Moscow on the Hudson

Vladimir Feltsman and the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society explore the Soviet underground.

Moscow-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman spent eight years in exile without even leaving the Soviet Union. He was in artistic exile, banned from performing because he'd had the poor judgment to register his discontent with the Soviet regime by applying for an exit visa.

Feltsman finally managed to leave the Soviet Union in 1987, when he settled in the United States and immediately made a splash with performances and recordings of Bach and Russian repertory. But many other artists spent their lives under the Soviet yoke, struggling to make personal, innovative statements within an oppressive culture.

Now, Feltsman has teamed up with New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to create a series called Masterpieces of the Russian Underground. The three concerts, showcasing music by 14 composers (half of them still alive), will first be given in Tucson January 16-18 courtesy of UApresents. Then, after moving to Portland, Ore., the series will wind up at the end of this month in New York City, where it will become part of a larger package including lectures, poetry, film and photography.

"This is not an act of atonement," Feltsman said last week when asked if this project were a way of making up for fleeing the Soviet Union when so many others remained behind. "I don't feel guilty or not guilty about anything. I have done what was true and I am very glad I left Russia; it just didn't agree with me. Most of these composers we'll be playing who are still alive have now moved away from Russia, too. Very few have remained, even though the era which this project covers is over. The Soviet Union is no more, and those unique conditions will never repeat themselves.

"I felt that the time distance now, though not very big, was enough to see these incredible artists for what they are. And the fact that someone like me, who put it together, no longer belongs to that context was very helpful, because when you are removed from that in time and space you have more objectivity and clarity of vision."

Although Feltsman's vision is leading to a significant interdisciplinary festival in New York, we'll get only the music in Tucson. But that's substantial enough. Joining Feltsman will be several Lincoln Center regulars: cellist Gary Hoffman, violinist Ani Kavafian, violist Paul Neubauer and clarinetist David Shifrin. Bolstering the ensemble will be a guest artist, Ukrainian violinist Oleh Krysa.

The material stretches from the end of World War II, with the haunting Piano Trio No. 2 of Dmitri Shostakovich, all the way to the present, with Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror) for violin and piano by Ärvo Pärt.

Each of the three concerts has its own theme. The first is "Russian Expressionism from Shostakovich to Schnittke." Piano trios by those two well-known composers bracket a trio for piano, violin and clarinet by Galina Ustvolskaya (a one-time Shostakovich student who, oppressed by the crush her teacher had on her, later declared, "I determinedly rejected [Shostakovich's] music ... he burdened my life and killed my best feelings") and a cello sonata by the little-known Moise Weinberg, receiving its American premiere.

The second concert carries the Blakean title "Songs of Innocence and Experience: Serialism and Post-Modern Style." It features avant-garde music from mainly the third quarter of the 20th century. The most familiar name here is Edison Denisov, at one time regarded in the West as the most radical of Soviet composers. Alongside his will be the less familiar names Andre Volonsky, Nikolai Karetnikov, Victor Kissine (primarily a film composer) and Valentin Silvestrov (whose music Feltsman calls "postmodern, post everything"). Denisov's Sonata for Solo Violin and Kissine's Still Life for piano and string trio will receive their American premieres here.

The third concert is "Mirror in the Mirror: Search for Unity and Order." It examines how living composers from U.S.S.R. successor states other than Russia have been finding an artistic identity in the post-Soviet era. These include the Estonian Pärt, the Georgian Giya Kancheli, the Tatar Sofia Gubaidulina--the region's three living celebrity composers--and the more obscure Ahot Zohrabian and Fardzh Karayev.

Feltsman has programmed music that, for the most part, would not have been approved by the Soviet authorities, but he pointed out that the composers' resistance tended to be private.

"I wouldn't call them defiant," he said. For example, Westerners regarded Shostakovich during his lifetime as a Soviet patsy, writing patriotic cantatas on demand, praising the Soviet system on tour in the U.S., even signing letters condemning errant fellow artists. "His resistance was mostly of an inner kind; he was not a fighter by his nature," said Feltsman. "Some people think he was weak and he should be condemned for all these compromises. That's very easy to do sitting in comfortable armchairs here in the West, but someone who spent his life in Russia would judge him less harshly. The most important thing is that he produced an incredible body of work, most of which is of very high quality. From my point of view, that is the only thing that is important."

Feltsman said that most of the other composers in this series were more actively resistant, although this did not mean protesting in Red Square. They resisted by writing nonconformist music, "producing their art with integrity," and seeing it published and performed in the West but never in the U.S.S.R. "By definition, those were acts of civil disobedience," Feltsman said.

"There's a very strong individuality in each of them," he said, alluding especially to the composers in the third concert. "All these people started with a lot of experimentation, they started as rebels, and then they went through certain stages, and in '70s and '80s they found their own voices. The whole project could be called Search for Freedom, because that's what these people were doing artistically and metaphorically. And they were strong enough and honest enough to embark on this journey and walk the road less traveled with integrity and honesty."

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