The amazing life and tragic death of Bolshoi’s American leader

The amazing life and tragic death of Bolshoi’s American leader


norman lebrecht

April 24, 2015

Russia’s Classical Music News has a fascinating article on Leon Zaks who, born in Canada of Russian-Jewish parents based in Detroit, was taken back to the USSR after his father joined the American Communist Party.

Leon’s music education began in Moscow at age seven. He went on to study with David Oistrakh before landing a seat in the Bolshoi orchestra and eventually being promoted to concertmaster. He was, for many, the very essence of Moscow’s musical sound.

And then he went on vacation to Greece…. Read here (in Russian).



  • Petros Linardos says:

    Thank you very much for bringing this fascinating story to our attention. I was able to get an impression of it using Google’s automatic translation.

    Leon Zaks died during the Bolshoi orchestra and ballet’s August 1977 short residency at the Athens Festival. His fatal accident happened while they were taking a day trip to
    Epidauros by bus. Reportedly, during a short stop on the road between Athens and Epidauros, Zaks tumbled down a slope of a mountain. The accident caught a lot of attention from the Greek press, even from the Greek public television (there was no Greek private TV until 1989). I vividly remember attending a Bolshoi performance of the ballet Giselle, right after the accident, where we all held of moment of silence in memory of Leon Zaks.

    Leonid Kogan is mentioned as one of Zaks’ classmates at the Moscow Conservatory. Leonid Kogan and his son Pavel played the J.S. Bach concerto with the Bolshoi Theater Orchestra during the 1977 Athens visit – before Zaks’ accident, if I remember correctly.

  • Mark says:

    The Russian emigre violinist Arthur Shtilman, who played in the Bolshoi and the Met orchestras, wrote an article on Leon Zaks, where he suggests that Zaks was about to apply for an exit visa. As he was an a prominent musician and an immigrant from North America, his decision to leave the USSR would have a been a major embarrassment for the Soviets. Mr. Shtilman seems to conclude that Leon Zaks’ death might not have been accidental …

  • Raymond Hoff says:

    Thank you for this. Leon was my cousin. His loss was tragic to his family. He is survived by his brother who now lives in California.

    His music lives on in many isolated recordings and I just had the opportunity to copy several to CD so that the ancient Melodiya pressings are not lost. We even have a “bootleg” copy of him playing on a 1/4″ tape that he snuck under his chair at the Bolshoi.