New York based violist Ljova and the City of London Sinfonia: an émigré perspective

April 20, 2015, 2:08 PM · The City of London Sinfonia has invited the New York based violist to be part of its Émigré Series. On April 29th, Ljova will join the orchestra to perform his own music alongside the City of London Sinfonia.

Ljova gave a concert of his music in Montreal. There was the IAMA conference going on at the same time and many concert organizers and promoters were in town. One of them, Matthew Swann, was the director of the City of London Sinfonia. “After the concert he “tweeted” about it. I responded to his tweet and that began the conversation. I guess that’s how things work now. It’s great because they have this wonderful focus on émigrés and émigré composers and émigré experiences,” says Ljova.

Ljova was born in Moscow and came to New York with his parents when he was eleven. His father is a famous Russian composer with a very established career in Russia. He came to New York to pursue his career further, to do something different. It was a very unstable time in Russia in the 90’s, nobody knew what was going to happen. “It was unstable politically and financially. It was a weird time artistically and it was a weird time to be Jewish. So my parents thought it would be a good moment to leave and to try something new,” says Ljova. While living in New York, Ljova’s father started a Russian-American theater and a Russian-American film festival. He collaborated with American librettists and directors in various productions. For 30-40 years he toured the US with his wife who is a writer and a translator.

“It was a very productive time but it was also with difficulties. When my dad came here he was starting from scratch while back in Russia he was an incredibly noted composer who sold millions of records in Russia. The émigré experience is not easy but it’s definitely interesting.”

New York and London are cities of émigrés. There are of course native New Yorkers and Londoners but most people are from somewhere else, everybody has a story. Everybody’s family went through a period of struggle adjusting to a new country, adjusting to a new culture.

"In New York it’s perhaps a little easier because people share so much of a common experience here, experience of moving, experience of leaving their home and trying to find home here. I came here when I was eleven and I feel that the Upper west side of Manhattan is my home. Now at this point I have lived here for 25 years," said Ljova.

Ljova said the reason why he chose to play viola has to do with encouragement. From his experience, much of the teaching method of the Russian school of string playing leads to humiliation. "That never worked for me I was always completely frustrated by that. I felt locked somehow by it. I didn’t want to become a violinist because it was such an atmosphere of discouragement and competition. There were so many notes to learn and not enough time to play hockey. I wanted to quit very much."

When he arrived in New York, Ljova didn’t know any English but received really great encouragement from his English teacher in school. He learned very quickly and for a time he thought he would maybe become a writer. It was a very encouraging experience for him. When Ljova decided to quit, instead of selling his violin his father traded it for a viola. He had already paid for Ljova’s second semester at the Manhattan School of Music preparatory division and suggested Ljova finish the semester on viola. "Right away it was a totally different attitude. The viola students in the orchestra were that much more collegial, that much more pleasant, there was no competitive atmosphere. It was very much an atmosphere of positive reinforcement. The other thing is that as a violist I was necessary. I felt in demand. I was playing chamber music right away, which is not something you could dream of as a violinist until you are very good. I went to summer camp as a viola player. I sat first or second stand in the orchestra right next to the conductor. It was wonderful."

In 2006, Ljova released an album of multi-track viola pieces, which he wrote for various filmmakers he was working with at the time. “These were not really pieces that I wrote; they were pieces that I improvised in my apartment with one microphone.” He didn’t have a quality synthesizer so instead he used the viola. He used the viola for melody, harmony, base, rhythm: he used it for everything. It became a sound, a sound that people very much liked. Eventually, ensembles such as the Brooklyn Riders or the Enso String Quartet asked him to write out these improvisations and make arrangements. That is how things started out for Ljova as a composer. On the 29th of April, the City of London Sinfonia and Ljova will play some of this earlier repertoire.

After the concert, Ljova will stay in London for 10 more days. They are going to do some outreach concerts. On the 9th of May, they are going to give a concert at Cadogan Hall also, featuring Ljova’s music but more geared towards families and children. “As my wife and I have children, as our friends and fans get into the age of having children I started to think more about children and family programing. If children are able to experience the music at a concert rather than sitting at home, I think that’s a real blessing for the families and for the musicians. An audience of children is the most receptive audience in a way. They don’t judge, their only requirement is that it communicates.”

Ljova finds it very hard to turn down projects. "I keep getting into these situations where I kind of surprise myself. For example I am doing this project in Tennessee writing bluegrass music. What does a Russian Jewish boy from Moscow know about writing bluegrass music for oboe and bluegrass? Not as much as someone who lives there but I bring kind an outsider perspective to this, an émigré perspective if you will."


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