A Suitcase Speaks

Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik has announced “Finding Home: Music from the Suitcase in Concert,” a five-installment “docu-recital” series based on his 2014 CD of mostly the same name. Each half-hour episode interweaves works from the album with Kutik’s personal narrative. Episodes will premiere weekly on his Facebook and YouTube channels every Thursday at 7pm beginning February 11th. “Finding home” explores antisemitism in the Soviet Union, the Kutik family’s months as “stateless” refugees, the challenges of starting a new home in the United States, and Kutik’s teachers and mentors. It also posits lessons for the future.

Kutik has produced the series and offers it free to viewers. Click HERE to register.

In 1989, when Kutik was five years old, his family emigrated from the deteriorating Soviet Union to the United States, leaving most of their possessions behind and fitting what they could into just two suitcases. Kutik’s mother, a violin teacher, filled one with sheet music from the family’s collection, believing that their music was a significant part of their family’s musical history. Years later Kutik began to explore the music from the suitcase, became enthralled with his discoveries, and recorded a selection for the critically acclaimed album, “Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures” (Marquis Classics), which debuted at no. 5 on the Billboard Classical chart and was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in the New York Times

Kutik recently talked to BMInt about his undertakings.

FLE: From my peek at your forthcoming shows, it looks as though you had a standard concert at the Shalin Liu Center that you’ve edited it into segments and then added voiceovers and video features. How did it all start and was it a live concert recording or done for this series?

YK: We recorded to an empty house at Shalin Liu specifically for this project.

During the first couple months of the pandemic, with all my concerts and plans canceled, I suddenly had an abundance of time for exploration and deep thinking. I did a fair amount of practicing, rethinking so many aspects of violin-playing and, of equal importance, spent time exploring, looking back on the past years and what might lie ahead.

One of my most recognizable projects up to this point had been “Music from the Suitcase,” an album I released in 2014 based on old sheet music that my family brought over with us when we emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Over the years I’ve performed several recital programs loosely based on the Suitcase album material in venues across the country, and had others scheduled for the months ahead.

Since the release, I’ve been inspired to explore family, memory and identity further, through different projects. The months of free time last year inspired me to talk to my relatives, asking questions, looking through old family photographs.

In my practice room on the shelf in front of me are these old scores that came with us from Belarus. They’ve become a physical embodiment of the very difficult journey that my family and millions of others had to make. During the difficult, unknown quiet months of quarantine they served as a sort of inspiration that it’s always possible to begin again.

I also started thinking about home a lot. What is home? Why have so many throughout history had to flee home? I started to have a stew of ideas in my mind and thought to myself, “Well, I’m not performing; why not create a video series using some of the materials from my Suitcase recitals as a starting point but also expanding upon it by exploring my identity and ‘home’ through a variety of music angles. So we went to the Shalin Liu Center, where I incidentally made the commercial CD of the Suitcase album HERE.”

Finding Home shares this exploration over the course of five episodes. It’s probably the equivalent of three-and-a-half full recitals. It was perhaps crazy to do, but we spent a day and a half in the hall without an audience other than the sound producer / shot caller, two camera operators, and my pianist the fabulous Anna Polonsky. We just played each program pretending there was an audience — it was very much meant to emulate a live concert.

So when you recorded this music on video, were you expecting later to add spoken comments and add additional visuals in which you were sort of bow-synching with what you had laid down, or was that something you planned from the beginning?

Over several weeks last summer, I worked with two friends to turn all these thoughts I’d been having about ‘the’ music from the suitcase, my family and identity, searching for the meaning of ‘home,’ etc. into a script which would hopefully convey these ideas in the form of a convincing narrative over five episodes. Part of the time in Rockport I focused on capturing a live performance on film, which felt familiar, and then part of the time we would reset the stage and I would film myself reading the script, which perhaps was more unfamiliar. I wanted to tell a story that would be both informative and would inspire listeners to do some soulsearching of their own.

In the months preparing for this, I learned a lot of new details about my past, about life in the Soviet Union and antisemitism, what millions of people lived through. I even continued to learn new details about my family after filming; it was fascinating.

Some aspects of this are like a music video and other aspects are like concert: an interesting combination.

I didn’t want this to be just another streaming concert. My hope is that it feels like a small documentary miniseries as well as an intimate live concert.

* * *

Your suitcase contained much standard repertoire. You could have gotten scores to the Franck Sonata and the Prokofiev Sonata anywhere in the world. So what makes the contents of the suitcase significant for you?

It contained quite a number of works like Sviridov’s Children’s Album, the Rubinstein Romance, the Prokofiev Waltz, that were not so easily accessible. A work by the composer Andrei Eshpai, whom I had never even heard of before, was on the original Suitcase album as well, though not on this series.

That was before IMSLP.

Yes, now with IMSLP some of these works are more easily found, certainly. And yet some of these are so rare they’ve almost never been recorded. But this project isn’t only about the musical content itself. With the Suitcase music, it’s the physical embodiment of what these scores represent — journey, family, home, history. I look back with particular nostalgia on a bad old Russian edition of the Franck Sonata, with all these wrong notes….

But no, this project isn’t meant to be an exact duplicate of the Suitcase album. It’s an expansion and exploration of it, launched in part by the unprecedented circumstances we found ourselves in last year. For example, not to give the answer away, but home in Finding Home turned out in my mind to actually represent my teachers and community. That’s why episodes four and five, for instance, talk about my teachers, and in general the community that formed to support us upon our arriving in the USA; it’s a mid-pandemic reflection veering off from the Suitcase and looking at my personal influences.

In the show I will assume that the wrong notes we hear are the Russian editors rather than your own!

Yes, rule of thumb, always blame the editors for wrong notes.

* * *

Let’s talk about your evolution as a performer and your style of playing. When I reviewed you years ago I talked about your “urgent pleading and effective selling” and your personal embodiment of grand-era style. I gather Roman Totenberg was a real influence on you spiritually and stylistically.

He completely transformed my approach to music over the years — phrasing in particular — but also my approach to sound and color. I’ve always been inspired by his life-or-death intensity. And for his generation it often was. Roman had to give violin lessons at the age of nine just to secure bread and water for his family in pre-Revolutionary Russia. His style of playing grabs the listeners’ hearts while playing for his own survival. I remain in awe … Oistrakh, Richter, Stern, Ginette Neveu, and so many others, they all had it.

There’s an immediacy and this grabbing at you, where you absolutely have to listen. You might not always like it, you might not always agree with it — that’s fine — but there’s so much honesty there!

I would love to have you do a virtual string quartet and quadruple your intensity, your urgent pleading. But is that also an inevitable part of a Jewish style of composing?

I’m fascinated that Joseph Achron founded the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music in something like 1915 during revolution, war, and pogroms. It’s mindboggling that he and a collection of composers were actually trying to codify the sound of Jewish folk music in classical music amidst open antisemitism.

* * *

If you journey back to Russia, what American music would you put in your suitcase?

Wow. No one has ever asked me that! That’s tough. My initial thought is, of course, that there’s a wealth of American music that’s amazing. Maybe Bernstein or Copland. Could I pack American composers who were immigrants themselves? If so, also definitely Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg, among others. Of course, I’d pack music by Joseph Schwantner, whose Violin Concerto I’m premiering next season. I love his music.

I’ll also be shameless and add some other American composers with whom I’ve worked in recent years: Timo Andres, Michael Gandolfi, Julia Adolphe, Chris Cerrone. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting. It would be a heavy suitcase.

 

Finding Home: Music from the Suitcase in Concert

Each episode available Thursday at 7pm ET through Sunday at 12pm ET

Register to watch all episodes HERE

 

Episode 1, Thursday, February 11  – The Fifth Line HERE

A glimpse at the structural, historical antisemitism in the former USSR; Kutik’s family decides to leave the Soviet Union in search of a better life; an introduction to the ‘music’ from the suitcase. Featuring Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Shostakovich’s Sonata No. 2, and Stravinsky’s Divertimento from a Fairy’s Kiss.

Episode 2, Thursday, February 18 – In Between HERE

A look at the strange and stateless journey through Europe which millions of Soviet emigres undertook to start a new life; applying for asylum; an awful recollection from the USSR. Featuring Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Khachaturian’s Nocturne, and Bloch’s Baal Shem.

Episode 3,  Thursday, February 25- Begin Again HERE

Kutik’s family arrives in the United States; a closer look at rebuilding everything from nothing; the incredible power of community and selflessness. Featuring Rubinstein’s Romance, Achron’s Hebrew Lullaby, Shostakovich’s Romance from Ovod, Prokofiev’s Waltz from Cinderella, and Sviridov’s Children’s Album.

Episode 4, Thursday, March 4 – Listen HERE

A tribute to the teachers and influences who helped Kutik and his family grow and build; remembering Zinaida Gilels and Roman Totenberg. Featuring Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 Op. 94a, and Darius Milhaud’s Le Beouf sur le toit.

Episode 5, Thursday, March 11 – Coda HERE

Reflecting on his family’s journey, one small journey among millions; a musical tribute of thanks to Kutik’s community. Featuring Rachmaninov’s Vocalise and Franck’s Sonata.

* * *

Yevgeny Kutik has captivated audiences worldwide with an old-world sound that communicates a modern intellect. Praised for his technical precision and virtuosity, he is also lauded for his poetic and imaginative interpretations of standard works as well as rarely heard and newly composed repertoire.

A native of Minsk, Belarus, Yevgeny Kutik immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of five. As a follow-up to his 2014 album, Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures (Marquis Classics), in 2019 Kutik launched a new commissioning and recording project titled Meditations on Family via Marquis Classics. He commissioned eight composers to translate a personal family photo into a short musical miniature for violin and various ensemble, envisioning the project as a living archive of new works inspired by memories, home, and belonging. Each track was released digitally weekly, and the full EP CD, produced by four-time Grammy winner Jesse Lewis, was released on March 22, 2019. Strings Magazine featured Kutik and Meditations on Family as its cover story for the March/April issue. Kutik’s other recordings include his debut album, Sounds of Defiance (Marquis 2012), and Words Fail (Marquis 2016), both released to critical acclaim.

In 2019, Yevgeny Kutik made his debuts at the Kennedy Center, presented by Washington Performing Arts, and at the Ravinia Festival. Recent performances include appearances with the Dayton Philharmonic, La Crosse Symphony, El Paso Symphony, Huntsville Symphony, New Bedford Symphony, the Cape Town Philharmonic in South Africa, Morris Museum, Honest Brook Music Festival, and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

Passionate about his heritage and its influence on his artistry, Kutik is an advocate for the Jewish Federations of North America, the organization that assisted his family in coming to the United States, and regularly speaks and performs across the United States to both raise awareness and promote the assistance of refugees from around the world.

Yevgeny Kutik made his major orchestral debut in 2003 with Keith Lockhart and The Boston Pops as the First Prize recipient of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Young Artists Competition. In 2006, he was awarded the Salon de Virtuosi Grant as well as the Tanglewood Music Center Jules Reiner Violin Prize.

He began violin studies with his mother, Alla Zernitskaya, and went on to study with Zinaida Gilels, Shirley Givens, Roman Totenberg, and Donald Weilerstein. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory and currently resides in Boston. Kutik’s violin was crafted in Italy in 1915 by Stefano Scarampella. For more information, please visit www.yevgenykutik.com.