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Range Opera Now an Annual Event

Gavriel Heine—Gavi to friends and family—has always cherished his connection to music.

This affinity isn’t surprising given that his mother, Aurora native Veda Zuponcic, is a classical pianist. Although Heine dabbled in piano lessons during his early years, he eventually transitioned to the violin. But the instruction methods clashed with his preferences, requiring him to stand even during practice sessions. “And I didn’t like standing up,” Heine admitted.

Seeking an alternative, he found his comfort with the cello, an instrument that allowed him to sit while playing, even though he always had a soft spot for drums.

Heine was raised in New Jersey, where his mother is a music professor at Rowan University. During the early ’80s, she established the Hollybush Festival, and by 1987, she had added a U.S./Russian competition for composers to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Lyndon Johnson/Alexei Kosygin summit held at the university’s Hollybush mansion. She made several trips to the Soviet Union, often with Heine tagging along. “In 1991, I spent five weeks there, taking private cello lessons. I learned more in those five weeks than in five years back home,” he said.

He recalled that the teaching techniques in Russia were vastly different but incredibly effective. “I wanted to play the cello like that,” Heine reflected.

Renowned Russian cello teacher Stefan Kalianov suggested Heine complete high school in America before returning to study under him at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. In 1998, Heine became the first American to graduate from this prestigious institution.

Aiming to be an orchestra conductor, Heine then pursued studies under professor Ilya Musin at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Three years later, Heine returned to America, earning a master’s degree in conducting from Indiana University in 2003. His parents had also attended IU, where his mother studied music and his lawyer father developed an appreciation for the arts. “He was falling in love with music while falling in love with this girl from Minnesota,” Heine reminisced.

He himself found love at IU, marrying Eliso, a fellow student who studied violin, in 2004. Their son Daniel plays both the oboe and the electric bass. “We’ve got classical musicians and rockers in our family,” Heine said.

While studying the cello in Moscow, Heine played drums in a rock band. The group created its own music with English lyrics and performed covers of Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Pink Floyd.

Following his studies, Heine spent four years as chief conductor of the Kharkiv Symphony Orchestra in Ukraine. In 2007, he joined the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, serving as resident conductor for ballet, opera, and symphony performances.

During his time there, Heine conducted more than 850 performances.

The course of his career changed dramatically in early 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. Witnessing the destruction of Kharkiv by Russian rockets deeply affected him. “It just broke my brain,” he said, which led him to resign from his position at the Mariinsky Theater. “That period of my life has ended.”

Heine and his family departed St. Petersburg, traveling to Finland on a shuttle before flying back to the United States. They now reside in New Jersey, where Heine freelances as a conductor for both ballet and opera. His recent engagements include conducting stints at the Opéra de Paris in France, as well as in England, Switzerland, Georgia, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, and across various U.S. cities, including New Orleans, New York, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Charlotte. He is also set to work in Norway soon.

Currently, until July 21, Heine is conducting the orchestra at the Northern Lights Music Festival.

“This isn’t just a music festival,” he said. “It’s personal; it’s her (Veda Zuponcic) giving back to the Range because the Range gave her so much. It’s not just a pretty northern location with birch trees and fishing.”

Addressing the perception that classical music might not resonate with everyone, Heine suggests, “Well, you’d be surprised what’s for you. Americans have a tradition of attending ‘The Nutcracker’ around Christmas. This Tchaikovsky ballet is part of many Americans’ holiday tradition. Just expand that a bit and make it more than just for Christmas.

I understand some may lack experience with opera or music, but they might have some reference point. Maybe they played an instrument as a child or took dance lessons. Give it a shot; you might be surprised.”

In 2011, Heine took a brief hiatus from his role at the Mariinsky Conservatory to conduct NLMF’s first opera. Opera has since become an integral part of the festival. “It’s like going to the movies, except everything’s live—and everything’s sung!” he enthused. “Music amplifies the story.”

This year’s operetta, Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” will be performed in English on Friday, July 12, in Aurora, and again on Sunday, July 14, in Chisholm.

“I love to be in Minnesota,” Heine expressed warmly. “I have nothing but love for the Range.”

He fondly recalled visiting his grandparents, Helen and Herman Zuponcic, in Aurora. Spending time with his cousins, feeling free, and being embraced by the community are cherished memories. “People were really, really nice,” he said. “We were so spoiled.”

Source: Minnesota Star, Local Gazette