A Performance at the Maly Philharmonic Hall
An article for HIAS
An Interview for the Russian TV channel “Kultura”
“If they hate Jews so much, why don’t they just let them leave?”
This is one of the questions I heard during the “fresh off the boat” talk I gave at Camp Ramah, a Conservative Jewish camp in Massachusetts, during my first summer in the United States, in 1984. It was my first professional summer job; I had been hired to teach piano for an eight week session. I barely spoke any English and the official language at camp was Hebrew, but of course I spoke music.
I arrived in the United States in 1983, a graduate of St. Petersburg Conservatory. I hoped to continue on my musical path, but I had many doubts. After leaving Russia, during my “Roman holiday” and a brief and beautiful stay in Vienna, I agonized about my future. Some ”informed” people whom I met during emigration predicted that I would have a brighter future in computers---or anything, just not music. When I arrived in Boston, the single voices seemed to become a tragic Greek chorus professing with conviction my very uncertain musical future. I tried not to listen.
It was not all tragedy. There were some happy moments. Once in a Boston thrift shop where I was looking for my first pair of jeans, I casually asked the opinion of a friendly looking older lady. She immediately asked: “What is your accent? Where are you from?” In one breath I gave her the whole lament: “I am a Jewish immigrant from Russia; I am a pianist; I know it is impossible to have a career in the U.S.” (At this point in my life I was seriously considering wearing a tag with the whole thing written down.) To my surprise she said, “My husband is a pianist.” Politely, I inquired, “Who?” It turned out that her husband was Leonard Shure, a well-known American pianist whose recital I had heard with the Leningrad Philharmonic Bolshoi Zal right before I left Russia.
Now good things began to happen. I was invited to Shure’s master classes at New England Conservatory. There I met one of his Polish students, who invited me to a concert of the Warsaw National Orchestra conducted by Kazimir Kord. I knew that years before Kord had been a piano student of my revered teacher, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nielsen. When I came to meet him after the concert in Symphony Hall, he jumped at the sound of Nielsen’s name and cried: “This is the only man who taught me something about music!”
My time in Boston also gave me precious time to breathe and think about what steps to take next. This was possible because of HIAS, the organization that brought my family and me here. During this time I began to realize that what I had carried with me in the struggle to get out of Russia, in the humiliations of dealing with the authorities, in my family’s sacrifices, was an idea that was bigger than me, bigger than all those other reasons to live prosperously in the “land of opportunities.” This idea was the knowledge that my great teacher Vladimir Nielsen gave me as a person and as a musician. The thread had to continue; I did not have the right to break it.
Years passed. My destiny eventually brought me to New York City to work in the Juilliard School, the most prestigious music school in the world, where I teach phenomenally gifted students in the Pre-College Division. One day the parents of one of my American students came to me and told me that they appreciated my playing and had read the liner notes for the CD I had dedicated to my teacher. They also appreciated my philosophy and my work with the students. They suggested that I start a summer festival named in honor of my teacher.
So, the rest is history: we are about to start our fourth season of concerts, master classes, lessons, and fun. Our festival is blossoming, the audiences are growing, and more and more interested students desire to come. In this way, the thread continues.