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Discord in Land of Tchaikovsky

Music: Economic upheaval has left some pillars of the Russian conservatory system struggling to make ends meet.

October 19, 1998|STEPHEN WIGLER | THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Sunday's Calendar, Stephen Wigler wrote that "the end of the Cold War, the collapse of communism and the dismantling of the Soviet Union may have been good for world peace. But they have been bad for music." In examining the effect of Russia's economic collapse on the conservatory system of musical training, Wigler visited the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where some of the world's preeminent instrumentalists have trained, and found that rehearsal rooms go unheated and pianos untuned and salaries for teachers are shockingly low. In Part 2, Wigler looks at how some members of the classical music community are coping.

Not every musician in Moscow today is poor.

When you enter Vera Gornostaeva's apartment, you remove your shoes. The Oriental rugs that cover nearly every square inch of the floors are to be trod only in slippers or in stocking feet.

Now in her middle 60s, Gornostaeva was never considered a major pianist. But her apartment is several times larger than those of more distinguished colleagues. The living room where she entertains guests does not seem diminished in size by two 9-foot concert grands. She is dressed fashionably, her hair is perfectly coiffed; she wears an emerald on her right hand, a diamond on her left and pearls around her neck.

Gornostaeva acquired her high standard of living--as well as her practice of making guests remove their shoes--through her frequent trips to Japan.

Other than "it's a lot," Gornostaeva will not say what she earns in Japan. But well-known Russian teachers are treated well by the Japanese, who pay their first-class air fare and living expenses, in addition to fees of about $2,000 to $3,000 for master classes, a dozen of which can easily be fitted into a three-week visit. Such visits also leave room for several private lessons at about $300 an hour.

She shows her American visitor an expensively produced, full-color brochure, whose cover, in bold letters, reads: "Gornostaeva: Pianist, Teacher, Publicist." The brochure demonstrates an understanding of Western marketing techniques that some of her colleagues are either too old or unwilling to learn.

Gornostaeva says there are now enough "new Russians," as the country's newly rich capitalists are popularly called, so that she can teach privately in Russia and make nearly as much money as she does by going to Japan. The rich Russians she teaches "may not be the best [musically]," she admits, but she adds that the fees they pay subsidize "the poor students with talent" she teaches at the conservatory.

She rings a bell and a uniformed servant appears.

"Do you want some tea?" Gornostaeva asks.

A Relic of a Bygone Era

There are no servants in Oleg Boshnyakovich's apartment. In fact, as the octogenarian pianist explains apologetically, there isn't even any tea.

Still, he wants to offer his guests something. A visit to the refrigerator in his kitchen, with its buckling linoleum floor, turns up nothing except for a few eggs, some moldy cheese and a half-filled bottle of sweetened cherry juice.

This is probably the first you've heard of him. But several well-known pianists--Evgeny Kissin and Vladimir Feltsman, among them--insist that Boshnyakovich ranks among the greatest pianists of the last 50 years.

In Japan, the recent reissue on CD of several of the pianist's old LPs has turned him into something of a celebrity. The CDs, which have received enthusiastic reviews from Japanese critics, have become among the best-selling items on the Japanese classical music charts.

He earns no royalties from the sales, but he is nonetheless thrilled.

"I have received many invitations to go there [Japan]," Boshnyakovich says, as he and his guests sip their drinks. "I would like to, but I'm too old to travel so far. Besides, the pain in my hands does not permit me to play much."

Nevertheless, the pianist--who suffers from a heart condition--must climb up and down six flights of stairs in his apartment building, which does not have an elevator. He has a voucher for treatment at a sanatorium 30 miles outside Moscow and has been on its waiting list for almost a year.

"It's overcrowded, so I'm not too hopeful about getting to see a doctor," he says.

His tiny, three-room apartment is as grim as his situation. The grand piano in his living room leaves scarcely enough space for visitors. Wooden framework shows beneath the crumbling plaster walls, which are bare except for faded photos of his parents, his teachers and friends, such as the late Sviatoslav Richter.

The 107-year-old piano needs major repairs, something Boshnyakovich cannot afford on his teaching salary of $118 a month. However, he's proud of his ancient instrument, a Bechstein he bought when he was a young man. Bechsteins, he says, were the favorite instruments of Brahms, Artur Schnabel, Dinu Lipatti and Richter.

"Richter loved this instrument," Boshnyakovich says. "Whenever we had parties here, we couldn't keep him away from it."

"Would you like to hear me play it?" the pianist suddenly asks.

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