LOSING THE IVORY WARS Demise of U.S.S.R. threatens system of musical mastery


Alexander Toradze will walk out on stage in Meyerhoff Hall next Thursday to tame the man-eating Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto, the most gloriously beautiful and astoundingly difficult all works for piano and orchestra.

Toradze lives in South Bend, Ind., but in birth and training he is Russian. Of course.

Most of the pianists who have conquered the Third Rachmaninov's difficulties -- beginning with the composer himself -- have been Russian. Their ability to play technically demanding music has almost come to seem the natural way.

In more than 60 years of international competitions, Russian pianists have consistently won the Ivory Wars, pounding the opposition to smithereens, losing a skirmish only here and there. But now the economic problems that dismantled the Soviet Union threaten the great traditions and the superb training that resulted in Russian pianistic hegemony.

For years Russian artists -- many of them as famous as the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov -- had been leaving the Soviet Union in a blaze of publicized defections or expulsions. But in the few years since perestroika began dissolving authoritarian rule, that tantalizing trickle has become a hemorrhage that threatens Russian cultural life.

"[Lazar] Berman is in Italy; [Dmitri] Bashkirov is in Spain; the Moscow Virtousi are in Madrid; the Bashmet Orchestra is in Paris; and [Stanislas] Bunin is in Tokyo," says the emigre pianist Vladimir Feltsman, who gave several well-publicized concerts in his native country last winter. "Almost anybody with talent is getting out or thinking about it. My prediction for the future is very gloomy."

While educating musicians is not as expensive as building missiles, Soviet pianistic superiority was predicated on state support of the most remarkable free educational system ever built -- a financial commitment to musical education that is staggering by American standards.

"Music and sports were the only things that benefited from communism because -- unlike history or literature -- it's impossible to distort them ideologically," says Ashkenazy, who has returned to his native land several times in the last few years.

Ideology and greatness

Actually, it is ideology that was partly responsible for Soviet pianistic greatness. To several generations of Russian leaders, music was a means of fulfilling two missions: bringing high culture to the masses and demonstrating Soviet cultural superiority to the West by winning instrumental competitions. But proud traditions, superb teaching (especially of the young), disciplined students and economic incentives also helped create more superior pianists in the Soviet Union than in the West.

Improbable as it may seem to American parents who would prefer their children to go into medicine, law or science instead of music, musicians in the old U.S.S.R. earned more money than almost any other profession. For stars such as Toradze, Ashkenazy and Feltsman, music meant travel abroad and the ability to acquire foreign currency and goods. Even for those who only taught, music was a relatively lucrative and rewarding career. At the state-supported children's music schools, for example, teachers earned salaries that were at least equal to those of engineers or doctors; they enjoyed better hours; and they had the opportunity to earn extra money by giving concerts.

"Parents didn't think twice about pushing their children into music," Ashkenazy says.

What often shocks Russian musicians new to the United States is the low regard in which this country holds teaching careers -- particularly that of teaching the young.

"When I came here everybody told me to forget about continuing to teach children," says Victoria Mushkatkol, a Leningrad

Conservatory graduate who now teaches at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, one of the few national institutions that specializes in teaching gifted children. "In Russia it was considered nobler and more important to teach kids when they were younger than when they got to college," she adds.

An early start

It is precisely because the Russians so emphasized early training that they achieved such remarkable success. Students in Russia start at an earlier age than in America and, besides being more accomplished technically, are carefully trained in sight-singing, music theory, music history and harmony by the time they reach college -- which is when American music students often begin those subjects.

"In Russia they have no more talent than we have," says Nelitta True, chairman of the piano department of the Eastman School of Music, who taught at the Leningrad Conservatory two years ago. "The difference is that they don't have any hidden talents and we do -- because American students often haven't acquired the technique to express what they have inside them."

Part of the reason for the superiority of Russian pianists is a great tradition that goes back to the legendary Rubinstein brothers -- Anton and Nicholas -- who founded the St. Petersburg and Moscow conservatories. What the Communists did when they took power in 1917 was to retain the best of the old system and institutionalize it throughout the country so that talented children everywhere could be connected with gifted teachers.

The reason was ideology. Outside the Soviet Union, piano competition victories -- as well as those on other instruments, in sports and in chess -- demonstrated the superiority of the Soviet system. But inside the U.S.S.R., ideology was a factor in making music so rewarding a career. The fathers of the revolution and many of their successors loved classical music -- Stalin, for example, had a particular fondness for the piano and adored the music of Chopin as much as Hitler loved that of Wagner. Moreover, it was important to the government that high culture be transmitted to the masses. This, in turn, created an inflated demand for classical music. Alexander Braginsky, once a faculty member of the Moscow Conservatory and now a professor at the University of Minnesota, can remember making a concert tour of Sibera with a violinist friend in the dead of winter.

"For three weeks we played in frozen schoolrooms to audiences that were sometimes as small as eight or 10 people," Braginsky says. "That tour must have cost the government more than our salaries combined for an entire year. But those little towns had to have us -- they had to have Beethoven, Prokofiev and Chopin to fulfill their quota of music for the masses. That sort of thing was very artificial, but it was what provided good livings for musicians."

A dim future?

Those good livings are now no more. When the Soviet Union decided it could no longer afford the Cold War, it also decided it could no longer afford the Ivory Wars.

At the two great conservatories in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the morale among students and faculty is terrible. Ashkenazy and Feltsman report that many of their old colleagues now look for positions in the West and that many of the students of those professors ask how to gain admission into Western schools such as Juilliard in New York and Curtis in Philadelphia.

Even teachers who have not officially left are spending more and more of their time away from the conservatories. In the old days, no professor -- with the exceptions of the great international stars Rostropovich, the pianist Emil Gilels and the violinist David Oistrakh -- was permitted more than 20 concerts a year away from the conservatory. It was clear that students had to receive attention. Now musicians are taking advantage of relaxed travel restrictions and are often away from their students for months at a time.

What will happen to the pianistic traditions in Russia is hard to judge. Toradze says that his native country's tradition of great piano playing is "sealed within the national character, etched as if by witchcraft within the genes." But youngsters such as Julia Czarinskaya, who represent the future of Russian pianism, are confused about their own futures.

The 16-year-old Czarinskaya, who won last year's Diaghilev Youth Competition in Moscow and who is spending this year at Interlochen in Michigan, has begun to think about attending Juilliard or Curtis.

"I know the government cannot afford to save [the musical system]," she says. "Maybe some new private organization will give money, but who knows?"

Alexander Toradze

What: Alexander Toradze plays Rachmaninov Concerto No. 3 with the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Zdenek Macal.

Where: Meyerhoff Hall.

When: Thursday and Friday at 8:15 p.m. and Saturday at 11 a.m.

Tickets: $12 to $40 on Thursday and Friday, $11 to $16 on Saturday.

Call: (410) 783-8000.

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