Pianist Feltsman finds fame plays out quickly

December 06, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Vladimir Feltsman has escaped from prison twice: the first time was from suffering eight years of indignities as a refusenik in the former Soviet Union; the second was from the celebrity that surrounded him five years ago when he was finally permitted to leave Russia for the United States.

Well-publicized efforts by human rights organizations, Jewish groups and politicians such as Sen. Edward Kennedy and former Rep. Jack Kemp to free Feltsman made the pianist famous in the United States before anyone had heard him play a note.

For a year or so after his arrival, Feltsman -- who will perform tonight at 7:30 at Temple Beth El in honor of Cantor Saul Hammerman's 40th anniversary -- enjoyed the biggest career of any pianist in the world: invited by the Reagans to play at the White House; profiled on television's "60 Minutes"; given an $80,000 endowed professorship by the State University of New York at New Paltz; signed by CBS Records (now Sony Classics) to a contract that called for a minimum of three albums a year; and handed a concert schedule of 120 dates a year at fees that started at nearly $20,000 for a single appearance.

"I was hungry, and I ate too much," says Feltsman, explaining that as an "unperson" in the Soviet Union he had played only about 20 dates -- all of them either in nursery schools or in factories, often on untuned uprights -- in the eight years before his emigration. "Suddenly, I was playing in the best halls and with the best orchestras. It was a bit too much."

There was also a backlash against the then-35-year-old pianist. Some critics began to wonder what the hype was about, and, as curiosity about Feltsman faded, he discovered that he had become the closest thing the United States has to an unperson -- last year's news.

Feltsman's problem was that he had become a superstar too quickly. What makes a musical superstar -- a Luciano Pavarotti, a Yo-Yo Ma or an Itzhak Perlman -- different from ordinary stars is that their audiences are largely made up of people who would not otherwise attend a concert. But the Pavarottis, the Mas and the Perlmans generally built up musical audiences first and usually are sustained by a longtime reputation for musical excellence. Because Feltsman had skipped the first stage, he had an audience of mostly one-time concertgoers. Before three years had passed, Feltsman had lost his record contract and -- while he continued to play important concerts -- he was finding it harder to find audiences.

"I had been turned into a hero and I was just a musician who wanted to play," Feltsman says.

He had it all

He first came to Russian attention as a prodigy, performing Beethoven concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic at the age of 13. He made an extraordinary impression in 1971 when -- at 19 -- he took first prize in Paris at the Marguerite Long Competition. He had everything: talent, the prizes that confirmed that talent, and, not least, a family with powerful connections -- Feltsman's father, Oscar, was one of the best-known composers of popular music in Russia.

It seemed incredible that in 1979 he decided to throw it all away by applying for permission to emigrate to Israel. Feltsman wanted more than the success of a piano virtuoso: He wanted the freedom to play such decidedly unvirtuosic works as Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations"; he wanted to play the music of such proscribed composers as his countryman, Alfred Schnittke; and he wanted the freedom to speak his mind. Within weeks, Feltsman's concerts were canceled and his recordings disappeared from store shelves.

The plight of a pianist

It didn't take long for Feltsman's case to become a cause celebre. Feltsman's cousin, Simon Pincosol, who had emigrated to New York in 1977, began calling newspapers and politicians about his cousin; in Europe such celebrated musicians as the pianist Maurizio Pollini and the violinist Yehudi Menuhin began speaking about the pianist's plight; and in Russia itself, Feltsman made himself a major nuisance by cultivating the friendship of Western diplomats, particularly those at the U.S. embassy, and of Western journalists, who knew a good story when they heard one. In 1982, a publicist who specialized in Jewish causes rented Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall and issued an invitation to Feltsman that the pianist, of course, was not permitted to accept. The concert was held -- with the pianist Misha Dichter contributing his services -- and the resulting headlines were followed by five more years of additional stories, all of which gave the Soviets additional black eyes. In 1987, Soviet leaders, anxious to demonstrate to the West the progress of glasnost, finally let Feltsman go.

The pianist arrived in New York in August with his wife, his 4-year-old son, three pieces of luggage and the mistaken belief that he knew what life in the West would be like.

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