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