World-renowned pianist Vladimir Viardo will perform in “the noble style” of Russian piano on September 21st at 1900 Building
Author Lana Yeager writes and edits for the Russian Kansas City section of The Russian America newspaper.
This Friday at the 1900 Building, one of the most outstanding pianists of modern times, Vladimir Viardo, will perform a concert of works by Schubert and Debussy and a Master Class centered on works by Liszt and Prokofiev. Viardo is a graduate of the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory. At 21, he won the Prix du Prince Rainier of the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud Competition, and, in 1973, won the Gold Medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He is a Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of North Texas, and a world-renowned piano professor and performer.
Mr. Viardo will play in Kansas City for the ICM 1900 Building Series, a program of Park University’s International Center for Music which offers a full season of faculty, student and guest performances.
It was my pleasure to speak to Maestro Viardo this September about his amazing life story and his music.
A visit from a Russian-American
After we greeted each other, Mr. Viardo asked right away, “Are there a lot of Russian-speakers in Kansas City?”
“Quite a lot!” I replied, “And since most of us are fans of classical music, we’re looking forward to your concert!”
The ensuing, relaxed conversation wove stories of a remarkable immigrant life with unique insights about creative practice and musical sensibility.
“Kid, come here!”
I was born in the Caucasus, in the village of Krasnaya Polyana, which is a famous resort now. It was the center of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, but it used to be a small village. This town has a special place in my heart. I was involved in building a church there, and I feel proud about that. And a local school gave my name to a small museum. In Krasnaya Polyana I feel humbled. My homeland is always in my thoughts.
While his travels to Russia usually take him to the major concert halls in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, he returns occasionally to his hometown. He told me a lighthearted story about visiting Krasnaya Polyana after attending a music festival in nearby Sochi. Mr. Viardo was asked to attend a concert of non-professional musicians in Krasnaya Polyana and, just after the program master introduced him as a famous countryman, an elderly lady from the audience loudly said, "Kid, come here!"
And I was more than fifty years old. I approached the elderly lady.
“Was your mother a singer?” she asked, “Did she teach music?”
“Yes, she did!” I answered.
“Guess what? I nursed you when you were a baby. I even remember that you peed on my dress!” She was laughing.
Others in the crowd decided to make their contributions, too. “What do you do abroad? Come back home! We're going to build you a house here.” And, “Well, if you don’t come now, at least come back when you are very old, to be buried here, in the homeland.”
Mr. Viardo went on to describe his childhood and the influence of his mother and grandmother on his later career.
My mother was born in Sochi. She was a classical singer. With a group of performers, she traveled from town to town through the region, performing concerts. My grandmother was in jail for “political reasons,” as many other people were at the time. When she came home I was six years old. My grandmother is the one "to blame" for my taking up music: she made me play music for four hours every day. I cried; but even when I could, I didn’t quit music.
Although his grandmother was not a musician, she valued everything that concerned the arts. An understanding of the profound social value of artistic study was part of her family heritage and Mr. Viardo’s mother became a pianist and singer thanks to his grandmother’s efforts and her effect on the family. This family commitment to artistic study would direct his career.
When I turned fourteen — we were living in Zaporozhye at that time — my mother decided that that city was too small for my musical education. She bought a train ticket and sent me to Moscow. Lucky for me, she had friends at the conservatory. I stayed with the Naumov family and I entered the Gnesinsky College in Moscow, where Irina Naumova was my teacher. My next step was the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where Lev Naumov, a genius musician as well as professor, became my teacher. Sadly, Lev Naumov and Irina Naumova are already gone, but I am very close with their children and grandchildren. We are like family.
His mother’s decision to send him to Moscow and her contact with the Naumov family were decisive in launching Mr. Viardo’s career, and he relished remembering it. The following years spent touring the USSR were, of course, also crucial to his musical growth; however, they also brought political confinement to his art.
I worked at the Moscow Conservatory and was a soloist in the Moscow Philharmonic. I traveled all over the USSR. For 11 years, I was not allowed to travel abroad, as was the case, indeed, for many others, for example, the cellist Natalia Gutman, and Sviatoslav Richter, the legendary pianist. Then, I left Russia to work in the USA.
The Noble School of Music
Rigorous traditions of classical music and piano training are ingrained in Russian culture, and Mr. Viardo and I spoke about that as a cultural contrast with the United States. He emigrated to the US in 1989.
In Russia, there are stylistic schools that belong to specific regions. Is there an American school of classical piano performance? No. In Russia and the former USSR, large cities such as of Moscow or St. Petersburg were always considered to be unique cultural centers. Piano “schools” of Russia and the former USSR differ from each other — Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev. I’m even able to guess by ear which school a pianist represents. There is one thing in common for all the schools of Russia and the USSR, though: they are noble. Even in remote areas of the US, it is known that Russian training in performance skills is the best, and this is because of its traditions. Russian schools took the best of the world’s principles of musical creation and teaching methods. There is a joke: “What makes an American conservatory? It is when the professors are Russians and the students are Chinese.” This is true at my school, too! And, a performance school is not only the learning process, it is also how the pianist creates music on-stage. The beauty of every school is love, and how we as professors promote love for the art in our students.
V. Viardo with students
Today, I played as never before!
We are lucky that Friday’s Kansas City performance will include a Master Class, allowing us a glimpse of Mr. Viardo’s instructional expertise. But while he is renowned in his role as Distinguished Professor, he also knows the freedom inherent in great performance, and wishes it for his students.
[...] Yes, there are concerts when I play “as never before.” During my best concerts... I can't even describe what I’m doing. I can't explain. It’s like someone is guiding me. A blessing of the unknown — this is how I can name it.
I want to share a story about my student Ivan Sokolov, who is well-known in Moscow. We were working on one Prokofiev Sonata for a piano competition. The student and I conquered every single note. At the performance, he played beautifully,... but the opposite of what we had done during preparation! After the concert, I asked, “What did you do? It was incredible!” "I don't know," he said. I hugged Ivan.
This is what I am talking about: when you are not you, and you cannot explain what happened. This is what I call true creativity. I use this technique with my talented musicians. I ask them to play five-six variations of the same music. It's like changing the accent in the phrase I love you, I LOVE you, I love YOU – the meaning is different every time. I never know how my students will play on stage, where their musical impulse will be. Going on stage, I do not know how I will play today. I never know. Of course, the basics of the music are one thing, but the state of my soul is different. What affects it? Many things. Everything affects it!
Vladimir Viardo on Schubert and Debussy
On September 21st, Kansas City will be able to hear where the state of his soul leads Vladimir Viardo as he plays Schubert and Debussy. He reflected briefly but richly in our interview on what he hears in these composers.
Schubert is brilliant! His music comes from pain and from the fear of death: he had an unhappy life, and maybe that's why he expressed those feelings. But that pain in Schubert’s music is generative, not destructive. This is the beauty of Schubert.
Debussy includes hidden citations in his compositions, allusions to the music of other composers, but he is all the while an innovator. He was a pianist at the home of Nadegda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patroness. He was impressed by Khovanshchina, the Mussorgsky opera. Debussy was influenced by Mussorgsky, who didn’t follow strict compositional principles, and in fact, didn’t know them. So, Russian culture played an important role in his music, but Debussy was very creative in his allusions to these influences.
Mr. Viardo is looking forward to sharing his experience with Schubert and Debussy with a Kansas City audience when he plays this week: “I hope my listeners in Kansas City will feel my love and admiration for the talent of the composers whose music I will play.” I encourage classical music fans in Kansas City to experience the unique performance by one of the world’s great piano masters, this Friday at 1900 Building.
V. Viardo (third from left), First Lady Betty Ford (center)
and Mrs. and The Honorable A. Dobrynin, USSR Ambassador to the US (at right)
May 9th, 2018, Victory Day Celebration, Jewish Community Campus, Overland Park, KS
May 23rd, 2018, An Evening Celebrating the Music, Art & Culture of Lithuania, 1900 Building, Mission Hills, KS
“Lo recuerdo (yo no tengo derecho a pronunciar ese verbo sagrado…)”
“I remember him (I haven’t the right to speak that sacred verb…)”
These are the opening words of the Jorge Luis Borges story, Funes the Memorious. The story’s narrator recounts his experience with young Ireneo Funes. Funes, an agile, vivacious youth, suffers a head injury that leaves him paralyzed, and he has to live out his days lying on the cot in his suburban bedroom. With his injury, though, there comes an unexpected change in him: he remembers everything — every thought, word and physical contour of each lived moment. The narrator, who listens to Funes speak throughout all of one night, is surprised to hear the apparent victim exalt in newfound liberation as he moves in a world of memory.
Borges offers an allegory in Funes of how people survive paralyzing blows with acts of memory. He points to an artful manner of memory with his latinism, memorious. Being memorious is not just thinking about the past. The narrator suggests, in fact, that memorious Funes might not have thought at all, because his vivid recollections prevented thinking, the generalities we call “ideas.” Funes felt that others existed in a prison of the abstract, while he, confined to his cot, passed freely among the rich contours of well-preserved experience.
In the story, being memorious transforms an isolated individual; but i’ve recently found that the character of Funes extends beyond him. While Funes echos funeral and seems at first to suggest memory's mortal fate, the Latin word funes means, in fact, a band, a bonding tie. Funes is more than the young man who dies in the story’s last sentence; and after my recent experiences at memorial celebrations, i understand his character as a way forward in the injured histories i share with others. Borges’s narrator builds on this allegorical possibility for Funes, pointing to options for how we hold and share memory. “Platonic” memory, the narrator suggests, fixes past events in generalities and ideas. It would seem to be the ground of inflexible identities that protect their histories as their own. Another form of memory, though, is embodied in the character of Funes and his nightlong recounting of memory to someone who doesn’t know him well, but lends an open ear. With such bonding acts of recollection, people move forward from injurious losses with supple, creative minds, discovering the freedom to do so as they share out the past. It results in a poetics of survival i’ve recently found in the modesty of local, memorial celebrations.
On May 9th, i attended, along with a hundred and fifty others, a celebration of the end of World War II. Seventy-three years after the war’s destruction of over 25 million lives in the Soviet republics, Kansas City’s Jewish Family Services and Russian Cultural Association inaugurated an annual Victory Day commemoration in the Social Hall of the Jewish Community Campus. When i arrived, the organizer, Lana Yeager, greeted me, saying, “Welcome, Anne! You are now part of this global movement!” A little perplexed by the unsolicited membership, i wondered what the “movement” might mean for me.
I held, as many Midwesterners, only vague ideas of the Victory Day tradition — mainly images of military parades in Eastern Europe. But the event i attended was an extension of household commemorations. For decades, some Kansas Citians have brought back names, faces and stories of people who perished from 1941 to 1945, that is, between Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union and its surrender. While the loss they felt doesn’t appear in the images of my lineage, i shared with them the impulse to build a memorious sense of time. I’m tempted to say, “a memorious way of thought,” but that would leave me arguing with Borges (an unnerving prospect) whose narrator says of Funes:
“He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nonetheless, that he was incapable of thinking. To think is to forget differences. It is to generalize, to abstract. In the crowded world of Funes there was nothing except almost immediate details.”
I don’t know what people were thinking as we passed near the samovar on a table at the back of the Social Hall. The teapot spoke a Slavic language that most of the people were speaking as well, and like them, it quietly steeped the past in the present. Arranged around it, photographs of perished loved ones looked at us from their side of an injury that would have erased them. All the guests had been asked to give a photograph of someone lost in the war and i set on the table a picture of my Grandfather Gatschet, a native Kansan killed in 1945 when the plane he piloted crashed outside Karachi. A set of Russian nesting dolls was spread out near it, hand-painted with flowers. From behind a big frame filled with photographs of hatted soldiers in posed regiments, the picture wire poked out, holding the imprint of a nail it had recently hung on. I was still uncertain about my own part in a “global movement,” but could see that the contours of its details reached me more fully than grander images of its history.
The conventionality of the room filled with “10-top” convention tables was challenged by the unpredictable, diverse memories appearing among us. A Farsi accent and a Russian one stopped their conversation beside me for the start of a program. Projected images and mild voices described tremendous loss to families. The audience entered into this with a singularly quiet activity of ear and eye. Ordinary voices carried us through the details — dates, professions, proper names — of riven families and perished ancestors and my mind returned to Lana’s word, “movement” as i, with a room full of strangers, observed doorframes, lapels, hairlines, handwriting in letters to husbands who would not return, handwriting of the husbands. This felt like a concerted movement, but it was not contained in a given image or idea: there was no blueprint, no score, no map to follow as our singular memories labored together. One man said that after the Siege of Leningrad in which all his family members perished, and after mass burials, “family treasures were traded on the open market. We have so few objects to maintain memory.” Attentively, the people in the room gathered the remnants of the brutal blow.
A class of sixth graders in Russia’s town of Ulyanovsk appeared on screen in a video, holding large-format photographs of their ancestors. As memory becomes “globalized” and we find ourselves daily amidst one other’s traditions, we can count on the resilient, candid perception of children to navigate our awkward course. When this group of kids greeted “Kansas City” in English and Russian, the room grew animated and our polite airs relaxed. Then, the youngest around us joined middle-aged folk musicians and people across the Social Hall sang along in Russian. Lana’s 10-year old son, Oliver, spoke about his great grandfather whose remains had been lost in battle and discovered in Belgorod in 1975. I had not brought my own children to this event nor to any such public event — not ever. Had they considered, in their great-grandfather’s photo that lay near the samovar, three sets of gold wings pinned on his uniform, the question in his right eye and kindness in his left?
“A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus— we fully intuit these shapes; the same happened for Ireneo Funes with the stormy mane of a pony, a herd of cattle on the hillside, a dancing flame and its innumerable ashes, the many faces a deceased person has throughout a very long wake…”
On May 23rd, i attended a concert at the 1900 Building in Mission Hills, KS, called, “An Evening Celebrating the Music, Art & Culture of Lithuania.” Steve Karbank hosted the event in his venue’s art gallery and its intimate listening room, The Rose Hall. Ben Sayevich, a classical violin master at the International Center for Music produced it, calling on the talent of his wife, pianist Lolita Lisovskaya Sayevich, and his extended family who came from Israel for the occasion. Steve and Ben had known for years that they shared Lithuanian Jewish heritage, and they undertook to make what Ben called “a collage for celebrating that world.”
Of the 200,000 Jews in Lithuania in 1940, nearly all were massacred in the Holocaust — close to 195,000 lives in four years. Ben’s parents were among the survivors. They lost their two children. After the war, they returned from separate concentration camps to Lithuania, and started a family again. Their offspring would be artists with an exceptional ability to build and explore cultural memory. Some weeks after the Lithuanian celebration, Ben explained to me his motivation for creating it. He had personal interest in opening his heritage to descendants of Lithuania’s Jewish world; but there was another meaning within that motive. “Culture is on the outside of people,” he said, “It identifies a group, not the individual. Every person is afraid of pain, everybody wants to love and be needed, and if you shoot him he’ll die. Culture is the wrapping…” To find my way in Ben’s words, i returned to the allegory with which i’m familiar: the protagonist who listened to Funes could not experience his injured condition while he listened in darkness to his voice recount awesome and unique memories, but, he said of the incredible recollections he witnessed, “these things he told me, not then nor ever have I placed them in doubt.” Similarly, the lived heritage of loss that was around me on the evening of May 23rd belonged to others “wrapped” in another culture, but its truth came to me in details they conveyed: names, melodies, personal objects, and, especially, the stunning contours of faces.
When Ben told me about the event’s initial concept, he said, “We decided to present windows, snapshots of a life.” The changing daylight pours constantly through the windows of the 1900 Building’s Fountain Room. This present tense played a fugue with the past when the guests looked into Aviad Sajevitch’s paintings, realist views on a fourteen hundred year heritage. Our eyes passed from one another’s faces to the face of a medieval merchant and that of an eighteenth century Talmudic scholar and on to many others, including portraits of people in the artist’s family. I studied the painted light in an old woman’s eyes and turned to the daylit face of the grandson who had portrayed her — and i introduced myself to him. Aviad told me how he had imagined these scenes from Lithuania’s past — children, artisans and intellectuals whom he and i recreated between us, carrying particulars into our present and back again to his family’s past. From a portrait of his uncle, holding open an accordion and looking at the viewer with a weighty, steady eye, i turned to the gallery’s crowd: that same eye poured like a long note among the perambulating guests. I approached the man, Shmuel Sajevitch, and he intoned in the same key as his gaze. Through a strong accent, he spoke very softly about the voices of the accordion, its ability to sound like a whole band. Then he pressed on to tell me, with a stream of words i could hardly hear and can’t now recall, his understanding that “peace is very complex.” We parted suddenly so that he could play the piano in the concert.
In The Rose Hall, Steve Karbank welcomed the eclectic crowd. His address moved between scenes of childhood and figures of popular renown as he catalogued traits of the people he called “Litvaks,” a term from the Yiddish, for Lithuanians. He made us laugh ironically at Litvak traits: sarcastic humor, a critical mind, dispassionate drive. This steely profile was obviously belied by the gentle nature of the host himself and by the warmth of the gathering. The deeper irony: as we were invited to smile in the paradox of a certain, cultural imagery we were at the same time sharing in that culture’s shrewd and unrelenting survival. It is both an incisive and delicate voice that calls the stranger or the public to join in matters of memory without closing around itself the “wrapping” of culture. Borges opens his story with similar irony and humility: as he launches into the long recollection of Funes the Memorious, he dis-claims any right to enact remembering, even “to speak that sacred verb.” This rhetorical paradox points to a greater-than usual-reserve in the storyteller, a humble courage that welcomes listeners, audiences and strangers into memorious acts.
That evening, the Sayevich family invited us into memory with audacious gentility: the alchemy of family memory. What Ben called “…I don’t know, maybe a family selfishness” was, onstage, a convocation of experience that brought folkloric voices into jazz riffs and classical music into popular culture. I was both delighted and nonplussed by the idiosyncrasy of the program, as if I’d unexpectedly appeared in the Sayevich household.
As the concert’s poetics presented a range of Lithuanian Jewish inheritance and personal style, it reminded me of the other motley, moving, singular displays of the memorious that i’d recently known: the cataloging style of the host’s address, the painter’s row of “windows” peeking across fourteen centuries… and i heard also the voice of Borges, renowned for odd, obscure and sometimes fanciful literary references that cross time’s and space’s inconvenient boundaries. I couldn’t resist looking around to take in the differing responses in The Rose Hall. One that i’ll not soon forget was Margarita’s: Ben and Lolita’s 8-year old daughter stood by the stage, dancing at her own party, and threw an easy thumbs-up to me where i sat, a little dazed, in the shadows of the audience.
Borges’s narrator listens through all of a night to the vast recollections of Ireneo
Funes, whose first name derives from an ancient Greek word for “Peaceful.” At the close of the story, the darkness that has shrouded the paralyzed savant gives way to dawn. “Then I saw the face of the voice that had spoken all night long.” Twice last May, faces were revealed to me that would have remained in darkness had not their children and grandchildren brought them into light. They appeared in unassuming settings flooded with vivid detail. They looked ancient to me and they came from histories i can’t and wouldn’t try to claim, but neither then nor later did i doubt that they belong in me, in the movement of a memorious light that falls, too, on the face and the name of Ireneo Funes: Peaceful Bonding Tie.
IM-Magazine Arts Writer
Anne provides arts education program services through
Anne Gatschet Consulting, LLC.
She writes poetry and commentary on the arts.