An outcast earns his way back

July 26, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

When he left the Moscow Conservatory 10 years ago, Vladimir Viardo says, the attitude of the institution was: "Don't bother coming back."

This year, he will be welcomed back with open arms.

"Don't think that it's because I'm so special," says the 48-year-old pianist. "This is how they [the conservatory] are also treating Elisso Wirsaladze, Dmitri Bashkirov, Vladimir Krainev and others. Too many of us have left - they need us back, that's all."

Viardo is, nonetheless, pretty special. His piano recital last week in Tawes Theatre at College Park was one of the highlights of the University of Maryland's International Piano Festival, and his insights in his master class the following morning equaled his feats of prestidigitation the evening before in a program of Liszt, Ginastera and Messiaen.

It was easy to see why Viardo is considered perhaps the biggest talent ever to emerge from Fort Worth's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (he won first prize in 1973) and why North Texas University pays him a small fortune to visit once each month as its artist-in-residence.

But if it's no mystery that the Moscow Conservatory wants him back - even if for only four extended visits each year - one still wonders why Viardo is willing to return, especially at a salary ($150 per month) that will not even pay his airfare.

"It's not the people I miss, it's the walls," Viardo says with a twinkle in his light-blue eyes.

He spent a lot of time within those walls. He went to the conservatory's Central School for gifted children as a 14-year-old from a small town in the Caucasus. He was practically adopted by his teachers, Irina and Lev Naumov, and became, at 25, one of the youngest people in the conservatory's history ever appointed professor.

But if some memories of Moscow are good, others aren't.

A year after his first-prize victory in the Cliburn, Viardo seemed on top of the world. A tour of North America, including a debut at Carnegie Hall, had established his credentials as a technically dazzling, emotionally generous musician who had charisma to burn. He received invitations to return to America and to make several recordings in London for the EMI label.

He had to turn all of them down.

For numerous reasons - including visits to Moscow of American friends, and his predilection for performing "subversive" composers such as Stravinsky and Messiaen - his travel visa was revoked by the Soviet government in 1975.

For 13 years, he was forbidden to travel outside the Soviet bloc, and his opportunities to travel and perform within the Soviet Union itself were severely restricted. Instead of becoming an international star, as he was expected to, Viardo was almost forgotten.

When the advent of glasnost and perestroika opened doors for Russian artists, Viardo and his family left for the West.

"I thought I'd come here and I'd continue from the point I left 13 years before," the pianist says. "But I learned quickly that the public's memory is short and that you have to fight for your career, doing things - social stuff like meeting people, going to parties and organizing concerts - that I'm not very good at."

He was also surprised by the level of the American students he began to teach in Texas and in New York (in whose environs he and his wife, Natasha, now make their home).

"I was shocked by how little they knew and how badly prepared they were," the pianist says. "Democracy is wonderful, but it has a way of twisting things. Everybody here thinks they are equal to everybody, even to God, and the truth is that God doesn't make all of us equal."

Teaching was very different in Russia: Not only did students have more responsibilities, so did teachers.

"My experience with the Naumovs, while especially warm, was not really unique," Viardo says. "Russian teaching tends to be family teaching. Students literally become part of an extended family."

Viardo remembers how the Naumovs used to give him books to read - poetry by Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak and novels by Vassili Grossman and Alexander Solzhenitsyn that had been forbidden by the government; how one of his most talented friends, who became hopelessly infatuated with a different girl every week, was regularly locked up at night by the conservatory's rector so that he couldn't go out at night; and how another friend, who could have slept through an earthquake, received a wake-up visit from his teacher every morning.

"I try to reconstruct that kind of teaching with my students in America," he says. "Sometimes I think I know everything about my students - not only what books they are reading and what movies they are seeing, but even the color of their underwear."

He learned Ginastera's Sonata No. 1, which he performed last week at College Park, only because some of his students played it.

FTC "I learned it in order to be able to listen to them and tell them what I expected to hear," Viardo says, half-jokingly and half-seriously.

But he believes the quantity and quality of the personal attention he and others of his generation received resulted in young pianists who were the equivalent of handmade, rather than machine-made, products.

"Today there is too little personal freedom, too little personal expression," he says. "People are so afraid of making mistakes that they tend to sound like compact discs on stage.

"I don't know that it is possible to contradict these tendencies with the right kind of teaching," Viardo adds.

"All I know is that it is important for me to try."

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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