Since I remember myself, there were sounds of violin and piano. I must have been present during hundreds of hours of scrupulous work, when my grandmother was teaching my sister the violin, long before being aware of what it all really meant. Music was all around me. My mother played the piano. Often the violin students of The Moscow Conservatory came to rehearse chez nous, and that is how I became familiar with every microscopic detail of most violin pieces she had accompanied. My mother loved accompanying, she made everyone feel confident, even in most treacherous passages. We knew she would always wait, or, in any case, do just the right thing in order to support a player. Masterful accompanists are hard to come by; they must be cherished.
It was Spring of 1986 when I was taken to my sister’s violin lesson. At that time The Soviet Union was still in the “high achievement” phase in the arts. The promising talents were screened in rigorous exams and were selected or rejected for The Central Music School or The Gnessin School in Moscow, to study with the best and the toughest and, later, win International Competitions. The school’s vestibule is often in y thoughts, where the often-not-so-friendly-mothers were waiting for their little musicians to take them home. I was “chosen” at my sister’s lesson as someone gifted as I sang themes from the Mendelssohn Concerto she was playing, and was told that I shall be a violinist.
I began touring when I started school in the class of Iryna Bochkova. Sadly, I never kept a journal and I don’t remember half of the places where the violin took me. My mother almost always accompanied me, often my sister was participating in the same concert. Most of the time, I liked traveling, except for when I had to be made up and wait for hours for tv programs or if we forgot my favorite card games for the endless train rides.
I wore the obligatory Soviet black and brown school uniform for only a year. Soon, there appeared colors in clothing, often in hideous combinations, but, finally, colors! My mother returned from Genova, having accompanied in the Paganini Violin Competition, with treasures like a pair of jeans, Adidas sneakers and a beautiful pink pencil container for me. I still remember how superior I felt bringing it to school.
One of the most memorable trips abroad was to Paris. I was eight. I don’t remember the concerts well, but I remember very warm audiences, much warmer that in Moscow. A typical scenario of the initial trips abroad was: lots of practicing, stressful concerts and, if we were lucky, a few hours the day after to glance at a city and try to find needed items for the loved ones back home. In Paris, we mounted the Tour Eiffel! A long subway ride later, I remember someone saying, -“Sacré Coeur is up there,” before all the “chosen” musicians disappeared for hours in a strange store with pink boards and four blue letters, which had absolutely everything, smelled bad and made us all dizzy. I have two surviving pictures from the trip, me in a concert top, sewn by my grandmother, and sports shoes, by the Louvre, and another, next to the shoe store, which had not five but fifty-five pairs of shoes. It was unheard of in our country back then.
I learned pieces very fast, was quiet and obedient and the youngest in the violin studio. I was branded lubimitza by my teachers and some admirers, which has a flat translation in English: a favorite. I never had any stage fright. Playing with orchestras was rather exhilarating than frightening. When I was about eleven, playing the Wieniawski Concerto no 2, someone told me that it is difficult. And so it became. Concerts grew in size and scared me at night. By then I already went through a series of disappointments in competitions and had understood and feared that I will not always be a lubimitza.
In the early nineties the struggle among artists in my country was clouded by some unbelievable changes. Everything appeared to be on hold. Suddenly, “vse uekhali,”- that was the main subject whispered in the vestibule of my school, which meant, everyone left! The sheer quantity of the new and different to digest was astounding. The Russian I used with my peers was a coded language, which changed almost every day. My peers and I weren’t listening to the classical records anymore, how could we, when, in the early 90’s, we had discovered Michael Jackson and Madonna and what their music did to crowds! New expressions, new ways of thinking, something about being free, books by Freud, imported goods and Gods, but mainly, the question - how to leave for the West. Not because things were especially desperate, but because everyone else was leaving.
Towards the end of my high-school years, the concerts and the traveling slowed down. Music did not appear to help the new Russians to build a new Russia. So, I left for the New World. By that time I had gained a friend and, to this day, my life mentor, Heidi. We met in Suzdal, another showcase festival for the “chosen” youngsters, where she had heard me. We are friends ever since.
I lived in a dormitory for two years and was proud to catch up on the joys and sorrows of the students who lodged in the dormitory in my school in Moscow. In the beginning, it was all about tests, quizzes, freshmen colloquium, orientation meetings; all of which was as exotic as can be for a product of the Soviet Russia. As I didn’t hear any others, I thought I was the worst violinist in school, as they placed me in the tail of the second violins in the school orchestra. Later, it was explained to me that this was the tradition with freshmen, - I never understood why, as a woman, I had the ending in “men”.
At that time only my family, once every other week on the phone, reminded me of the term lubimitza, as I felt so far from it. I had never played in an orchestra before. A string ensemble where my sister and I played was as close as I came to playing in a large group. The “chosen” ones were always protected from orchestra and chamber music, because it supposedly got in the way of the individual practicing. Well, Cleveland and Peter Salaff, my chamber music idol, was about to change my whole, then rather limited, view on music.
My first serious chamber piece was an early Haydn Quartet. There is no doubt, I was at my maximum capacity of being nervous performing the purest of music, with colleagues who had no opportunity to rehearse and run through the piece hundreds of times, as I did in Moscow with the solo repertoire. No need to describe the extremely competitive system in schools in the U.S. with its highs and lows. The luck was on my side while I was at The Cleveland Institute of Music with Linda and David Cerone, and later in The Indiana University. I won the Concerto Competitions and was able to get back on track performing with orchestras after a few years gap. In other contests, the luck came and went as it pleased. I failed in many. Won a few. Sadly, to this day, I have not learned the ultimate art of keeping a cool head when the jurors carry out the verdict “guilty.” I always want specific details on my performance and need an explanation on just why didn’t they like me; much like what an abandoned soul craves to hear when a relationship disintegrates.
I graduated in the full attire, a mortarboard included. My mother, for the first time in her life, crossed the ocean and got a glimpse of my life in America. The students in the Moscow Conservatory then were so preoccupied with finding the means to survive, while continuing to be musicians, seeing students in the U.S. fully dedicated to studies was a breath of fresh air for my mother. Then again, I did not take her along to the multiple “gigs” I was doing to also survive in America, so, she didn’t get a chance to see some unbelievably staged weddings and funerals, where the excited organizers wave at the annoying violinist to stop when candles are lit or extinguished. At the graduation, I also met my future professor Jaime Laredo. He has the biggest smile I came across in the music world.
Jaime repaired something I had been struggling through for all the transitional years in my country and in my life; feeling the joy while sharing music. It was never a lesson, but rather a performance for him. I felt as if I was channeling the music through someone, who cherished and appreciated every effort of someone transmitting the composer’s ideas. The room next to Jaime’s belongs to a man, with loving and piercing eyes, who, after long days of traveling across the world, is still searching for some new ideas in the already so well-known repertoire, late in the night. As Mr. Pressler opened the door to coach a Schumann Trio, I felt I was entering a sanctuary, where all breathes music. After exactly an hour, as he never runs late, I had learned more about the world of Schumann and how one can express it with such limited means as fingers, than one could ever imagine. I am not the one to judge what is important to add in one’s biography, but this moment is carved in my heart and helps me go on as a musician. Another memorable moment in Bloomington was playing for the only remaining smoker on campus, the grand Janos Starker. I won’t compete with the numerous descriptions of his pedagogy methods, but I would like to share my amazement at how one can transmit so much and with such efficiency, in so few words.
In Bloomington lives a dear friend, colleague, and mentor, the founder of the String Academy for young musicians. Mimi Zweig bought me a ticket to violin start-ups. I was to learn to teach beginners, not remembering how I was ever taught myself. I saw the little musicians nurtured and surrounded by love, never discouraged, never humiliated. Mimi’s Academy remains a wonder and a true testament to the success of the positive approach in teaching, where mistakes are not crimes, but information.
Bloomington also has a fantastic New Music Ensemble directed by David Dzubay. I had the honor to be the leader of the group, which can easily compete with any established professional ensemble, for two years and have discovered the world of contemporary music, to me a rather unfamiliar area up to this point. Xenakis, Carter, Reich and many young and promising composers quickly joined my list of inspiring and powerful influences. In Bloomington I also met one of my best friends, a composer Bryan Christian. If you don’t know his music, you may want to discover it.
I have had a relatively short period of time worrying profusely about the transition into the freelance life. What had fallen in my lap right after graduating from Bloomington, was as unexpected as could be, with my upbringing. I had been chosen to be an artist in residence, or, as it was lovingly named by the founders, “a Violin Fellow” in Montgomery, Alabama. A Violin Fellow plays recitals, concerti and is a concertmaster of the Montgomery Symphony. If you are ever in Montgomery, visit the Symphony’s office in the old town. You will meet Helen Steineker, an incredibly strong lady, who works around the clock looking after the “fellows” and the orchestra. Helen taught me many life lessons along with some unforgettable Southern expressions. Since I left Moscow, I have been moving consistently every two or three years, gaining and losing friends. Montgomery is the most frequent recipient of my post cards. My dear friend and conductor Thomas Hinds is one of them. There simply needs to be a separate collection of memories dedicated to Montgomery.
I wonder if I should allow myself to elaborate too much on non-violin related subjects, but, many in America found it odd that I couldn’t drive at twenty seven; there was no way to postpone it any longer, as the sidewalks disappeared in some cities in the U.S. I just have to indulge sharing that I was instructed by an ex military pilot, who had fought in Korea and shared as much as he could during the six hours we spent together, me trying my very best not to hurt anyone under a shower of information shouted in my ear.
The two years of the residency flew by quickly. I was busy, between recitals, auditions in the US and abroad, making some unbelievable flight connections after concerts in Europe, arriving just in time for the orchestra rehearsals in Montgomery. The last plane reservation I made in Montgomery was to fly to Paris, where I moved at the end of my residency.
For those who like parallels, I arrived to America with one suitcase, packed for at least a year; I left with two, plus small change. I moved to Paris, because my friend, the flutist Alexandra Grot had introduced me to my now dear friend and pianist Aurélien Pontier. The three of us were joined by a cellist Marc Coppey for a concert in memory of Anna Politkovskaya. Since the concert, Marc and I began performing together, increasingly feeling the need to share the stage and our lives. We enjoy playing in a trio with our Russian – Estonian friend Peter Laul, as well as with other musicians. Now in France, I continue freelancing, learning French and exploring the French music scene, anticipating...