Piano keys open doors to success

Music: Being Jewish often got in the way of Russian musicians in their pursuit of a career. But changes that came with the end of the Soviet Union now bring such talents as Lilya Zilberstein to American concert stages.

October 19, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's an irony that the Russian-born pianist Lilya Zilberstein should be making her local debut Thursday night at Temple Oheb Shalom in Pikesville.

In her native land, Zilberstein's Jewishness could have at one time prevented her from achieving an international career. But in the early days of the Soviet Union's collapse, the Jewishness that blocked the door to Zilberstein's advancement paradoxically led her to the window of fame as one of the most important Russian pianists of her generation.

In 1987, at age 21, Zilberstein entered the Busoni International Competition, one of Europe's premier musical contests. She won first prize, so impressing executives from Deutsche Grammophon, then as now the world's top classical record label, that they immediately signed her to a long-term contract.

Within three years, the success of those records (as well as the invitations they inspired from important music festivals such as those in Salzburg) enabled her to move, along with her entire family, to Hamburg, where she now lives with her husband and their two small sons.

"I have never looked back," says Zilberstein, 33, who will perform Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with Denmark's Odense Symphony Orchestra at Oheb Shalom. "I'm just grateful to have had the luck to be the right age when the Soviet system was breaking down. Had I been a little older, I would have been forbidden to go where I wanted or to have played where I wanted."

In the late 1980s, when Zilberstein began playing concerts in the West and when her initial Deutsche Grammophon CDs were released, longtime observers of Russia's musical scene also began to notice something peculiar. Almost all the important young Russian musicians -- not only Zilberstein, but also the pianists Evgeny Kissin, Konstantin Lifschitz, Nikolai Demidenko and the violinists Vadim Repin and Maxim Vengerov -- were not students at the Moscow Conservatory, the traditional training ground for such prodigious talents. Most of them (including Zilberstein and Kissin) were students at the Gnessin Institute, Moscow's "second" school of music, which was considered not only inferior, but also only for those considered not "good enough" to make the cut at the more famous conservatory.

It was no accident that all of these youngsters were Jews.

Nearly all of Russia's most famous conservatories had been founded in the 19th century by Jews -- such as the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which had been founded by the legendary pianist Anton Rubinstein, and the Moscow Conservatory, which had been founded by his equally talented brother, pianist Nikolai.

But the parents of the Rubinstein brothers had converted to Christianity, and had their infant sons baptized so that they would be able to achieve success in the openly anti-Semitic atmosphere of Imperial Russia.

And official imperial policy made it impossible for any Jewish student -- no matter how talented -- to be admitted to those conservatories unless he or she agreed to convert. That made it possible for converted musicians to achieve fame all over the world, but their own countrymen rarely forgot their origins.

"When I play in Germany they call me a Russian and when I play in America they call me a German," Anton Rubinstein once remarked. "But in Russia, they always call me a Jew."

In the early days after the Russian Revolution, those anti-Semitic policies were abandoned. The result was the flood of Russian Jews -- pianists Emil Gilels, Jakob Zak, Jacob Flier, Rosa Tamarkina, Bella Davidovich and Vladimir Ashkenazy and violinists David Oistrakh, Leonid Kogan, Julian Sitkovetsky, Gidon Kremer and Vladimir Spivakov -- onto the concert stage where their victories in international music contests in the decades preceding and following World War II reflected cultural glory upon the Soviet Union and were used as fodder for propaganda throughout the Cold War.

But by the late 1940s, the ugly face of Russian anti-Semitism had begun to reassert itself. The commissars for culture, for example, forced the Moscow Conservatory faculty, many of whom were Jews, to deny a diploma to Kogan. Though not himself Jewish, composer Nikolai Miaskovsky resigned in protest.

"How can I say that the best violinist in Moscow is not good enough to graduate?" Miaskovsky asked.

"These matters became worse over the years," says Zilberstein, who graduated in 1983 from one of Russia's two most prestigious schools for musically gifted children with a coveted Gold Medal. The quota for Jews had dropped to as low as 20 percent of admissions to the Moscow Conservatory. And even when admitted, Jewish youngsters -- even some of the most talented -- were passed over when it was time to send delegations to important international competitions.

"With my obviously Jewish name, I was afraid to take the risk of applying to the conservatory," she says.

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