Archive for March, 2012

Saving the Gnesin School of Music in Moscow

March 19th, 2012 // No Comments

The year was 1990. Anarchy reigned in Russia. Tanks drove up on Red Square, ready to crush the people demanding freedom. Thanks to a few women who appealed to the young tank drivers, imploring them not to shoot their kin, it turned into a bloodless revolution. The boys listened and moved on. The ruble was worthless and the stores empty. Hard currency was exchanged in guarded banks that allowed only one customer at a time. Black market economy flourished. Yeltsin, the man of the hour, had no power other than that the people liked him.   Nobody knew where this was going, muchless would end up – in bloodshed and reprisals or – could it be – a democratic government?

The industry was at a standstill. All people could think of was the next meal. I had experienced that world back in 1945 after Germany’s surrender and we were at the mercy of the victorious army. A hungry stomach and freezing body have no needs other than food and shelter.

This time I was an American, had some of that magic currency, spoke Russian and was a visitor in Moscow, together with grandson Charles. We stayed at my friend’s apartment who had arranged private violin lessons for him. He would study with one of the top teachers at the famous Gnesin school of music. If Natalia had not been desperate, she would not have taken Charles on. But she, like all the other Russian citizens, was in desperate need of money. When she had Charles audition, her pain was not as great as she had anticipated. The fourteen year old boy was gifted and eager to learn all she had to offer. After correcting his posture and the position of his bow, they could go to work. He soon not only learned exquisite phrasing and wonderful tones, she had him relax and smile while he worked on his then favorite piece, Lalo’s Symphonie Espanol. He got so into it that all he cared about Moscow were his lessons. I’d sit next to him on a child’s chair and translate the instructions. Natalia, the daughter of a famous pedagogue, was a mentor and teacher who understood Charles’ burning desire to get it just right. She had taught many kids like him and knew how to inspire enthusiasm.

We took the subway back and forth to the school. While waiting for his class I could hear the talented young musicians learn to master their instruments. Their ages ranged from 4 to 16. Russia has great talents and extraordinary teachers, the product of a long-lasting tradition. I also noticed that the interior suffered from years of neglect, which did not diminish the enthusiasm of teachers or their students.

Upon returning to California I decided to have a fund-raiser where Charles would perform and then donate the money for a set of decent furniture. I invited my friends and relatives to the event, prepared Russian dishes and collected the money. Of course, I would not just send the sum of $1,300 to the Gnesin School, knowing that it would land in somewbody’s pocket rather than buy some furniture. My brother, who worked for the State Department and took frequent business trip to Moscow, would personally deliver it to the director of the school.

At the time Russian property was up for grabs to whoever had the foreign cash to buy it for a token price. People were hungry and the country state-owned. The Gnesin School, established by the Gnesin sisters hundred fifty years earlier, was in the most desirable area of Moscow, just blocks away from the Bolshoi Theater and other important buildings. It even has a park, though at the time also neglected. The street was an obstacle course with deep potholes.

My brother took the money and went personally with my friend, Nina, to the school to deliver my gift. Actually they were supposed to look for used furniture, etc. to stretch it as much as possible. When they arrived at the director’s office they saw three men leaving it, a satisfied expression on their faces that said they had accomplished what they had set out to do. The director received my emissaries with tears in his eyes. The men would condemn the building unless a number of major repairs would be made. The school had no money whatsoever, not even for paying teachers and the administration. No wonder Natalia was so glad to have Charles as her student. I had paid her in hard cash.

When the director heard my brother’s proposition. he broke out in tears of joy. No, the school did not need furniture, because there would not be a school. If they could use the money for the repairs, the school would be saved from demolition and remain a school. The solution was clear.  The repairs had just been a pretext to grab the property and build something new that could be sold for big money.

The building was repaired and eventually renovated and continues the legendary instructions that educate gifted children into renowned musicians we enjoy. I became an honorary member of the board and received a beautiful plaque in gratitude.














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