Sibelius with his Jewish friend, Boris

Sibelius with his Jewish friend, Boris


norman lebrecht

November 29, 2019

In the 1930s, Finland’s hub of modernism was the eastern town Viipuri, also known as Vyborg. It had cutting-edge architecture and heard contemporary music that would never get played in Helsinki.


Its conductor and conservatoire chief was Boris Wolfson, born Boris Osipovich Kaufman on April 3, 1893, in Vladikavkaz. He sometimes called himself Sirob, his first name backwards. On emigrating to the US he came Sirpo, founder of the Portland Chamber Orchestra. He died in 1967.

Many of Wolfson’s pupils and players in Viipuri were also Jewish, among them Naum Levin, future concertmaster of the Helsinki Philharmonic. Viipuri was surrendered to the Russians in 1945 and its musical history is only now being exhumed.

Here’s Sirob with his friend Jean Sibelius, and lots of young musicians, many of the Jews who perished in the coming wars.

Read more on Boris, here.



  • Mark says:

    On YouTube, there is a live recording of Bach D Minor Concerto (ed. Busoni) performed by Egon Petri with the Portland Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sirpo. Enjoy !

  • Jean says:

    When asked in public, Boris always strongly denied of having any Jewish origins. (But everyone knew the truth…)

    One of the members in Boris’ orchestra and music institute in Viipuri was Paul Cherkassky. – No wonder Shura Cherkassky had concerts in Viipuri during the 1930s.

    Paul Cherkassky was talented violinists and even premiered Sibelius’ Humoresques for violin and orchestra (under Sibelius’ baton) in 1919.

  • Peter Owen says:

    One of Sibelius’s favourite sopranos was Ida Ekman

    (and I understand he loved more than just her voice)

  • Nancy Minsky says:

    I grew up in Portland, and my brother had the fortune to study with Boris. It is major family lore, till today. I recall going to pick up my brother at the end of a summer camp session, the setting, the nature, which must have been around Maryelhurst was breathtaking, and the atmosphere of the young students with their string instruments, playing outdoors for the families remains, till today, a very powerful memory. He brought us all into the rich, pure, music heritage that he was born into and lived in. We were memorized, it was a rarity in Portland.

  • Bill Rosen says:

    The music camp was three weeks of bliss. It was located at Camp Menucha, the Meier family’s country retreat. Going there with Boris’ energy and inspiration flowing through all of us, we broke down barriers. Age and gender made no difference. All were united in our love of music and our weekly weekend performances. My weekly music lessons were also foundational. Our father enjoyed the lessons as much as I. He would sit on the edge of his seat for the whole hour.