The New Americans

July 08, 1991|By David Conn

The first-time job search is a stressful rite of passage for anyone. Imagine it in a nation where not only the language is foreign but the alphabet is, too. Where you have no reliable transportation to get to work. And where, in a job interview, you have little idea of how to conduct yourself, what to say, when to smile, whether your clothes are correct.

Hundreds of Soviet immigrants to Baltimore, new arrivals in an historic wave of emigration, face those obstacles. Here are the stories of three families and their struggle for the American dream.

The tune is Thelonius Monk's sweet, haunting ballad, " 'Round Midnight." Nicholas Zamoroko plays it in the lush and sure-handed style of American jazz pianist Bill Evans, Mr. Zamoroko's musical inspiration.

"We left beautiful piano in Russia when we left," says his wife, Irina, a concert violinist and teacher. So Mr. Zamoroko must play on this scuffed-up baby grand in a small practice room at the Peabody Conservatory on North Charles Street.

The piano wasn't all the couple had to leave behind when they emigrated from the Soviet Union in Dec. 30, 1990. There were three suitcases at the airport in Moscow (they can't even recall what was in them), successful careers as music teachers and performers, and a music library Nicholas estimates at "no less than 1,000" albums and tapes.

He brushes the losses aside. "Life taught me hope," the 43-year-old Kiev native says. "And I hope I can restore [the library]."

Tougher to restore will be the couple's professional lives. Mr. Zamoroko was a pianist and arranger for the Ukrainian National Concert Orchestra in Kiev, an instructor at the Kiev State College of Music -- classical and jazz, theory and composition -- and an editor at a Kiev music publisher. His solo album of jazz standards and originals shows a head of hair slightly less gray than he sports now, but the beatnik goatee is the same.

Mrs. Zamoroko, 41, holds two diplomas and supervised the strings department at a music school in Kiev.

Part of the problem is the intense competition for orchestral musicians in the United States. If the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra needs a violinist, it may get hundreds of applications from all over the world.

Another obstacle, of course, is the language barrier. Both studied some English in the Soviet Union, and a little more after they arrived. But in order to teach regularly they must be more fluent, they admit.

Musician immigrants test the limits of the job counselors who try to keep them off welfare.

"One has to try to take abstract skills out of the background of the refugee, and then translate them into another job which may have nothing to do with the skills of the field," says Mary Haile, a counselor at Associated Catholic Charities, which handles refugees of all backgrounds.

She recalls the classical pianist who ran a music library in Moscow and came to the ACC from a welfare agency. "I called every single music store in this city," Ms. Haile says. "I called Peabody. I called schools to see if she could teach." Ultimately she found the woman a clerk's job with an insurance company, where her librarian skills could be put to use.

Stories like that are why Mrs. Zamoroko feels so lucky to have gotten a part-time job teaching violin at Baltimore's City College for this fall. She just finished a week at the Suzuki Institute in Washington to learn how to teach the method, which is different from an experimental method she used in Kiev.

"I'm very happy, because I really love this kind of work," she smiles.

While Nicholas is out searching for a larger rehearsal hall, Mrs. Zamoroko plays from memory a delicate portion of Bach's "Ave Maria," the plaintive sounds of her violin filling the practice room. She says she's still rusty from not playing in earnest for a few months, since she got a few engagements with the Harrisburg, Lancaster and Delaware symphony orchestras.

Mr. Zamoroko already feels at home in America. He has studied jazz and jazz culture for decades. When Duke Ellington's orchestra came to the Soviet Union in 1970, Mr. Zamoroko was there. And when the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra came in 1972, he was there.

He made contact with those musicians and did jazz research that ultimately was published. Mr. Zamoroko even worked, by mail, with the Library of Congress.

"Because of all this I think maybe my experience will be useful to Americans," he says.

So far he has yet to convince many Americans. Soon after they arrived, Mr. Zamoroko hooked up with other musicians (social workers here joke that if a Russian isn't carrying a violin when he steps off the plane, it means he's left his piano back home), and auditioned at the Cat's Eye Pub in Fells Point.

They liked him, Mr. Zamoroko says, but couldn't use him. Instead they directed him to Mel Spear, the jazz pianist at the Society Hill Hotel's Grille 58 restaurant. Mr. Spear was very encouraging and let him play a few nights a week for exposure. Meanwhile, in February Mr. Zamoroko started working a few hours a week at Peabody as an accompanist for students. But it's summer now, and that work has slacked off.

Now he plays two nights a week at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel's Windows restaurant, a job referred to him by another musician.

"Step by step," Mr. Zamoroko says.

Does the couple have a favorite song, their song?

"Of course," Nicholas says matter-of-factly, as Irina gives him a puzzled look. He launches into a jaunty jazz rendition of "America the Beautiful."

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