Notes from the Underground

Classic Arts Features   Notes from the Underground
Pianist Vladimir Feltsman and The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center present Masterpieces of the Russian Underground.

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the breakup of the Soviet Union began, the unique atmosphere of Russian culture under Communist control was forever changed. As statues of Lenin were toppled and capitalism became the norm, an important era in the Russian arts ended.

This January, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presents Masterpieces of the Russian Underground, a cross-genre series that takes a look at creativity during the Soviet regime. The brainchild of Russian-born pianist Vladimir Feltsman, the nine-day festival features music, film, poetry, and photography by artists who felt the need to express themselves not in the language of the Soviets, but in the language of art.

While the Chamber Music Society is known for presenting the best of chamber music's standard repertoire, it's also made a name for itself as a groundbreaking organization. Some of CMSLC's special series, including 2001's A Great Day in New York and last season's collaboration with choreographer Bill T. Jones, have made a splash on the music scene and helped redefine the boundaries of chamber music.

"We're dedicated to what is regarded as the canon of chamber music repertory, and exploring and presenting the masterpieces that everybody acknowledges," says David Shifrin, Artistic Director of CMSLC. "But it's also about digging a little deeper‹expanding that repertoire."

The particular pieces in Masterpieces of the Russian Underground, and some of the musicians involved (including Russian-born violinist Oleh Krysa, who was a protégé of David Oistrakh), together with the selection of films, poetry, and photographs, will undoubtedly offer a bird's-eye view of the era. Feltsman's familiarity with the composers and his own intricate link to the movement is similar to cellist Fred Sherry's connection to the New York-based composers of A Great Day in New York, which Sherry curated.

"But in the case of the Russian underground," says Shifrin, "it's a faraway world. By presenting and exploring other art forms‹films and poetry and photography‹we're doing what little we can to re-create just a portion of that world, and to get a better view of it, to put the programs that we're doing into context."

The Russian underground was more a way of being than a creative movement. Composers, poets, and others who felt the need to express themselves on their own terms were automatically deemed underground. And while there were many more composers and artists than this series has room to present, Masterpieces of the Russian Underground will give audiences a good idea of what the scene was all about.

"It is unavoidably personal," says Feltsman of the selection process. "There is an incredible body of work there, from Shostakovich up, and, unavoidably, there were some people, like Schnittke and Gubaidulina, that, absolutely without question, we had to include. But then you have to make a choice‹and I was trying to be as objective, as unbiased, as non-partisan as possible. It's basically my life, my family album. I knew most of these people and some of them have been very close to me. I was born in 1952, when Stalin was still alive, and I saw in the late 1960s and '70s all the flourishing ups and downs of this underground avant-garde movement. I just was part of it."

The period in which many of these works were composed, from the 1950s to the early 1990s, was a repressive, yet artistically fruitful time that produced some of Russia's most important works of art. How could such a closed atmosphere be so conducive to creativity?

"It's like a flower, a white lotus flower," explains Feltsman. "It's extremely pure and beautiful, more white than snow. But it grows from the mud‹and the thicker the mud, swamp, or lake, the more beautiful the flower."

And while many outsiders (including Ronald Reagan's former administration) would rush to politicize these works, as well as Feltsman's career, Feltsman himself believes they should not be. In his case, the pianist insists that he didn't leave Russia for purely political reasons. But like anyone who moved to the West during the Cold War, Feltsman was immediately held up as a political hero.

"I was never a hero‹I am not a hero," he says. "I'm just a musician, just a man who basically got fed up with all this nonsense and wanted to get out. The situation in Russia was such that any honest artist who would create with integrity, and be true to him or herself, would be automatically an underground artist. It should not be understood that all of these people were against the Soviet Union‹that they were all fighters or human rights activists. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Schnittke actually told me once, 'I write the music that has to be written, and that's the end of it.'"

On the other hand, underground arts did help break down the Soviet regime. Those who created art outside of the system were creating acts of civil disobedience, and the language of the art allowed creative people to communicate with each other.

What makes this art even more special is that, hopefully, the situation in which it was created will never exist again. After the breakup of the USSR, many composers of Feltsman's generation left Russia‹some felt they were better off, others left because there really wasn't any other choice. Russia has historically been an enormously creative place, and, undoubtedly, its young composers of today will carve their own niche in the musical world.

But for now, we'll have the opportunity to look at a snapshot from an era that's quickly fading into the past.

"It will be an event," says Feltsman. "It's a happening‹it's not just a series of concerts. This is, I think, something quite special."

Karissa Krenz is the editor of Chamber Music magazine.

Recommended Reading: