Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Classical Guitar:
"The Other Profession





Ernest Partridge

Russia is a place where music is as necessary as bread... The Russians are willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves with abandon, and with a natural fervor which is basic to the Russian soul.

Isaac Stern
NPR's "Weekend Edition"
October 30, 1999

"Some of my friends are having a party," said Slava, "would you like to come along?"

"Of course," I replied. After all, there I was in Moscow, during what turned out to be the final summer of the Soviet Union. And Soviet Moscow could be a rather drab place for the clueless American visitor.

Some "party!"

After a few wrong turns, we found the apartment, traded our shoes for slippers (Russian style), and proceeded to the living room. Soon thereafter, three of the guests stepped forward, one with a violin, another with a cello, and the third sat at the grand piano, whereupon they began to play a Bach trio sonata – supremely well. That was followed by a Brahms Cello sonata. Failing to hear a single wrong note, we settled back and enjoyed the performance, confident that Brahms was in very good hands.

To close the recital, a tall and angular young man (he couldn't have been more than thirty) picked up his violin, grinned at his pianist and the audience, and proceeded to dive into the devilishly difficult "Sziganne" by Ravel. He clearly believed that he was equal to the task, and immediately proved to the rest of us that he was indeed. Brilliant, dazzling, yet completely under control. Ravel would have been pleased.

And then, midway through the second movement, a string broke. With scarcely a lost beat, the violinist attempted to continue by refingering ad lib on the remaining three strings. However, soon he realized that this was hopeless.

He then searched his case for a spare string. There was none. And so, sadly, the recital came to an abrupt end.

Think of it! All that talent, and not enough spare change to afford an extra set of strings!

There were no night clubs in this city of eight million, affordable to these young proletarians. The Bolshoi Theater and Tchaikovsky Concert Hall were closed for the summer. What was one to do for an evening? "Why, let's have a recital at our apartment!"

And so a few friends got together in a private apartment, and put together a recital of a quality worthy of the stage of Carnegie Hall.

I've been to innumerable parties in the States, far more of them forgotten than remembered. This is one "party" I will never forget.

The scene shifts nine years later (last summer) to Saratov, a regional capital on the Volga River.

Our hosts, the Russian Chapter of the International Society for Ecological Economics, arranged for us to attend a performance of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" at the city Opera House. The orchestra, though not the caliber of those young Moscow recitalists, performed capably.  The cast, however, was inspired and inspiring. Fully aware that the this was a "comic opera," they were entirely in control and clearly having a rollicking good time of it.

"Suzanna" was a stunner! A gorgeous raven-haired young woman, with a voice both sweet and strong. "Figaro" carried his "straight man" role with dignity amidst the horseplay. But "Count Almaviva" (coincidentally the Director and Manager) stole the show with his antics. A fine time was had by all.

The following night, the participants of the Saratov conference attended a banquet at an elegant pre-revolutionary mansion (the property of the city, of course).

And who should appear as the MC of the floor show, but "Count Almaviva" himself – one Victor Demidov.  In fluent English, Demidov introduced a lovely young singer, who performed a superb medley of Gershwin songs. Damned if it wasn't "Suzanna"! (Tatiana Coboleva). This was in celebration of the Gershwin centennial.

Also featured that evening was a jazz combo, consisting (with one exception) of faculty members at Saratov University – members, not of the Music but of the Science and Engineering Departments. At our request, they played several Ellington numbers (it was also the Duke's centennial year).

Good news! Jazz is alive and well in Saratov, Russia! We haven't heard live jazz of this quality for several years – not in New York or San Francisco. Not, at least, since we heard Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus and Charlie Byrd at the Village Vanguard, over two decades ago. (Our recent searches for quality live jazz in San Francisco have usually been disappointing).

During the intermissions, we had long conversations with Victor Demidov, who demonstrated that his command of English was authentic. Obviously pleased at our astonishment at and enthusiasm for the eclectic performances of his group – classical, popular and jazz – he explained how the Saratov musicians have struggled and persisted, despite the loss of state support for the arts. A Russian city without music, he explained, was unthinkable.

Demidov was one of the most charming and immediately likeable persons that we have ever met at the dozen or so countries that we have visited during the past decade.

I have offered these stories as validation of Isaac Stern's observation, which opens this piece. Truly, to the Russians, "music is as necessary as bread." And we would further suggest that if one fails to hear the soul of Russia in the music of Russia, one will will be ill-prepared to discover that soul anywhere else.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .