A Symphony of Anguish The once-splendid Russian system of musical education teeters on the edge of disintegration.


MOSCOW - It is a subzero day in February, but Denis Matsuev is making the other pianists in the room feel uncomfortably warm. Listening to the 23-year-old play Liszt's "Mephisto Waltz" is like listening to God create the universe: a fury of deafening thunderbolts mixed with unearthly beauty and tenderness.

"A talent like his turns up about once every 20 years, and when they do it's usually here," says the Milan Conservatory's Vincenzo Barzani, who has just taught the master class in which Matsuev performed.

"Here" is the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, which Barzani calls "the greatest and most endangered conservatory in the world."

To understand what concerns him, you must climb two flights of stairs - the conservatory's 19th-century lift is out of order today - to the rooms where students actually practice.

It is nearly as cold up here as it is outside. Piano students wear several layers of clothing and gloves with the fingers cut out. The conservatory cannot afford to heat these rooms, and it can't afford to keep the pianos in tune, let alone replace missing ivories or broken strings.

A visit to the conservatory's library is equally distressing. That Rachmaninoff score, with the composer's dedication in his own hand? It's falling apart, because the library doesn't have climate-controlled storage areas.

That recording of the famous recital Emil Gilels gave here 50 years ago? It's almost unlistenable now, because it wasn't transferred to tape before it began to deteriorate.

All of this worries Matsuev, whose good looks and curly hair recall those of the young Van Cliburn. What worries him most, however, is that Serge Dorensky, his primary teacher, earns only $130 a month.

"I continually live with the fear that our best teachers will leave the country," says Matsuev, who switched to Dorensky after his first teacher, Alexei Nasedkin, decided to work mostly in Japan, with its astronomically higher salaries. "In the five years I've been a student, five of the best [piano] teachers have left."

While Matsuev worries about his teachers, his teachers worry about him.

After hearing his "Mephisto Waltz," Barzani tells Matsuev: "It is time for you to go abroad to let people hear you, so that you can be as famous and as rich as you deserve to be."

Five months later, when Matsuev wins first prize in the quadrennial International Tchai-kovsky Competition, that time seems at hand.

In many respects, the young pianist's triumph is business as usual. The Tchaikovsky, the world's most famous competition, is almost always dominated by the Russians.

But this year, the standing-room-only crowd at the Bolshoi Zal - the conservatory's great concert hall - must contend with something new: the smell of human excrement.

Like everything else in Russia, the hall is breaking down. Its antiquated plumbing simply can't handle the thousands who have come to hear the world's finest young pianists, violinists, cellists and vocalists.

The Tchaikovsky Conservatory has produced as many great instrumentalists as the rest of the world's conservatories combined. But its future is threatened for the same reasons it cannot afford to fix its toilets.

The end of the Cold War, the collapse of communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union may have been good for world peace. But they have been bad for music.

Musical powerhouse

The golden age of Soviet music was shaped by the iron hammer wielded by Josef Stalin.

In 1931, a group of musical prodigies gave a concert for Stalin and the other party bosses. Afterward, the dictator met with the children and their teachers and asked how they were living.

"Boris Goldstein, a 10-year-old violinist with a big talent and an even bigger mouth, got up and said conditions were 'terrible,' " says Lev Ginzburg, a Russian music historian.

"There was terrified silence after Busya [Goldstein] spoke," Ginzburg says. "Everyone in the room thought the NKVD would be knocking on their doors that night and that they would be waking up in the morning in Lubyanka prison.

"Finally, Stalin said, 'Well, then something must be done.' "

One result of that meeting was the establishment of free professional schools that were to prepare gifted children to enter the Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) conservatories directly. These so-called "central schools" were soon followed by the creation of similar preparatory institutions for the other conservatories in the former Soviet Union - eight in Russia, four in Ukraine and 10 in other Soviet republics.

Like Hitler, Stalin understood the propaganda value of culture. He realized that the achievements of musicians (like those of chess players, dancers and athletes) could demonstrate the superiority of communism over capitalism.

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