Russians and Georgians in South Bend

The current issue of the NEH journal Humanities has an article about a chain of immigrants from Georgia and Russia, who have formed a vibrant and musically gifted community in South Bend, Indiana. The article is excerpted from a new book, From Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts (HarperCollins, 2008), by Joseph I. Horowitz, who received an NEH fellowship for the project. Here are a few paragraphs.

During the first half of the twentieth century—decades of war and revolution—an “intellectual migration” relocated thousands of artists and thinkers to the United States, including some of Europe’s supreme actors, dancers, composers, and filmmakers. For them, America proved to be both a strange and opportune destination. A “foreign homeland” (Thomas Mann), it would frustrate and confuse, yet afford a clarity of understanding unencumbered by native habit and bias. However inadvertently, the condition of cultural exile would promote acute inquiries into the American experience. What impact did these famous newcomers have on American culture, and how did America affect them?…

My close friends happen to include another Soviet defector: the pianist Alexander Toradze. Lexo is Georgian, born in Tblisi in 1952. His father was a leading Georgian composer. His mother was an actress. Groomed by the Soviet system, he entered Tblisi’s central music school at six and first played with orchestra at nine. He proceeded to the Moscow Conservatory at nineteen to study with Yakov Zak—then one of the great names of Russian pianism, after Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. When Zak proved unsupportive, Toradze left him—for a young Soviet artist, a bold and controversial move—for Boris Zemliansky, then Lev Naumov: intimate and intense relationships. In 1976 he was sent to compete in the Van Cliburn competition in Fort Worth and finished second. A flurry of Western dates ensued, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan soured cultural exchange with the United States. He festered. His fees were low. He felt suppressed as a Georgian. He was galled by the company of KGB “interpreters.” In 1977, he ran into Mstislav Rostropovich, a family friend, at a Paris airport. “When you go back, kiss the ground of our country,” Rostropovich told him. “But when are you going to do something?” On tour in Madrid with a Moscow orchestra in 1983, Toradze entered the American Embassy and requested refugee status. Within three months, he began a nine-city American tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic….

In 1990, he married an American girl, a fledgling pianist from Florida. In 1991, he accepted a piano professorship at Indiana University at South Bend—a place best-known for Notre Dame’s football team. Transplanted to northern Indiana, he proceeded to recreate the intense mentoring environment he had known in Moscow, as well as the communal social life he had known in Tblisi. To date, he has recruited more than seventy gifted young pianists, mainly from Russia and Georgia. They bond as a family, with Lexo the stern or soft surrogate father. They make music and party with indistinguishable relish. Lexo’s big house, on a suburban street without sidewalks, is their headquarters.

via A&L Daily

The New York Times review of the book begins, “It is hard to imagine where American culture would be today without the contributions of Hitler and Stalin …”

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Filed under migration, music, Russia, U.S., USSR

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