“Feeling each note”
[b]Professor Eduard Kuchinsky accidentally discovered his talent as a violinist and is now seeking gifted youngsters countrywide, wishing to turn them into world level masters[/b]Vlada Berezhnaya, a student of the Belarusian State Academy of Music (BSAM), is the only one in Belarus entrusted to play a precious violin created by Italian Andrea Guarneri in the 17th century.
Vlada Berezhnaya, a student of the Belarusian State Academy of Music (BSAM), is the only one in Belarus entrusted to play a precious violin created by Italian Andrea Guarneri in the 17th century. The rarity, donated at the instruction of the Head of State, was sought for many years. Vlada, a laureate of the Special Presidential Fund of Belarus for Support of Talented Young People, received the honour of having the instrument bought in London especially for her — due to the persistence of her teacher, BSAM Violin Department Professor Eduard Kuchinsky. He has trained several talented violinists, who bring fame to Belarus far and wide. Artem Shishkov has fans around the globe, as do some other gifted youngsters; they would never have gained such recognition without their teacher. In fact, Eduard Kuchinsky only became a violinist himself through the strange hand of fate.
“I became involved with music by chance,” he recollects. “I was born before the war began but grew up during the war years, so there was no opportunity to study music. Moreover, my father was a military man, so we used to travel to various garrisons: in Yaroslavl, Ulan-Ude, Khasan Lake and Khabarovsk.”
What are your connections with Belarus?
My mother was born here and my father’s parents also come from here.
Do other family members have musical talent?
My mother had a good voice and used to sing at home, although neither of my parents was involved in serious music-making. When I was 14, our neighbour — an officer — bought an accordion and invited me to listen to him play. I became very enthusiastic and, a week later, was playing the accordion myself. I didn’t know how to read music, so had to study independently. I then tried playing the domra (a Russian folk instrument, similar to the mandolin) at the local house of culture and succeeded.
I was so keen on music that my parents decided that I should study seriously. When I was 16, I entered Khabarovsk’s Musical College without any prior training. My peers had been to musical schools, while I began from scratch. However, they must have seen my potential. After studying the domra for two months, I went to my first symphony concert, hearing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.
In the beginning, violins play the secondary theme. I was so impressed that I almost froze with astonishment. When I ‘recovered’, I understood that I should play the violin, although I’d never held one in my hands. It took me 1.5 months to persuade the college’s leadership to transfer me to the violin class. I was told that it’s impossible to learn this instrument at the age of 16 without any prior experience, so it was ‘all-or-nothing’ for me; I told them to dismiss me from the college if I failed. The director and the head teacher were perfect musicians, as well as being lovely people, and agreed to meet me halfway. They insisted that I should quickly master the first seven grades and, if I failed, I’d be asked to leave. I began to study and, within a year, was playing with the symphony orchestra.
You had talent!
Talent is nothing without hard work [he replies modestly].
Was it a labour of Hercules to learn to play the violin so quickly?
No, I only studied three or four hours a day. Within three and a half years, I’d entered the Chisinau State Conservatoire.
How did you find your way from Russian Siberia to Moldova?
I saw a film about the country, where virtuoso violinists played heart-warming melodies, so I wanted to visit.
Wasn’t that a rather emotional decision?
I was 20 at the time but that’s true to some extent. There was a big contest in Chisinau, which I managed to get through. After graduating from the Conservatoire, I went to work at Donetsk’s Opera Theatre, as an orchestra concertmaster. By then, I was already married. Because of my son’s illness, I had to move to the warm Northern Caucasus; we settled in Nalchik — the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. Yuri Temirkanov — who later became a famous conductor — arrived there after graduating from Leningrad’s Conservatoire. He invited me to work as a concertmaster for the Nalchik’s philharmonic symphony orchestra. It was fate.
How did you decide to move to Belarus?
My son Arkady is also a traveller and is now a professor at the Taiwan University, teaching the cello. He’s lived there for 15 years now. Because of him, my wife and I returned to our historical homeland. My son was studying at a musical school in Nalchik, so we were pondering where he could continue his education and decided to move to Minsk. Arkady entered a secondary special musical school, at the Belarusian State Philharmonic Society, studying in Vladimir Perlin’s class. At first, I worked in the 9th musical school, before moving to the gymnasium-college at the Belarusian State Academy of Music, where I still work today.
You’re working with talented youngsters. How many have gained world recognition after training with you?
Somewhere around 17.
Do most remain in Belarus or do they tend to go abroad?
Unfortunately, many have left our country; only Vlada Berezhnaya and Pavel Botyan remain here. This year, three of my students left: Andrey Poskorobko, who works as a concert master in Yuri Bashmet’s ‘Moscow Soloists’ Chamber Orchestra; Ellina Sitnikova, who is studying under Zakhar Bron at the Academy of Music in Madrid; and Olga Moshanskaya, who is now in Hamburg, studying at a high school. Dasha Varlamova also studies in Hamburg and is a pupil of Prof. Garlitsky, who used to play with Spivakov’s ‘Moscow Virtuosi’. Alexander Yakonyuk teaches in Cologne and used to be a pupil of Victor Tretiak — the best Soviet violinist after David Oistrakh and Leonid Kogan.
Do those going abroad promote Belarus or do they forget about their homeland?
I don’t view their departure as a positive move but they don’t forget their homeland. Unfortunately, music isn’t as popular in Belarus as sports. There are centuries of musical traditions in the West, so emigration is not an ‘escape’ from Belarus; it shows ambition. In the past, many Belarusians who have gained recognition abroad have promoted their homeland.
Where is your pupil Artem Shishkov these days?
He’s now a postgraduate student of the former Soviet violinist Dora Schwarzberg, in Vienna; he’s touring Europe. It was a difficult choice for him to leave but he realised there were opportunities he couldn’t miss. Fortunately, he is enjoying popularity worldwide.
How did you discover his talent?
When Artem was five and a half years old, he auditioned to enter Minsk’s 2nd musical school. I was one of the examiners, so saw him playing and understood that he should play the violin. He was going to study the piano, so I prompted his parents to change his specialisation.
Which instrument do you think would suit me?
A double-bass, due to your height [he responds, either jokingly or seriously, seeing my two metre height].
Was there something in Artem’s character which prompted you to see him as a future violinist.
I could imagine teaching him mastery, feeling that we had twin souls. Within a day, his parents agreed to transfer Artem to the violin. He studied for a year or two with my wife, Zhanna Arkadievna, at the 2nd school, before I took over. With Artem, we toured the world. He won 15 contests. There has never been such a violinist in Belarus and I doubt there will be anytime soon.
Do you keep in touch with Artem in Vienna?
My pupils never forget me.
What do you receive in return for sharing the secrets of your profession?
I’ve never set the goal of receiving something from a pupil. I was brought up to do my job. People assess me on that. My father used to tell me: ‘Don’t praise yourself; leave others to do so’. I continue to apply this precept even today.
What future do you forecast for Vlada Berezhnaya?
She is now a fourth year student at the Academy of Music, but is already a master.
She hasn’t even graduated from the Academy yet…
The Academy is unable to teach her any further, so her time is spent rather in vain there; she’s already outgrown this level. She tours, conquering concert halls worldwide; she’s invited to tour Germany every year and regularly visits France, Sweden, Moldova and the Czech Republic. Last year, she became a finalist in the ‘Best Talent of Europe 2010’ contest, held in Slovakia. Only three were chosen for the finals: a Canadian pianist, a German cellist and our Vlada.
I’ve just remembered Yakub Kolas’ story of Symon, the Musician, who toured Belarus, seeking recognition. He failed, being poor. A hundred years ago, there were no higher musical educational establishments and only wealthy people could afford to pursue a musical career. Does this mean that our country is now more egalitarian?
I think we’ve reached definite heights, because there were no particular traditions of violin playing in Belarus in the past. In the late 19th century, there was Mikhal Yelsky — a wealthy nobleman who aspired to be cultured, and who played the violin. However, he was merely an amateur and wrote simple music. Michał Kleofas Ogiński was an outstanding composer who became famous for one polonaise. We need to adequately assess our past to understand that many great talents are born today. However, we need to keep hold of them.
Vlada will soon be 22; she is a laureate of the Special Presidential Fund for Support of Talented Young People and I hope that the state will continue supporting her.
What’s her secret?
She’s known for her unique style of playing; she has a romantic nature, so is very sincere, charming her listeners. She allures audiences, as if placing them under a spell. It’s impossible to tear away from her. Nature has given her a gift.
I’ve heard that Vlada plays an unusual violin. Tell us about it.
It was made by 17th century Italian master Andrea Guarneri, created in 1673. We purchased it with assistance from the President. Vlada, Artem Shishkov and Pavel Botyan are my pupils — laureates of the Special Presidential Fund for Support of Talented Young People. During one reception where Artem met the Head of the State, he said: ‘We’re ready to play at contests and earn victories for Belarus, but we don’t have any worthy instruments to play’. The President responded immediately: ‘I don’t see any problem’. He promised to give our young talents suitable instruments. However, the officials failed to understand the implication of this, allocating only a small sum of money; they bought an utterly inadequate instrument of medium quality from a German firm. At the International Tchaikovsky Violin Contest in Moscow in 2007, Artem performed brilliantly, with the whole press writing about him. He was ‘Violin No.1 in Belarus’. Sadly, he failed to reach the third, final, round and didn’t win a prize (only a diploma). It was simply because his violin was of poor quality, unable to be heard above an orchestra — as is needed in the final round.
Does a violinist have to enter a competition with their own violin?
Does this mean that those with talent lose out on prizes if they lack the money to buy a good instrument?It does; playing an instrument is an expensive pleasure. Only those with personal wealth or those who have sponsors (state, private or among enterprises) can be involved in music. After the Tchaikovsky Contest, the issue of acquiring a good instrument for Artem was raised. Vladimir Spivakov, who chairs the jury of the Tchaikovsky Contest, wrote letters to our President, joined by the former Russian Minister for Culture and Mass Communications, Alexander Sokolov.
Officials resisted in every way, as I asked for $500-600 thousand for a violin (a modest sum in fact). In the end, the President gave the instruction to find sponsors, so we did. We gathered $230,000, buying an instrument from a special shop in London. I’d like to express gratitude to our embassy in the UK for organising this. I simply arrived to see the instrument and we purchased it.
How does an older violin differ from a modern one in a master’s hand?
An ordinary violin would be the equivalent of a biathlete using hunting skis and a shot-gun.
Who is playing that violin now? Artem is in Vienna, isn’t he?
Artem waited six long years but the violin is now owned by the Academy of Music and Vlada Berezhnaya is playing it.
What instrument does Artem play at the moment?
When he arrived in Vienna, he was given a violin by the great Italian master Domenico Montagnana. He’s touring the world with this instrument.
What instrument does Pavel Botyan play?
He’s now a third year student and plays an inexpensive violin created by a Czech master from the 19th century, purchased for $3,000.
How do modern violins differ from older ones?
In almost nothing, except for their tone [he says smiling].
What determines this tone?
In the 17th-18th century, special trees were grown in Italy — suitable for making violins and cellos: maples and pines. These varieties no longer exist anywhere, having disappeared. We can chemically analyse the timber of that time but cannot imitate it.
So the timber is more important than the strings?
A bow scrapes the catgut strings while the sound resonates within the body of the violin. The Italians still make them but can create nothing similar to ancient models.
Did you never want to go abroad, even for a short time?
I was invited to Taiwan, Poland and Sweden, but had no knowledge of foreign languages. It’s a problem of my generation. I’m now over 70. My son knows seven foreign languages. Moreover, I don’t have the strength to tour much.
You look wonderful though! Do you play sport?
Music heals the soul! I’m rejuvenated by my students’ playing, rejoicing with them. Each note makes me younger.
By Viktar Korbut