Five Years Later, Soviet Defector Lexo Toradze Greets His Mother with a Hug and a Concerto

UPDATED 07/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

It is the evening before. Almost as soon as he says hello, Lexo Toradze admits the obvious. "I am very excited," he says over the telephone. "And I am very nervous."

Tomorrow will not be one of those routine days; he will not play a Tchaikovsky concerto with the New York Philharmonic nor give a command performance for some head of state. On days like that, he is Alexander Toradze, distinguished pianist, winner of the silver medal in the 1977 Van Cliburn competition. Tomorrow he will be Lexo, 36 years old, but in some ways still Liana Asatiani's child prodigy. Tomorrow his mother, Liana, arrives from Tbilisi in the Soviet Union. "It's very strange," Lexo says, his idiomatic English spewing forth torrentially in an accent flavored by his native Georgia. "I have been independent so long; tomorrow, I will have to learn to be a son again. I am nervous," he says once more.

Still the night before. His apartment is a modest one-bedroom rental close to Lincoln Center. American kids in the '50s were taught that whole families in Moscow had to live in places this size; Manhattanites in the '80s are lucky to get them. In a frenzy, Lexo works far into the night cleaning the place, from the Steinway concert grand snug against one wall of the living room to the sleek espresso machine in the munchkin-size kitchenette. Then, about 3 a.m., Pepper arrives, and Lexo knows fear.

"This hamster first appeared in my apartment Thursday night, around 4 a.m.," Lexo remembers. "It was the most amazing thing. She jumped up on me. I think she came through the cable network. I left a note downstairs, and within 10 minutes, a little girl named Myra called and said, 'Mr. Toradze, did you find Pepper?' I said yes, but when Myra came down, Pepper had chewed through the box I put her in." Myra left behind a cage for Pepper, but the animal migrated to apartment 8H, and Myra retrieved the cage from Lexo. Now, when the animal reappears, Lexo interrupts his cleaning to worry. "I know I have to do something about the hamster because Mother is coming. She can't have anything with fur—dogs, yes, but not cats or anything else. If she sees it, she will leave immediately."

There is no reassuring Lexo that his mother won't catch the next Aeroflot to Tbilisi at the first sight of an eight-ounce rodent. Panicked, he scoops up the hamster and buzzes the night doorman, ordering him to awaken Myra. "He rings four times, no answer. They are very sound sleepers," Lexo says. Now it is 4 a.m. Two of the most highly reputed hands in the piano-playing business are wrapped around the squirming fur ball, afraid to let it go back into hiding, knowing that Mama is just a few hours away. On an inspiration, Lexo goes upstairs to Myra's apartment; the little girl has left the cage outside. In goes Pepper, back to cleaning goes Lexo. The doorman later tells Lexo, "I've never in my life seen a little girl so excited."

The day Mama arrives Lexo is in a swivet, and his English deteriorates accordingly. He is on the phone to the limousine company. "New stretch? What means new stretch?" he demands of the dispatcher. Then his face brightens: "Ahhhh! The limousine is a stretch and it's new! Very good." The apartment has enough flowers for Brezhnev's funeral. "This and this and this are from Van Cliburn," Lexo announces, gesturing toward roses and carnations and lilies. "These are from the Armacosts. It is very important to me that I thank the Armacosts publicly."

As he chain-chews nicotine gum, the story spills out: How Lexo defected, in 1983. How, some years before, while performing in Manila, he had met Michael Armacost, then the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, and his wife, Bonnie. How they met again in Washington after Lexo defected. Michael Armacost had become Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs by that time, and he offered to help Lexo reunite with his mother. "My father, David, was a famous composer; he died a few months after I defected," says Lexo. "I wanted to see my mother again, although I was not sure I would. I wrote a letter to Mr. Shevardnadze." Armacost presented the note to the Soviet foreign minister personally. There were more letters and more meetings, as well as the personal intervention of Secretary of State George Shultz. Then, this spring, permission was given; Mama was free to come to New York.

"Should I have champagne in the car or back in the apartment?" Lexo asks. "I think in the car, don't you? I should get flowers, shouldn't I?" He sweeps up a half-size basketball from the floor, races toward a hoop on the bedroom door, takes flight and delivers an Air Georgian slam dunk with a triumphant whoop. Nervousness paralyzes some people; it energizes Lexo. He cues up a recording of himself with the New York Philharmonic, playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. Then he sits down at the Steinway and plays along, filling the tiny room with the great familiar crashing strains. No protests issue from above, below or next door. Lexo's neighbors are music lovers, clearly.

Laden with flowers, chilled Dom Pérignon and a man who will videotape the day's events, the new stretch is heading out to the airport. "My mother is very beautiful," says Lexo. "She's had a career as an actress since she was 13, in 1942, when she made her first movie. In the Soviet Union, movie actress is not a real career, so she also trained as an ophthalmologist. She still has a practice in Tbilisi. In the past five years she has had to deal with so much—my unexpected defection, the sudden death of my father. She's extraordinary."

At the very moment Lexo reaches the terminal at Kennedy Airport, the doors from the customs area fly open and an imperial-looking woman with jet-black hair steps into American life. She and Lexo come together slowly, majestically, enfolding each other warmly in their arms, holding each other in a dignified hug, then stepping aside to allow the traffic to flow by. They pose with good humor for the press photographers, then walk quietly to the waiting limo.

That night, dabbing at the tears running down her cheeks, Liana Asatiani explains what was really going on. "In life, to imagine a great joy or a great sorrow is almost a stronger feeling than the fact itself," she says. "The imagination, the anticipation of it was so intense, I kept telling myself that if I didn't faint, everything would be all right. You see how it worked out, as if nothing special happened? I was holding myself in, restraining myself, controlling myself so I would not fall apart." Her emotion is gradually releasing itself gently, as is appropriate to a woman of her station.

There is so much to remember.

"When I defected, in our first telephone conversations, we cried," Lexo recalls. "After the 10th or 12th or 20th conversation, we started to joke. Finally, she started to calm down. She said, 'Hey, everybody here says you defected and asked political asylum not from the Soviet system but from me. Is that true?' " Liana, mock indignant, laughs through her tears.

In closing a chasm of five years and 5,000 miles, this mother-and-son reunion also marks an era of change in the Soviet Union. Liana has brought with her a clipping from a Tbilisi newspaper; it praises Lexo's musicianship and criticizes the bureaucracy that drove him out of the country. Such an outpouring of glasnost makes Liana's fondest hope a possibility. "I would like very much someday to see my son performing in our homeland," she says. "The people really dream of hearing him now. The rehabilitation of Lexo has begun."

The parting of mother and son was not planned. Lexo had spent much of the summer of 1983 with his family in a dacha outside Moscow, practicing eight hours a day for a concert tour of Spain. "Five years ago I kissed him on the forehead and blessed him for another concert tour," Liana says, her voice quavering. "I didn't know that we would be separated." Neither did Lexo.

For years he had been running afoul of the state arts bureaucracy. Though Western producers paid thousands of dollars for his services, the Soviet government allowed him only $73 per concert and sent a KGB agent to trail him wherever he went. As a pianist, he is known for his unbridled, forceful style, and his personality is much like his technique. When he traveled in the West, his KGB minders did their best to keep him away from defectors and Westerners. But when he ran across exile conductor Mstislav Rostropovich at an airport in Paris in 1977, Toradze walked away from his escort and greeted his old family friend warmly. "Slava said, 'When you go back, kiss the land and ground of our country. Kiss it because I miss it. But when are you going to do something?' "

The answer came in August 1983, when Toradze arrived in Spain with the Moscow Radio and Television Orchestra only to learn that he would not be allowed to perform. The Soviets had neglected—he thinks deliberately—to tell the Spaniards that he was coming. Infuriated, Lexo demanded a ticket back to Moscow, intending to raise hell with the ministry of culture. Instead, he was ordered to cool his heels in Spain. After three attempts to get back home, he sought asylum through the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. "It's not that I defected from the Soviet Union," he says simply. "I defected to the United States."

All that is past, and now Mama is here; Lexo is a son again. As she settles onto the couch in his living room, Liana casts a keen eye around the apartment. "Does he rent this or own it?" she asks. She is shocked to hear that he rents. "He's throwing his money away," she says with concern. That night there is a festive dinner at a fashionable restaurant. Afterward, there is a viewing of the day's videotape. It is pushing midnight when Lexo and his mama, arm in arm, wander back to his apartment from Carnegie Hall, so much together that they seem never to have been apart.

It is the morning after. In a hotel lobby across the street from the United Nations, Lexo and Mama are to meet Michael Armacost, who, since George Shultz and his deputy are out of the country, is Acting Secretary of State. "This is all part of what's happening in the Soviet Union," says Armacost, referring to the Toradzes' reunion. "Emigration figures are up, the treatment of the citizenry has improved. It's all very encouraging." When Liana arrives, she brings presents, but the antique silver pocket watch she had intended to present to Armacost is still in Moscow, confiscated at the airport by a customs inspector. All night Liana has been rehearsing her first English phrase, and now she offers it to the diplomat, along with a kiss on each cheek: "Thank you very much," she tells Armacost. "Thank you. Thank you."

It is the following week. Has she been enjoying the city? "New York?" Liana chuckles at the question. "I haven't had time to see New York. It's taken all week to put Lexo's apartment in order." In fact, she has taken a few walks in Central Park and made a quick trip to Saks Fifth Avenue, which she finds oddly unstylish by Soviet standards.

Then, out of the blue, Zubin Mehta calls. The conductor of the New York Philharmonic has a major problem: The Soviet pianist scheduled to perform on Thursday has canceled. There is no soloist for Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto. Lexo himself has not performed it for a year. "Zubin, I need at least a week to prepare," he says. "You don't have a week," the maestro says amiably.

Two days later Lexo bounces onto the stage of Avery Fisher Hall in white tie and broad grin. Liana, in the audience, leans forward, her whole body tense, feeling "nervousness, anticipation, everything."

The Prokofiev concerto is a huge work, and when Lexo attacks the keyboard he makes the piece seem larger still. He thumps on the pedals and throws himself into the cadenzas. When he is done, the ovation is uproarious. Lexo is a star in his new country.

Afterward, there is dinner at a Chinese restaurant with 25 of his closest friends, then a visit to an admirer's apartment for talk and Soviet folk music until well after 2 a.m. "One of the last times I heard Lexo perform, he played the same concerto in Moscow," Liana says. "He was a master even then. Now, he has made the piece his own." All summer, mother and son will travel together while Lexo performs—in Los Angeles, Saratoga, N.Y., Chicago, Fort Worth, Interlochen, Mich. But in September, Liana's visa will expire, and she will return to her films and her patients. It will be a long time—perhaps incalculably long—before Lexo will be able to follow. "Now, with glasnost, we can do this," Lexo reflects. "Tomorrow, we might not have glasnost."

For now, the Toradzes are a family again, but autumn will come, and with it separation. "Before Mother came," Lexo says, "she told me, 'I can easily imagine how we will meet. But I can't imagine leaving you again.' " They are strong people, this mother and son, but that will require all their strength.

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