The Benicia Youth Orchestra rehearses on Monday afternoons in Benicia’s historic Clock Tower, where the high ceilings and views of the Carquinez Strait make the perfect home for the ensemble’s classical repertoire. Rem Djemilev conducts the aspiring young musicians who perform at all levels for violin, flute, cello, mandolin, piano and other instruments. As they polish their pieces for the winter concert, they are focused and respectful—but during the breaks they are kids again, bursting into silliness.     

For Rem this is a sign that he has set the right tone. “The first couple of years of learning music really should be joyful and positive,” says Rem, who is always smiling and exuberant. “If it’s a positive experience for them, music can be a source of joy and excitement for an entire lifetime.”

Music has been in Rem’s heart since he was a young child. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan and moved with his parents to Moscow at the age of five. His father Roushen directed a trading base, and his mother Raissa was an engineer for the Energy Resource Department. She was one of many Soviet women who pursued male-dominated careers after WWII, when there was shortage of men (some 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians were killed in that war). Raissa’s father was an editor of a local newspaper, who was sent to a concentration camp for the last 25 years of his life because of a typo in Joseph Stalin’s name. As the family focused on building a better life for themselves, Raissa let go of her longtime dream to play piano. She wanted this for Rem, but with no room in their home for a piano, she gave him a violin. At the age of seven, Rem won his first prestigious violin competition.  

 “I believe that every child has many, many talents. No one is born without talent or ability,” says Rem, who has been teaching music for 36 years. “However, it’s very important the environment the child grows up in. I was very fortunate that my mom took me to concerts, theater, ballet, and good cinema. Music and art enrich our experiences and existence every day.”

Rem went to special music schools starting in grade school, graduating with his Master’s degree from the Moscow Conservatory in performance for violin, viola and piano. During this time he performed in the Soviet-American Youth Orchestra, making his first visit to the U.S. in 1988 to perform at venues, including the Lincoln and Kennedy Centers.  In 1990 he traveled the globe with the Arlekin String Quartet, eventually making roots in San Francisco, where they taught at SFSU. The quartet got their green cards to stay in the U.S., and continued to perform together for 22 years.

Currently Rem is the conductor of the Young People’s Orchestra in Berkeley, and the Young Performer’s Orchestra and Diablo Regional Youth Orchestra, both in Walnut Creek. He teaches at the Crowden School and the Black Pine Circle School in Berkeley. He also teaches private lessons in violin and viola. Happily settled in Benicia with his wife Ann and stepdaughter Clodagh—also a talented violinist—he has a dream to build his local program: “Having a great classical youth orchestra here seems so natural and so wonderful!”