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Pianist Feltsman survived years of Soviet repression

Thursday, February 28, 2013
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Vladimir Feltsman
Vladimir Feltsman

SCHENECTADY — For almost 10 years during a period when most pianists are building their careers, Vladimir Feltsman was prohibited from performing in public, his recordings were suppressed and he was not allowed to leave the then-Soviet Union. It was the 1980s and Leonid Breznev was the man in charge.

“It was the Cold War,” Feltsman said from New Paltz, where he now lives. “I was not an exception. I was not so unusual.”

Feltsman will perform Sunday at Union College’s Memorial Chapel.

Prior to 1979, when his ban began, he had been enjoying huge success. Born in 1952 in Moscow, he had debuted at 11 with the Moscow Philharmonic and at 19 had won the Marguerite Long International Piano Competition in Paris. Tours throughout the Soviet Union, Europe and Japan had followed.

Vladimir Feltsman

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Union College’s Memorial Chapel

HOW MUCH: $25, $10

MORE INFO: 388-6080, www.unioncollegeconcerts.org

Barred from leaving

But as restrictions on artistic freedom began to grow in his country, Feltsman became increasingly more discontented and applied for an exit visa to emigrate. Authorities clamped down.

“They called us refusniks — those who were refused an exit visa,” he said.

For the next eight years, he did not play publicly.

“My career was nonexistent. I was a persona non grata,” he said.

But his plight was not unnoticed. Extensive news coverage in the West eventually attracted officials in the U.S. government and President Ronald Reagan appealed to Soviet officials, who eventually granted Feltsman permission to leave.

“I will always personally thank President and Mrs. Reagan, who got me out of Russia,” Feltsman said. “It almost could be a bad Cold War/romantic story.”

His first concert was at the White House, where he said he was warmly greeted. Later the same year, he made a hugely successful Carnegie Hall debut, which established him as a major talent. His story had also attracted massive media coverage.

“I got a career right away. I had celebrity and many managements wanted me,” he said. “It was a major career on a golden platter. I started on a high. There was no way to go but down.”

It helped that he spoke fairly fluent English.

“I’d taken English from my early years and I had a private teacher,” Feltsman said. “I also read a lot of classical literature. Of course, I didn’t speak as gorgeously as I do now.”

It took him a while to find his own niche. He said the entire “rescue” had been such a political move that many thought he was something of an activist or human-rights advocate.

“I’m just a musician,” he said. “I had to reorganize and after a while the public took me as what I am.”

Touring career

Fortunately, his playing spoke for itself. He embarked on numerous recital tours over the next several years and continues to perform with all the major world orchestras. This year his schedule includes visits to Argentina and Brazil. He often appears on the Chamber Music of Lincoln Center series.

What is most special to him, however, is that five years after he immigrated to the United States, he returned to Russia to conduct orchestras in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as appearing as orchestral soloist and in recital. It’s a trip he now makes regularly.

“I was well-trained as a conductor at the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory of Music in Moscow. Valery Gergiev [artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra] and I were classmates — we’re buddies,” he said. “There are wonderful concert halls. I have quite a following.”

Feltsman returned to Russia last month after the death of his father, composer Oscar Feltsman, at age 92. The younger Feltsman still has family, friends and colleagues in Russia.

“It’s a good connection,” he said.

Feltsman is also a dedicated teacher and is celebrating 19 years as a professor of piano at the State University of New York, New Paltz. He also teaches at Mannes College in New York City and is the founder of a three-week piano festival at New Paltz that even after many years is doing exceptionally well and attracts an international group of pianists.

Multiple recordings

He has recorded numerous discs on at least five different labels. They include everything from eight albums of J.S. Bach’s clavier music and many of Beethoven’s sonatas to a wide range of pieces from Schubert to Brahms. He has recorded most of the Russian composers as well as concerti with orchestra from Bach to Prokofiev. His most recent discs on Nimbus are what he calls “Tribute” recordings of works by Tchaikovsky, Scriabin and Chopin.

His program on Sunday will include two favorite works: Schubert’s A minor Sonata and Haydn’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major. Series promoters, however, requested Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It’s a work he has recorded and often performed.

“Maybe 200 times playing it,” he said laughing. “They asked me to do it and I’m a nice guy.”

 
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