de Montréal would last more than 30 years. In those early days, he spoke neither French nor English, often having to employ a series of indications and grunts to communicate with students. No matter, said Ms. Morin-Lyons, who had been Mr. Turovsky's student at Courtenay Youth Music Camp, in B.C., during his first summer in Canada. "Within five minutes, I realized I was being taught by one of the great pedagogues."
Internationally acclaimed cellist Stéphane Tétreault, like many of Mr. Turovsky's students, spoke of the passion he instilled. "He always said that when you're on stage you have to play like it's the last time," he told a Radio-Canada interviewer. Before every performance, he told his musicians, "Have fun!"
Ms. Morin-Lyons said that the conductor was not the type to simply ask a musician to play, say, mezzo staccato, but instead used an image of perhaps walking on the Siberian tundra and hearing the crunch of the snow.
I Musici's repertoire became a mix of popular, adapted pieces for quartet and reworked orchestral arrangements, with lesser-known jewels from mid-20th-century composers. In 1987, it received the Canadian Music Council's Ensemble of the Year award, and in 1994 became the first Canadian orchestra to perform in China and Vietnam. With Mr. Turovsky directing, and occasionally playing cello, the 15-piece string orchestra would perform in 23 countries and make more than 50 recordings. Mr. Turovsky also performed internationally as a solo cellist and appeared on more than 80 recordings.
Seven years ago, he began to feel the first effects of Parkinson's disease, losing sensation in a couple of fingers. He adjusted his cello playing, but as the disease progressed, he found it difficult to turn the pages of his score, and his on-stage gestures became more rigid. Several flubs happened, including a finale being played twice, both times with the same error, according to a 2007 review in Le Devoir. In 2009, the paper's classical music critic, Christophe Huss, deemed one concert "a sad mess." That same year, with a diminished Mr. Turovsky still conducting, he wrote that the organization had to ask itself whether it really was Montreal's chamber orchestra or simply a family operation. A couple of his musicians recently defended his decision to stay on so long, both saying in different ways that even if he had lost the entire use of his body and had only his eyes to look at them, he could still ably direct.
Mr. Turovsky capitulated in 2011 and retired from conducting, though he decided to start the Nouvelle Génération Chamber Orchestra as a nod to his students whom he felt needed performance opportunities.
At his funeral, musicians from both Nouvelle Génération and I Musici played together the three pieces that Mr. Turovsky had chosen before he died. The last piece was by Shostakovich - a polka, of all things. For a man who regaled many with his jokes, it was, his daughter says, his final punch line.