Russian violinist pursues his art and fame with vigor Artist performs locally to prepare for competitions

December 01, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Emil Chudnovsky has devoted his life to trying to become one of the world's elite violinists -- a deathbed wish of his father, Israel Chudnovsky, a former conductor of the Leningrad Opera.

After losing his car, his conducting job and his graduate fellowship in one week this summer, he is pursuing that goal with renewed vigor, playing at nursing homes, recitals and community groups to bide his time as he practices for international competitions in the next year.

Yesterday, he performed at Owen Brown Place senior citizen community in Columbia. This month, he's doing a three-week tour in Tel Aviv with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.

Nineteen years after emigrating from Russia to the United States, Chudnovsky has only a fleeting grasp of his native language, but the 26-year-old remembers well how to handle the 1721 Grancino violin -- an instrument his mother smuggled out of Russia and one he has played since he was 7 in Moscow.

"With the violin, it's like I'm speaking a language that's not part of any particular culture, but it's one that's absolutely universal," he says as his slim fingers move up and down the violin's strings.

"When you're playing the violin, you're soul-searching, you're praying, you're communing all at the same time.

"It's a magical, inexplicable way that creates something unique," he says.

"And then there's the fact that I'm a ham.

"I like the attention," he said. "I'm an only child."

His mother, Nina Beilina, the founder and artistic director of the Bachanalis Festival Orchestra in New York, made her debut in 1976 when she and her only son came to the United States to further her career.

He studied at the Mannes Col- lege of Music in New York, Yale University and the Manhattan School of Music. His list of scholarships and awards includes first prize from the XI International Curci Violin Competition in Naples, Italy, and winner of the 1993 Young Artists Competition of the National Federation of Music Clubs.

At a Paganini competition in September in Genoa, Italy -- which he compares to the playoff level in sports -- he didn't win anything, but he says he is not discouraged.

"Now I have to go where they will book me whether that's the major or the minor leagues," Chudnovsky says.

"There's no choosing in where or when or what I want to play.

"Someday, I want to be able to call Carnegie Hall and say 'I'd like to play there this weekend, how about it?' " he says. Their response: " 'Sure, Mr. Chudnovsky. We'll be expecting you,' " he says.

For now, the glitz and glamour are replaced by hours of listening to children and adults squeak their way through works of Bach he treasures and playing for senior citizens and civic groups.

It was a string of bad luck that led him to focus on playing locally. In July, he lost his job conducting the string section of the Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra in Annapolis.

A few days later, his car was transformed into a "coffee table," as he describes it, after he left it at a mechanic shop for repairs and came back to find it crushed into scrap metal.

Then came his $1,000 bill for fees and other tuition expenses -- debts he couldn't afford to pay -- from the University of Maryland College Park. So he withdrew from the graduate program.

That meant he had to earn money using his violin.

The dingy beige walls of Owen Brown Place -- the site of one of his recent recitals -- are a far cry from the lights and glitter of New York's Carnegie Recital Hall, a place Chudnovsky has performed several times.

At a recent recital, slow grins come to the faces of several Russian emigrants as they revel in the deep sounds of chords being coaxed from Chudnovsky's violin. They close their eyes, seeming to drift away, as Chudnovsky and pianist Borris Gurevich play a sonata by Bach.

Afterward, Ronald Zimmerman, a Russian immigrant who lives in Elkridge, critiques Chudnovsky's performance in a hushed whisper with other immigrants.

Their rating: Excellent.

DTC "He plays very, very wonderfully," says Zimmerman, 58. "It's beautiful to feel and hear such classical playing. It's very good for all of us old people from Russia to realize that the music we love is not dying."

Michael Elkis, 45, a Ukraine immigrant who lives in Owen Brown, says, "It was a great concert and wonderful to see such talent in an unusual place for a classical music concert."

Chudnovsky spends at least three hours a day practicing bow techniques, fine-tuning his fingerings and perfecting his tone.

He presses Judith Kowitt, a student, to do the same.

"Do not say you can't again," he says as she struggles for a third time through a rapid fingering of a D minor passage in a Bach piece. "Those words are Chinese torture to my ears. You can achieve this."

He picks up his violin and bow to demonstrate.

Only his hands move, now playing a violent chord and then lulling the violin almost to sleep.

"Wow, he is truly good," says Kowitt, who lives in Columbia's Owen Brown village.

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