For Pianist Bella Davidovich, Dmitry Sitkovetsky Is More Than Just 'my Son, the Violinist'

updated 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

She was a pianist and an acclaimed member of the Soviet musical elite. At 21, Bella Davidovich won the coveted Chopin Competition in Warsaw and established herself as a major talent of her generation. The next year she married a gifted violinist named Julian Sitkovetsky. In 1954 they became the parents of a son, Dmitry, affectionately called Dima, who would turn out, predictably, to be a concert violinist.

Then in 1978, without fanfare or ringing declarations, Davidovich emigrated to the U.S. In doing so she abandoned her prestigious designation as "Deserving Artist of the Soviet Union," her professorship at the Moscow Conservatory and her easy access to the best conductors and orchestras in the U.S.S.R. At age 50 and by now a widow, she started again in virtual obscurity in a land she had never seen. Why?

Bella Davidovich faced a choice: her country or her son. Dmitry, now 32, had left Russia for the West before her. Having weathered the painful transition, she has no regrets about the decision she made, and Western critics have only gratitude for it. When mother and son made their Carnegie Hall debut as a duo last March, the New York Times's Donal Henahan wrote, "Mr. Sitkovetsky's violin and Miss Davidovich's piano met on the level of impeccable musicianship and stylistic elegance."

They have since traveled the world, winding up their latest tour just last month at Washington's Kennedy Center. "There are sisters, or sisters and brothers, or fathers and sons who perform together in classical music," says their manager, Kevin Hassler, "but they are the only mother-and-son team in the major leagues."

Bella, now 58, is hardly the sort of parent who won't let go, nor is Dmitry a mama's boy (at 6' he towers over his 5'1" mother). When not performing in duo, each pursues a solo career. Sitkovetsky, who is married to Susan Roberts, an American soprano with the Frankfurt Opera, makes his home in Wiesbaden, West Germany, while Davidovich is based in New York City.

Mother and son often diverge in their musical interpretations as well. "In tempi, dynamics, styles, she is much more conservative," says Dmitry. Yet they respect the differences and, when performing together, blend their styles admirably. "Sometimes when he suggests something, I think I don't like it," says Bella in her still halting English. "After another rehearsal, I think maybe it's okay. Or sometimes I say, 'No, Dima.' We are two musicians, but we try to make one idea—not mine, not his, but ours."

In the Davidovich clan, music was always a family business. Bella was born in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku, where her parents and sister all played instruments and where her special talent was discovered early, assuring her the finest training the Soviet state could provide. She entered the Moscow Conservatory at 18 and there fell in love with Sitkovetsky, winner of the 1945 All Soviet competition on the violin and part of the postwar musical generation that produced cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Bella and Julian's union was seen as a storybook romance by the music-loving Soviet public, and after Dima was born, he was adored as the heir apparent of a musical aristocracy.

And then, tragedy: Julian died at 32 of lung cancer. His young widow buried her grief in work—teaching and performing nonstop. "I did not see her much when I was growing up," says Dmitry, who spent his time with a nanny and his father's recordings. But the son's inherent talent was so obvious that he too was put on the musical express track; when he was 12 he won the international Concertino Competition in Prague. In 1973 he and his mother gave their first joint concert in the Soviet Union—and in 1975, on what would have been Julian's 50th birthday, they made their final Soviet appearance together.

Bella and Dmitry were widely esteemed for their dazzling musicianship, but as Russian Jews they were not accorded the profusion of honors bestowed on other top Soviet artists. Bella was rarely permitted to perform abroad and so was little known in the West. Chafing from the bureaucratic controls, Dmitry finally withdrew from public appearances. "I was fighting for my identity," he says. "I wasn't a political dissident, but they thought me weird and of little use."

In 1977 his application to emigrate was granted. Dmitry wanted his mother to leave with him, but she chose to stay to care for her widowed mother and ailing sister, Alla. The parting was wrenching—"I think maybe I never see him again," Bella recalls. Prevented from taking anything of value ("not even my violin"), Dmitry arrived in New York with barely $100 to study on full scholarship at the Juilliard School. Honors came quickly. He won the 1979 Fritz Kreisler violin competition in Vienna, debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1980 and first appeared with the Chicago Symphony in 1983.

Fortunately he was not labeled a Soviet defector, and 18 months after he left Russia his mother's request to emigrate was granted; she brought her mother, now 83, and sister with her. Bella's first experience of New York was not happy: Two weeks after her arrival, she was mugged, knocked down and suffered leg injuries that required surgery. Yet she remains upbeat on her new life in the West, savoring the freedom to perform where she wishes and to play what she chooses. Avoiding a mother-son act at first, she reestablished her musical reputation, making her Carnegie Hall debut a year after her arrival and playing 140 engagements in the following two seasons.

Now mother and son each performs about 100 concerts a year, but they seem especially happy when playing and recording together. "Really, she is the best pianist I can play with," says Dmitry, and Bella returns the compliment: "I like my son's sound." They command upwards of $10,000 per performance and split fees 50-50. "Onstage I am not mother, I am colleague," explains Bella. "He is not my child. He is my partner."

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