The People of Russian Florence: Igor Polesitsky/ Ãëàâíàÿ / Russkiy Mir Foundation / Publications / The People of Russian Florence: Igor Polesitsky
The People of Russian Florence: Igor Polesitsky
Our former compatriot Igor Polesitsky occupies the position of first alto in the symphonic orchestra Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, and he also leads the Klezmerata Fiorentina ensemble. He finds a balance between different musical styles with ease, and does it with the same precision he uses to find a balance between Russian, Italian, American, and Jewish cultures.
- You have had a very enviable musical career. Tell us how your life came together in such a way that you were magically transported from Kiev, first to America and then to Italy.
- I left my native Kiev way back in ’77. I left unexpectedly, at the age of 19, after my first year at the Kiev Conservatory, as a result of tragic family circumstances that have left a deep and lasting scar on my soul. Since then, freedom has not been simply a word or an abstract concept for me, whatever today’s post-Soviet relativists may say. It is just as necessary for my own day-to-day existence as air or water.
Things went well for me in America. I enrolled in the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Then I was lucky because Riccardo Muti—who was at the time the lead conductor of two orchestras, in Philadelphia and Florence—recommended that Florence should hire graduates from the Curtis as lead soloists. At that time I was already the lead viola in the Institute orchestra, and I was suddenly invited to Florence for a year. I had already managed to go there once with my quartet and I was head-over-heels in love with the city, so I didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. Besides, I thought that I was only going for a year! But it turned out I was going for a lifetime. I couldn’t tear myself away from Florence.
- You work in an orchestra conducted by the legendary Zubin Mehta. It would be interesting to hear what kind of person he is, whether it’s easy or difficult to work with him.
- Zubin took over our orchestra in 1984, a year after I arrived. After Riccardo Muti left for La Scala, the orchestra asked Mehta to take the reigns, as he has done very successfully for more than thirty years now. Practically all of the orchestra’s current members were hired during his tenure; under his direction we have played—and continue to play—some of the most prestigious stages in the world.
He taught me how to be a bandleader. He conducts almost all his extensive repertoire by memory and demands active and unbroken visual contact from his soloists. Not everyone can handle it, but this is exceptional training. To me personally, his primary distinction as a conductor (besides his truly genius hands and memory) is that he really listens to and respects his musicians, ‘lets them play,’ and his feeling for form and meter allows him to keep us within the “bounds of decency.”
Many conductors view the orchestra as a keyboard for tapping out their own “deep” musical ideas, regardless of whether the musicians agree. Mehta isn’t like this. He gives and takes. As a result, the very best orchestras adore playing with him. He is an incredibly natural person. It’s striking when you get to know him better. His heritage is Parsi (Indian Zoroastrian), and their religious motto is: “Good thoughts, good words, good deeds.” I think that this is his main rule in life.
- For a long time musical education in Russia was considered the best in the world. As someone who was able to study both in the USSR and in one of the most prestigious American conservatories, can you identify a principal difference in the level or style of instruction?
- For 150 years a general method of instruction developed in Russia that doesn’t exist anywhere else. In the West (and generally anywhere outside Russia) a child’s musical education is the concern of the parents and more or less professional private instructors. Conservatories are something entirely different. In Europe and especially in America, the higher schools of music at wealthy universities have the wherewithal to invite outstanding musicians from all over the world to act as professors.
At the same time, there is no universally acknowledged methodology as there is in the conservatories of Moscow or Petersburg, but there is a remarkable diversity of approaches and perspectives on technique and interpretation, which is confusing for children but very stimulating for young people of university age.
- Igor, did you meet any “old Russians” during your many years in Italy? After all, many representatives of the first and second wave of emigration lived in Florence. Andrei Tarkovsky lived here, and one can still visit the villa of Pavel Demidov, although it no longer belongs to his descendants…
- Florence was always a magnet for a certain type of Russian: Right on the square in front of the giant Pitti Palace stands the house where (as you can see on a memorial plaque) Dostoevsky wrote his novel The Idiot. On the hills above the city stands the villa where Tchaikovsky composed his opera The Queen of Spades, after which he “celebrated” his stay with the remarkable string sextet “Memory of Florence.” You’ve already mentioned the Demidovs, who settled in Florence in 1815 and received the title of knights from the Tuscan dukes.
Many families of Russian nobles spent their summers in villas on the hills of Florence. There were enough Russians here at the beginning of the twentieth century for the Emperor’s family to build a many-domed Orthodox church, jut like the ones in Moscow, at their own expense.
For many years the elder of this church was the Countess Maria Vasilevna Olsufeva, whom I had the good fortune of meeting in the early ’80s. She was a totally uncommon person in terms of both culture and character. She had extraordinary literary abilities not only in Russian (and what skill with Russian!), but also in Italian. She knew many Russian writers of the twentieth century (for example, Solzhenitsyn) and was the first to translate them into Italian. When Maria Vasilevna first made her way to Moscow in the mid-1960s, she wanted to visit the house where she had spent her early childhood, the Olsufev mansion on Povarskaya Street, which has now become (by an odd confluence of events) the Central Writers’ House. They didn’t want to let her in at first, but when they found out that the “lady of the house had returned” (one of the older workers put it just this way), they let her in and even left her alone with her memories in the old nursery and her father’s study. She was moved to tears and always talked about it.
Maria Vasilevna had several friends of the same age and cultural background, and I was fortunately able to meet and talk with them. One of them was a doctor with an encyclopedic knowledge of medicine, and she could speak in all the major European languages and write old-fashioned Russian verse. Her name was Nina Kharkevich. One time I was suddenly bed-ridden at the age of thirty-three, with a rash and a fever of 40 degrees Celsius. She was able to diagnose it as measles over the phone and somehow figured out a way to cure me quickly, even though that ailment is very dangerous in adults! Another person with an exceptional mind and strength of character is Elena Aleksandrovna Posner, the aunt of the famous Vladimir Posner. Elena Aleksandrovna was already getting up in years when she moved to Italy from America, and she lived on a modest pension in a tiny little apartment lined with old books, which had been offered to her in the Ginori Palace on Ginori Street by the Marchesa Ginori, whom Posner had taught Russian.
These were people of the first wave of emigration—those who lived in Russia and emigrated after the revolution. Those who were born in Italy remember their roots, and many speak Russian perfectly. For instance, Pushkin’s great-granddaughter Anya Vorontsova-Velyaminova was born in Paris and worked her whole life in Italy as a simultaneous interpreter of three languages at a high international level. I met her through Maria Vasilevna’s daughter Elizaveta who became one of my dearest acquaintances in Florence and passed away prematurely not long ago. Elizaveta and I always spoke with each other in three languages: English, Italian, and Russian. She spoke these languages (and French as well) without the slightest accent. She was the embodiment of femininity, the utmost charm, perceptiveness, innate tact, and subtle intellect. To me, she was and remains the ideal person of old Russian-European culture, which was built upon a breadth of ideas and views, tolerance, and active opposition to irrational fanaticism in any form.
- Returning to your music, I would like to talk about its other, nonacademic side. When one listens to your ensemble Klezmerata Fiorentina, one gets the impression that you must have dedicated your whole life only to this! And this is despite the fact that klezmer music continues to be a very popular form (along with Balkan music) and competing groups are a dime a dozen. How were you able to interest your three Italian colleagues and teach them to play klezmer music with such zeal?
- When I studied at the Curtis, I was living with my grandmother and grandfather in the “emigrant” suburb of Philadelphia, but I made my living at a Jewish restaurant downtown. To this exalted end, I founded the Isaac Babel Trio with an accordionist who had graduated from the Leningrad conservatory and a Hungarian gypsy on the standing bass. We often played from nine in the evening well into the night—as long as the audience remained. We played whatever people requested—whether they were the old, “Kosher” American Jews or the “not-quite-Kosher” Soviet emigrants or the rather motley young music-lovers who stopped in to eat knish or blintzes and listen to us.
It was fun and frightening. We thought up the music as we went along. If one of us didn’t know a piece, the others would help. Our repertoire was vast, however, and based on memory, not on musical notation.
I made a living on all the Jewish melodies that had lived in my head and on my fingers since my early childhood in Kiev, although at the time I had no idea that I was participating in a “klezmer renaissance.”
But it wasn’t happening far away: in New York and Boston groups of young folk and bluegrass musicians were suddenly going out to find their roots. They fell in love with old recordings of the Jewish-American dancehall orchestras of the 1920s-40s and started to play the music of the once famous clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras. They called it klezmer music—the correct term, but one not used by older American musicians (who preferred Yiddish music). I heard the word “klezmer” from my grandmother as a child in a not very complimentary context: “Will you study the violin seriously--or do you want to be a klezmer musician at parties?!”
- Your grandmother was worried that you would become a klezmer musician?
- Grandma was worried that I would become a bad klezmer musician. She didn’t really care what genre I performed—she cared that I did a good job as a “kinsler”—a performer. By the way, I first heard most of the Jewish melodies I knew from her. She was also the one who taught me how to play a Jewish melody correctly by singing. “Don’t sing like you’re in an opera but speak “af idish” (in Yiddish), and every word is “a idishe neshume” (the Jewish soul)—it cries and sings.”
Today, as you correctly stated, klezmer music has achieved worldwide popularity. I’m only interested though, for the most part, in Jewish music the way my grandmother understood it. Hardly anyone knows it or plays it in this way, and so hardly anyone listens to it. So I decided to teach three remarkable Italians—soloists in my orchestra and not Jewish at all—to speak on their instruments in this Jewish style, in order to laugh and cry.
And I don’t play my “classical” viola but the violin—the instrument of my early childhood and youth. Our programs are made up of chamber music, mostly from the archive of Moisei Beregovsky (a Soviet musicologist and researcher of Jewish folklore—Ed.). These are ancient Jewish instrumental melodies written between the World Wars on ethnographic expeditions through Ukraine. Each of these melodies contains all of Mahler and all of Chagall. I can’t play this music “for the hell of it,” like a folk dance. This is what remains of the living soul of Ukrainian Jewry, which no longer exists. So this is for me something greater than music, although Music is a great cause!
Interview conducted by Anna Genova