In U.S., pianist found 'chance to succeed'

Yuliya Gorenman is forthright about why she decided, at age 18, to leave Russia.

"For Jews, life was becoming impossible," says the now 27-year-old pianist, who won a top prize in the prestigious Brussels Competition less than three weeks ago and who will perform Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto with the Baltimore Symphony at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Oregon Ridge.


Two incidents made her mind up for her.

The first occurred when she was 17. The Odessa-born-and-trained youngster had already won four national competitions for young musicians when she applied for admission to Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition. But she was rejected.


"I'm not taking any more Jews this year," said the well-known teacher to whose class she had applied.

She was, however, admitted to Leningrad's equally renowned Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory. But in her first year there, Gorenman underwent another experience that raised her consciousness. She had never even seen a synagogue, much less attended services. But she happened upon one of the city's few remaining synagogues, became curious, went inside and briefly looked around.

The next day, she received a note from the conservatory's dean, requesting that she see him immediately. Inside the dean's office was a threatening-looking man who remained silent while the dean showed Gorenman photographs of herself, first entering the synagogue and then walking around inside.

"They tried to blackmail me into becoming an informer," Gorenman says. "I gave them phony names and phony telephone numbers. When I got back to my room, the telephone was ringing. The man on the other end said, 'The names and the phone numbers you gave us don't exist.' Then then he hung up. That's when I knew I had to leave."

Gorenman realized with horror that she had put her whole family -- her father, an accountant, her mother, a music teacher, and her older married sister -- at risk. Except for the sister -- who remained in Odessa with her husband -- all of the Gorenmans asked for permission to emigrate.

It was nearly a year before they were allowed to leave. They arrived at the Czech-Austrian border with the equivalent of $400 -- all the money they were permitted to take -- for the entire family.

Things did not get much better in the following four months. To help pay for food and lodging, Yuliya Gorenman sold Russian "matryosha" dolls and coconuts to tourists on the Italian beaches.

"I'm a pretty good salesman," Gorenman says with a smile. "No matter what the time of day, I always have enough energy to talk!"


Finally, Jewish refugee agencies in New York granted them loans and helped get the visas needed to enter the United States. None of the Gorenmans knew a word of English and they had no prospects for jobs.

"It didn't matter," Yuliya Gorenman says. "It had been a choice between staying in Russia and having no hope, or moving to a place we knew nothing about, but where we had a chance to succeed."

No shrinking violet, it didn't take Gorenman long to begin succeeding. In her first year in San Francisco -- the family settled there because of relatives -- she entered and won first prize in the 1990 San Francisco Young Pianists Competition. That victory enabled her to get a full scholarship at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she studied with Nathan Schwarz and from which she graduated in 1992 with a master's degree.

But the young pianist decided she wanted to study at Peabody with Leon Fleisher. It took her 18 months to contact Fleisher -- "Mr. Fleisher is not exactly the easiest person to track down," she says -- and she came to Peabody in the fall of 1993.

In her first weeks at the school, she met and fell in love with Chris Bresnahan, a young composer. They married nine months ago.

"For reasons, both personal and professional, I'm very glad I left Russia," Gorenman says. "The professional ones are this: If I had remained in Russia, I would have become a provincial pianist because I only knew one teacher and one school of playing. Now I'm something of a synthesis. I not only know the Russian school, but I've also worked with Schwarz, a student of Cortot, who represented the best of the French school, and with Fleisher, who inherited from Schnabel the best of the Austro-German tradition."


Against her teacher's advice -- Fleisher does not like competitions -- Gorenman entered this summer's Brussel's DTC Competition, the same contest that brought Fleisher to fame in 1952. Unlike Fleisher, she did not take first prize, but her fourth prize puts her in the company of such pianists as Lazar Berman, Tamas Vasary, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Emanuel Ax and John Browning -- all of whom were Brussels finalists, who failed to win first prize but who went on to success and fame.

In Belgium, the Brussels competition -- which is held every fourth year -- enjoys something of the status of the Super Bowl. Each day of the two-week contest is telecast to millions of avid viewers and the competitors are surrounded by admirers and reporters. Gorenman's incisive and lyrical performance of Prokofiev's Third Concerto was broadcast and made into a CD. Later this month, she will return to Brussels to make a another television broadcast and CD -- this time of Rachmaninov's Second Concerto.

"Except for having to go through the competition itself, Brussels was a wonderful experience," Gorenman says. "People recognized me in the street and almost everyone, it seemed, wanted my autograph."

The pianist hesitates momentarily, smiles and then breaks into laughter.

"I think I finally understand why people want to become famous," she says.