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Russian Roulade?

December 16, 2010 By:
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Irina (left) and Wendy formed WarnerNuzova in classical style. (Photo by Lisa Mazzucco)

From Russia, with recriminations; to Russia, with reverence.

Somewhere in between the pulsing polarities, pianist Irina Nuzova knows her emotional and musical ruminations on Russia will always reek of regrets and respect in the very different arenas of the public and private.

One way or the other, Russia remains critical and instrumental to her success, of which there has been much internationally. Indeed, the muscovite muses on a childhood swept with strings and chords -- and acrimony. As the child of a music-making Jewish home, she faced the music early on, forced with her family to flee Russia due to the anti-Semitism they faced in the '90s.

And yet, the romanticism of its music -- if not the rigors of its anti-Jewish bias -- brings the beautiful bravissimo of a musician back home once more, psychically if not physically, teaming as she does with the Windy City's Wendy Warner, cellist, for the recently released "Russian Music for Cello & Piano."

The liner notes align the stars and their histories, two key international players, each of whom merits engraved metronomes for their uptick careers, both in the states and around the globe.

But it is with this recent recording that the two -- Warner's Brotherly Love connection plays out on Rittenhouse Square, where she is one of the Curtis Institute of Music's more gifted graduates -- have linked luxurious styles and loving attention on works by Sergei Rachmaninoff; the relatively unknown but unbowed Nikolai Miaskovsky -- whose "Sonata No. 2," say the notes, "has never been recorded by an American musician on American soil for an American label"; Alexander Scriabin; and Serge Prokofiev, with a dedication to Mstislav Rostropovich -- with whom Warner studied at Curtis during "one of the happiest times in my life."

And it all started with a call that reasoned, "We can make beautiful music together" -- in the Romantic, not romantic realm.

"It was very daring of me," remembers Nuzova, who heard Warner perform at Carnegie Hall and knew she would be a perfect music mate.

"Actually, it was a pretty bold move," agrees Warner, but then, the Curtis grad was living in agreed Warner, New York at the time, and knew that if they can horn in there, they can horn in anywhere.

"People in New York do that a lot," she says with a laugh of the anything-but-adagio attitude New Yorkers are known for.

The bold and the beautiful: Nuzova's nuance was evident in her pianism, if not her peddling persistence. From there, the duo -- notables independently, successful inseparably as WarnerNuzova since 2008 -- went onto a series of concerted efforts.

But what has captured the acclaim -- and accolades along the way -- more than any other achievement is their current CD, a spin not of a requiem for the Russians, but a rejoicing.

Nuzova knows the irony of it all.

"If you are hurt, and feel the painful," she says of her past life in Moscow, "you know you have to try and get rid of it, even if it is always a part of me."

But parting with the past plays out so much better when there is a promising future free of bias, where being Jewish is adjudicated as a right and rite not as a problematic area for persecution.

"I want to feel freer here," says the pianist, whose premiere was at age 14 with the Omsk Philharmonic and who fled Russia while a teen, invited to attend the Manhattan School of Music on scholarship just as her brother got his own grant to attend the Solomon Schechter Day School in New York.

The freedom has come with not a shout but a shrug, as her religion matters nil to others even as it matters much to her. "Sometimes," she says with a smile in her voice, "I forget that I am Jewish, because nobody here makes you aware of it."

Aware she was in Russia, where her father, a journalist, was jeered and junked for articles he wrote bringing to light the anti-Semitism that seemed seeped in the Soviet soil.

A Victim of Harassment
The strong-arming Soviet hate group Pamait made her father's future intolerable, listing him a target of its threat to purge Russia of its Jews.

That, "coupled with the memories of my great-grandfather and his daughter and grandson who were killed in the Holocaust in Ukraine in 1941, my parents decided to flee" and gained immigrant status in the United States 18 years ago, when Irina was just 18.

It all adds up now to a double chai -- and an eradicable appreciation by Irina for Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, N.J., and members Sheila and Edward Appel of Maplewood, N.J., who encouraged and accommodated her fluent musical talents. (She is also quite adept linguistically, speaking a chamber quartet of languages.)

What speaks most to Nuzova is the freedom to be Irina.

"In Russia," she says, "you were always more aware of what you were" because of the intimidation.

Here, she muses, you are aware of who you are because of the liberty to live without recriminations.

On the record, she couldn't have done better than finding such a wonderful winner as Wendy, herself long enamored of Russian music -- besides touring with her Russian Curtis mentor, she won the fourth International Rostropovich Competition in Paris 20 years ago -- "and the romantic feeling one gets" from its soulfulness.

Not that this soulful assemblage of rich CD recordings was an easy choice for Warner.

"I had to be convinced," she concedes, having already forged a name and rich reputation working with the late Rostropovich so often that her cello bow seemed dipped in caviar and schnapps.

"The way I approached it," says the approachable musician, whose many awards include being the recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, and who serves on three nationally prominent music college faculties, "is not seeing it as typical heavy Russian music.

"Instead, I compare it to the work of French composers," redolent of her own interests in Paris and cooking, making this mix a musical Russian roulade.

But when the debates really get steamy, who holds forth in any musical contretemps?

"We are different people, from different cultures," allows Warner with a laugh of her gem of a friend, a Juilliard alum who earned a doctorate of musical arts from the University of Hartford.

"Both of us are strong-willed," a characteristic of any soloist, which these two have been.

But when teaming together? "We have ... nice arguments," says the diplomatic Nuzova nicely.

"A meeting of the minds," chimes in her music mate.

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you ... "The first time we formed WarnerNuzova, we were super nice to each other," allows Irina. "Very polite."

But then when they dug into work, no strings attached: "Then, the real [personalities] come out," she says with a laugh.

What will come out of this recording? Perhaps even grander piano/cello collaborations: From Russia, a commission.

"We have commissioned a work from a former Soviet émigré," notes Nuzova, and both are hoping to team up with a world-class conductor.

It's all conduct becoming a twosome who have found that the romanticism of Russian music can eclipse, albeit not eradicate, the shouts of pain that once forced one of the two to flee for sounder shores. 

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