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The New York Philharmonic

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Biography
Wassily Safonoff

1906–09

b. Ishcherskaya, Russia, February 6, 1852
d. Kislovodsk, Russia, February 27, 1918

Wassily Safonov, known as Safonoff in the West during his lifetime, was born to a father who was a Cossack general. His father’s job led the family to Saint Petersburg, a city that introduced young Safonoff to a life in music. He studied piano with Theodore Leschitizky, graduating from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music and winning the gold medal there as a pianist. He eventually joined the staff of the Moscow Conservatory in 1889, ultimately replacing the composer Alexander Taneyev as director, and spent the majority of his time teaching notable Russian pianists including Alexander Scriabin and Nikolai Medtner.

After retiring from teaching, Safonoff became well known as a conductor, and he was invited to conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1904. His fiery style — he often conducted without a baton — made him a favorite with the ensemble and audience alike, especially in the music of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. After several seasons without a permanent conductor, the Orchestra asked Safonoff to become its sole director in 1906. Safonoff brought a foreign cachet and renewed energy to the Philharmonic’s enterprises. More concerts were added to the season, and ticket revenues increased, only to gradually decline again by the end of his third year. The allure of the international virtuoso conductor was no longer enough to compensate for the organizational shortcomings that had limited the Orchestra’s growth to that point.

At the conclusion of his Philharmonic tenure, Safonoff returned to Russia and resumed his career as a pianist. He spent his last years teaching and writing a book on piano technique.

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