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Sunday, December 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Russians are here: Immigrants enrich classical-music scene

Seattle Times music critic

They left most of their families, their possessions, even some of their musical instruments behind in Russia when they started their journeys to Seattle.

But what the small wave of Russian-born musicians have brought with them is immeasurable. Starting in the late 1970s, picking up speed around 1990, this mini-Russian Revolution has brought about a dozen high-profile players who have made a tremendous difference in a big cross section of local music groups.

They play in the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Northwest Sinfonietta and other professional orchestras. They play in important chamber ensembles, from the Seattle Chamber Players and Music of Remembrance to the Odeon String Quartet. They play in and conduct community symphony orchestras. And when there isn't an existing ensemble that fulfills their musical vision, they create one: the internationally renowned Bridge Ensemble, the Seattle Violin Virtuosi, the Seattle Violin Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, the Khorovod choral ensemble.

And they teach. In private studios, in music schools, they and some of their spouses (usually also Russian-trained musicians) pass on the legacy of Russian musical training — predominantly string training. Their standards are high, and they get impressive results.

The road to Seattle

Their path here wasn't easy. Cellist David Tonkonogui, now a Seattle Symphony member, arrived in New York and auditioned for Gerard Schwarz. But when he was invited to come to Seattle to try out, he had to leave his cello behind at LaGuardia Airport. He had no credit card and no money for a ticket to bring the instrument, too. Cellos, by and large, don't travel in luggage bins or baggage compartments.

He took the bus downtown and played his Seattle auditions with a "freshly made cello from Rafael Carraba's shop," Tonkonogui remembers, "but I think I must have played well."

Michael Miropolsky, now the assistant principal second violinist of the orchestra, recalls the days when the doors of the former Soviet Union began to edge open around 1990. His wife, Larisa, a violinist and teacher, and her family were "refuseniks" for 12 years, waiting vainly for permission to leave, unable to get jobs or advance their lives.

"When we were allowed to leave," says Miropolsky, "we had to leave our violins behind. We were allowed to take one, between us. They took away our citizenship, our passports and papers, like they considered us enemies. When we came to the U.S., we were granted refugee status. We had to practice trading off on the one violin. In San Francisco, where we first arrived, some nice guys loaned us violins."

Talking to friends in San Francisco, Miropolsky learned of the vacancies in the Seattle Symphony.

"There were more than 200 applicants playing for three or four positions," he remembers, "and we played two rounds of auditions behind a screen. I was lucky to get the top position — the same position I had in the Moscow Symphony."

All Mikhail (Misha) Shmidt had when he arrived in New York was "a violin and a couple of phone numbers." Like his friend Tonkonogui, he auditioned for Schwarz, who encouraged him to come to Seattle, and ended up in the orchestra's first violin section.

"I was very lucky," he remembers. "After I came here, it was easier to leave the Soviet Union but harder (to make it in) the U.S."

Making a difference

Once here, the Russians started almost immediately to make a difference in the Seattle musical scene. Shmidt explains, "I just tried to continue doing what I used to do before (in Russia), and start a new immigrant life. But it was extremely lucky that Seattle audiences have been so receptive.

"When we came here, eventually it became a mission to introduce people to music we care about, music that's a little out of the mainstream. I don't want to overstate this Russian thing, but there is a great tradition of players like (Mstislav) Rostropovich and (Gidon) Kremer of bringing important new music into the concerts."

Shmidt and Tonkonogui formed the Bridge Ensemble in 1993, a quartet that drew enthusiastic reviews and audiences (the Bridge is temporarily in a hiatus mode, after a personnel change, but there are hopes of reviving it). The name "Bridge" was chosen because the musicians wanted to build a bridge between Russian and American musical cultures. In the first concert, the Bridge gave the West Coast premiere of a string trio by Alfred Schnittke, a former Soviet dissident composer. Both Tonkonogui and Shmidt knew Schnittke personally; Tonkonogui learned the trio under the composer's supervision.

Because of their strong belief in composer Giya Kancheli, a Russian composer now based in Belgium, the Bridge also commissioned and premiered a major quartet by Kancheli — a work that now is being played by leading musicians around the world with such organizations as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

"This makes me very proud," Shmidt says. He has been back to his former homeland twice, both on musical voyages (with the Bridge in 1999, and last year with the Seattle Chamber Players).

Blending into the community

But it is not only in the realm of new music that the Russian-born players have been making a difference. They have filtered into every level of the music community Miropolsky is the new music director of the Cascade Symphony Orchestra, one of the region's finest community orchestras, whose players can't say enough good things about their new maestro. He also has founded the Seattle Violin Virtuosi, violinists who play light-classic repertoire with a pianist, and a new affiliate Virtuosi chamber orchestra.

Shmidt and Tonkonogui, and Symphony violinist Leonid Keylin, another very strong player, are regularly featured with the recently established chamber-music series "Music of Remembrance," which already has established a fine reputation for the quality of its players and repertoire.

Gennady Filimonov, another Seattle Symphony violinist and an earlier émigré (he moved here in the 1970s and later became a Fulbright scholar), is the first violinist of the highly regarded Odeon Quartet, in residence at Cornish College of the Arts. He also does a lot of free-lancing, as do many of the Russians; he's been featured on more than 850 film soundtracks and CD recordings, including Heart's "Road Home" album.

Tonkonogui's wife, cellist Mara Finkelstein, is a member of the Northwest Sinfonietta, one of the region's top chamber orchestras, and a teacher as well. Pianist Victoria Bogdashevskaya, who recently retired from the Seattle Symphony, and pianist Ludmila Feldman are both notable teachers.

Violinist Yuriy Mikhlin, associate concertmaster for nearly two decades with the Kiev State Opera and Ballet, now is a member of the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and concertmaster of the Federal Way Symphony Orchestra, and is frequently heard as an extra player with the Seattle Symphony, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera. He joins fellow Northwest Chamber Orchestra members for a "Russian to Finnish" program Feb. 16.

Olga Sukhover, trained in Moscow as a choir conductor in folk music and also in piano at the celebrated Gnessin Musical College, came here 10 years ago "for a chance to make a better life." Now she leads a Russian choir called Khorovod, whose members include computer scientists, biologists and Russian-born people from every walk of life. Lively and intense, they've sung at the Northwest Folklife Festival several times since they were formed in the mid-'90s.

Paul Taub, the director of the Seattle Chamber Players, says the Russian players really do make a difference: "It has been fabulous working with Misha (Shmidt). He has such inspirational ideas, and has helped introduce us to so many composers. The Players were in residence at Cornish this fall, and it was so interesting to watch Misha at work with the young student composers in a workshop. He was very challenging: 'You can do a lot more interesting things here,' pushing students to think."

The Russian sound

So what characterizes these Russian string players?

Schwarz, who says those players have enhanced the sound of his orchestra, says it's "a commitment and a passion and a tremendous basic sound. Our style of string playing is in the Russian style, orchestrally; we have a 'fat' sound with vibrato, with the players 'into' the string. We look for an even bow speed, a seamless quality. You listen to a player like Leonid Keylin: He has a beautiful sound, I just love it. And when I heard Misha (Shmidt) play, I found him incredibly imaginative and musical."

Filimonov, whose talent was identified early, was sent at 7 to the School of Stoliarsky in Odessa for gifted youngsters. His three years there gave him "a sound foundation for the rest of my life."

"I think that we (the Russians) are very passionate about what we do, and feel we can always do more. The public is always enriched with the experiences of a truly cosmopolitan environment. It is nice to know that we play a small part in that. I hope I don't sound presumptuous, but I believe that the commitment in our playing and towards our music-making does add a great deal to the quality of our symphony and our colleagues."

Shmidt concurs: "I hope we influence each other, too. I learn a lot from my symphony colleagues. The Russian school of string playing trains everybody as a soloist, but not always as a good ensemble player. A lot of the sound is what you're doing with the right hand, with the bow. One of the most important things you can do is to project your emotions and the composer's intent to the listeners. Communication goes beyond playing the notes.

"When we get on the stage, there is something holy about that. We are communicating with the audience who pays money to come and experience that music. We can never take this for granted."

The role of adversity

Schwarz says symphony oboist "John DeJarnatt once told me, 'Do you want to make musicians really unhappy? Pay them well and give them a good schedule.' They'll become complacent and won't do as well. In times of trouble, you focus and work hard. It's like Thanksgiving: you sit back and feel thankful for the necessities of food, clothing and shelter."

Each of the émigrés is here because life was harder in the former Soviet Union, a fact that is as ingrained in their minds as the tremendous technical training afforded them in their homeland.

"Sometimes hardship brings people together," Schwarz adds, "and makes them focus on the things that matter — on the music, and not things like contracts and committees."

Shmidt feels that "it's our job to make a difference," an opinion shared by the vast majority of the Russian-born players.

"Over the years I have done quite a few recitals and orchestra performances as soloist, and more teaching. I feel I can bring something, I can offer something. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to do that. Twelve years ago, when I arrived here, it was a much quieter chamber music scene. But there was a place for us, a place for this new repertoire and for old repertoire played new. I'm glad we have found that place."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com.

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