Slutsky retains Russian way with teaching

April 17, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Boris Slutsky exemplifies the truth of the aphorism that you are where you're from.

Slutsky, who teaches piano at the Peabody Conservatory and who will give a recital tonight in Friedberg Concert Hall, came to this country from Russia in 1977 as a 15-year-old. For most of his adolescence and all of his adult life, he studied the piano at the best American conservatories. But when he plays the piano and teaches it, he remains very much a Russian.

"Whenever people ask me if I am glad my parents brought me to this country, I tell them that I am deeply grateful -- and I truly am," says the 35-year-old pianist, whose aureole of red-gold hair combines with his fair skin and eyes to make him resemble a saintly figure in a Russian icon.

"In the old Soviet Union, much was depraved and much needed to be avoided. But a few things were good and deserve emulation in the West."

Slutsky is talking about a centralized system of musical education that successfully connected the brightest young students with the best teachers. It was a system in which a vocation for teaching young children was revered and rewarded, not -- as it is in the United States -- condescended to so that such teachers often feel the need to apologize for what they do.

"In the United States, a student rarely gets to see his teacher for more than one hour a week," Slutsky says. "In Russia, our teachers used to meet with us at least two times a week. When we were preparing for a concert it was every day -- and no one was watching the clock," he adds.

Slutsky did not learn any of the works he will play tonight -- Haydn's G Major Sonata, Schumann's "Kreisleriana," four Rachmaninoff preludes and Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7 -- when he studied in Russia. But everything he will play will be influenced -- at least in part -- by the training he received at the remarkable hands of Anna Kantor at the Gnessin Institute for Gifted Children in Moscow.

Slutsky -- the son of a violinist and violist who are now members of the Baltimore Symphony -- went to Kantor as a small boy and stayed with her until his departure from the Soviet Union nearly 10 years later.

Kantor, who now lives in New York, may be the the world's most gifted teacher of musically gifted children. Her best-known students include Evgeny Kissin, perhaps the most celebrated pianist alive, and the London-based Nikolai Demidenko, who pTC enjoys one of the biggest careers in Great Britain and in Europe.

"Anyone who had to deal with Genya's [Kissin's] talent and not spoil it has a genius for unselfishness," says Slutsky of Kantor. "She tried to adhere to the individual needs of the children. She never said there was only one way; she said, 'How do you want the music to go, where do you want the phrase to end?' "

Which isn't to say that Kantor was an easy touch.

"Last year I played 'Kreisleriana' for her when I was preparing for a concert in New York," Slutsky says. "I had the flu and couldn't breathe. She said, in her typically grandmotherly way, 'You don't feel well, do you?'

" 'I feel lousy,' I said, expecting a sympathetic response from her tone. Then, in exactly the same tone and without raising her voice, she said: 'Then you should either cancel or forget that you're sick. Because when people come to a concert, they don't care whether you're sick or not. All they want to do is listen.' "

That must have been just what Slutsky needed to hear. The concert, particularly "Kreisleriana," went very well.

"Boris," says Evgeny Kissin, who plays "Kreisleriana" himself, "is a fantastically gifted pianist."

It was partly Kantor's impact on him that kept Slutsky in music. In the early 1980s, a slew of prizes in major international competitions made him one of the hottest young pianists in America. But by the end of the decade, his career seemed to have come to a standstill. He didn't have the number of dates his talent seemed to deserve and, in order to make a living, he found it necessary to teach small children. A friend, a computer whiz who had made a small fortune by designing computer systems and was about to make a much larger one, convinced the mathematically gifted Slutsky to join his business. He lasted one day.

"The time flew by and I loved the work," Slutsky says. "But at the end of the day I was depressed and wished that I was going to teach those little kids the next morning. Even though those children were not particularly talented and though trying to teach them was more like baby-sitting, they made me realize that in my life I needed to hear music every day."

Four years later, in 1993, a part-time job -- teaching only six students -- materialized at Peabody. Word got around about Slutsky's devotion to his students and about how their playing had improved under his tutelage. He soon discovered that he had 22 students and a full-time position.

"I found out that I needed to make an impact on the way young people thought," says Slutsky. "Teaching -- though it can exhaust you -- gives me as much gratification as a standing ovation."

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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