It's an unlucky day, even for Vladimir Bakk.
The 49-year-old Moscow-born pianist has just finished a three-day marathon in the dentist's chair to replace teeth he lost almost 20 years ago when KGB goons beat him up, breaking his nose and his jaw. He returns home to discover that approximately $8,000 worth of concerts scheduled in Buenos Aires may have to be canceled because of an Argentine concert manager's negligence. That means Bakk should not have paid the dentist $2,400 of the $3,000 that one of his admirers, a world-famous pianist living in Switzerland, had sent to help pay his living expenses.
The day's final stroke comes just before midnight. The wealthy Baltimorean who has been letting Bakk live rent-free in a Federal Hill apartment calls to inform him that he has decided to rent the property. The pianist and his American girlfriend, Brenda Fairchild, have to vacate by May 10. They decide to move in with some Russian emigre friends in Boston, where the pianist has been able to schedule two concerts in his sputtering efforts to create an American career.
"I will tell the dentist it will be necessary to fly my teeth to Boston," mutters Bakk in fluent, but heavily Russian-accented English.
"Oh, I'm a lucky man!" he suddenly exclaims with madcap joy. "Thank you, God!"
His laughter is on the edge of tears. He is someone to whom life, like music, is the stuff of tragedy. He could be a character in a novel by Dostoevsky.
Unless you hung around the practice rooms of the Moscow Conservatory in the 1960s and early '70s, you have probably never heard of Vladimir Bakk. But other pianists -- such as the late Vladimir Horowitz and the legendarily reclusive Martha Argerich -- have been so impressed by Bakk's feats of prestidigitation that they have helped him with money, references and telephone calls to concert agents and managers.
"His is absolutely the most incredible piano technique I've ever heard," says the celebrated Russian-born virtuoso Vladimir Feltsman. "Certain things he plays better than anyone else alive; he's the last dinosaur from the era that produced Horowitz, [Josef] Lhevinne and [Josef] Hofmann. But he's absolutely unknown, he has no concert dates and no money."
Bakk is among dozens of Russian musicians who have come to this country in the past few years. Trained to Russian expectations for technical and musical mastery loftier than those of American musicians, many of them expected to strike it rich here. Instead, most of them struggle to support themselves. A young, glamorous winner of a recent international contest stands a good chance of finding a manager and some concerts; an almost 50-year-old pianist with missing teeth, whose most recent competition victory was 22 years ago, has fewer opportunities.
Brutality and tenderness
But then, Bakk never had much luck. His free-thinking ways led to four dismissals from the conservatory and to an interruption in his education -- a three-year hitch in the army -- before his graduation in 1973. After winning the Montevideo International Competition in Uruguay, he had played several foreign tours and made several records, but by 1976, his career had crashed.
His purported sins included his marriage -- the first of four -- to an American, the daughter of the UPI Bureau Chief in Moscow. He was charged repeatedly with being either an American spy or a homosexual, or both. A second marriage turned into a disaster when he asked for a divorce and discovered that his soon-to-be-former father-in-law was an important KGB officer. He was beaten several times, and also landed in jail twice.
"Is Russia brutal? Yes," says Bakk.
"Is it tender and gentle? That, too," he says. "But the brutality is terrible to experience -- like a punishment from God."
By 1990, when Bakk emigrated to Israel, "life in Russia had become unendurable." With few exceptions, he hadn't given a concert since 1980. He scraped together a living by driving a cab illegally, rising before dawn every day to search for black-market gasoline.
Convinced of tragedy
Some of Bakk's problems may have been self-inflicted. He never hesitated to share his disdain for the Soviet bureaucracy. And he has an extremely dark view of life.
"Music is tragedy -- I'm absolutely sure of that," Bakk says. "The greatest works -- the last sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, the Mass of Bach, the 'Metamorphoses' of Strauss -- these are not entertainment. They're meditations upon death."
Feltsman says that after talking with Bakk, he sometimes has "to have a glass of milk."
"His attitude is that life is miserable, and then you die. Many times I tell him, 'Smile and shut up.' But if there's a chance to put his foot in his mouth, he'll take it."
That was evident several weeks ago when Bakk gave a recital in a Washington suburb. A musician in his position had everything to gain by ingratiating behavior. But Bakk can only be himself. He kept referring, for example, to the miserable piano he had to play as "Baldwin ka-ka."