Silenced for Eight Years in Russia, Pianist Vladimir Feltsman Brings the Sound of His Music to the U.S.
The atmosphere in Carnegie Hall was not merely anticipatory, it was electric last November as Vladimir Feltsman, 36, emerged from the wings and walked quickly across the stage toward the gleaming black Steinway grand. The gray in his hair and beard, evidence of his suffering under Soviet authorities who virtually silenced him in 1979, seemed enhanced under the lights. Approaching center stage, he paused, searching out his wife, Anya, who was sitting high across the hall in the center box with Ron Reagan, Mikhail Baryshnikov and poet Joseph Brodsky. Then Feltsman sat down at the piano and shook his head as if to convince himself that he was really in Carnegie Hall, really in New York, really in America. Finally, in a moment he had anticipated for nearly a decade, he closed his eyes and began to play his American public debut program: Schubert, Messiaen, Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven.
"It was extremely responsible moment," Feltsman said several weeks later. "You see, I play not one note, but everybody knows my name. Valodya Feltsman. Activist, refusenik, symbol. I understood that I have to play good—I have to. If not, then I am finished. Really, not kidding. But I practice a long time for this moment. I was ready."
So was his audience. At an age when most major pianists are well known to their audiences, Feltsman was faced with the challenge of living up to his own reputation, based largely on glowing accounts from his homeland. And though it is far too soon to know whether he will ever rival in stature those brilliant Russian pianists who preceded him to America in this century—Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Sviatoslav Richter and Vladimir Ashkenazy—he is off to a dazzling start. Critic Harold C. Schonberg has praised Feltsman's "flair, confidence and big technique," and acknowledged his "musical and physical personality, a rare commodity these days." Next week Feltsman will play the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, a U.S. orchestral debut that critics will judge more severely.
That debut will be a major milestone in a happy journey that began last August, when Feltsman and his family were granted exit visas from the Soviet Union. When he stepped off the plane in Vienna, the pianist was handed an invitation to play at the White House in September. He received a hero's welcome when he arrived in New York with Anya and their 4-year-old son, Daniel; a teaching job and a house at the State University of New York at New Paltz were waiting. Since then Feltsman has signed a lucrative recording contract with CBS Masterworks, which has just released his Carnegie Hall recital album. This year he has nearly 70 concerts scheduled, including engagements with the world's major symphonies, and is expected to earn $500,000.
For nearly nine dark years such success had seemed unimaginable. Feltsman's troubles began at 10 a.m. on May 23, 1979, when the acclaimed Jewish pianist walked into the office of the manager of the Moscow State Philharmonic, where he was employed as a soloist, and announced that he wanted to emigrate. "It was artistic, not political decision," he explains. "I didn't want to waste my best years in the struggle with ignorant people, having party apparatchiks tell me where and when I could play." At 12:30 p.m. a friend at the state radio studio called and said that the agency had been ordered to remove all copies of Feltsman's five recordings, which were never to be played again. Feltsman had officially become a nonmusician.
For the next two years, he played no concerts at all. "It was very difficult," says Anya. "He was one of the most known persons in Moscow. People loved to come to our apartment. After the application, there were moments when we came out and people [walked around] us. So I forced him to go see people who were still our friends."
In 1981 the authorities began to relax their ban but maliciously allowed him concert dates only in obscure outposts like Karpinsk and Goralogodatsky, where he played in factories, shops and schools. The low point for Feltsman came at the T.T.Z. Tractor Factory in Tescheljabinsk in the Urals, where the noise of the machines mercifully drowned out his performance of Rachmaninoff's preludes on an out-of-tune piano. Feltsman didn't complain. "I played everywhere they asked me to. It was the only way to get money to feed my family. We spent all we had. We sold our 17th-century engravings and part of our library, which was extremely painful. I collected books all my life. They were my pride."
During those years of enforced silence, Feltsman found solace at the American Embassy residence, where then Ambassador and Mrs. Arthur Hartman encouraged the pianist to play recitals. One 1986 performance became a cause célèbre when it was found that several piano strings had been cut before the performance. The strings were repaired, and Feltsman played on. "Those concerts saved my life," he says. "It was a great opportunity to remind people—friends, diplomats, Western press—that I am still alive as a musician."
Those eight years posed a particularly difficult adjustment for a man born to privilege and fame as the only son of Oskar Feltsman, an enormously successful composer of popular music. Vladimir had made his debut playing Beethoven's C Major Concerto with the Moscow Symphony at the age of 11. At 19, he won the Marguerite Long International Competition in Paris. He was at the height of his success when he met Anya Kagan, a biologist and the daughter of a prominent scientist, at a dinner in Leningrad in 1977. The next day Anya answered the telephone. "It was a sunny day in March with lots of snow," she recalls. "Valodya said, 'Stop damaging your eyes looking into a microscope. You must marry me.' " Anya thought he was joking. They wed three weeks later.
Feltsman, dissatisfied with the restrictions imposed on Russian artists, discussed emigration with Anya even before they married. At the time, her brother, Aleksander, had just left for New York after being denied entrance to medical school because he was Jewish. "I could see all the difficulties," she says. "It was nonsense, Valodya trying to get permission to go abroad to play, never knowing whether he would be allowed to go. Yet even during the worst times, we never stopped believing we would finally emigrate."
The first real note of hope was sounded when U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz pressed for Feltsman's release during a visit to Moscow. "One day I was called and asked to play again in Tchaikovsky Hall," Feltsman says. "Several weeks later our visas came through." Notably missing from the friends and family who accompanied the couple to the airport was Oskar Feltsman, a patriotic Communist party member who disapproved of his son's decision. "He is a product of the system, and it was not very easy for any of us," says Feltsman of their strained relations.
There is a word, oomnychelavyek, that Russians use to describe intellectually acute people like Feltsman. One night in Manhattan he became particularly fiery as he defended himself against the inevitable accusations that he had come to the West just for the money. "I think if you are born with a call, a message from God, it is your duty to develop it," he said. "You have no choice. I know I was born on this earth to play piano. I have cut all my roots, brought pain to my friends and parents and suffered for very serious reasons. I have lost eight years. I have no more time for waiting. I have to be here to do things fast. Nobody will tell me what to do. If I make mistakes, they will be my mistakes, nobody else's. I am here because I want to play. I want to play!"