Violinist Nina Beilina describes her friend and mentor, David Oistrakh

October 2, 2008, 11:28 PM · This week, in celebrating the centennial of violinist David Oistrakh's birth, I wanted to bring to the community a taste of what Oistrakh was like, as well as the environment where he cultivated his art.

Who could better speak to this than one of his students from the Moscow Conservatory? With this in mind, I called one of our oldest friends, Emil Chudnovsky, whose mother, violinist Nina Beilina, was both a devoted student and longtime friend of Oistrakh's.

Not surprisingly, I found Emil preparing to play a concert in honor of David Oistrakh with Beilina, to take place 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kaufman Center's Merkin Concert Hall in New York City.

He liked the idea of interviewing his mom about Oistrakh, and he agreed to take my questions to her. Not only that, but he wrote up this entire interview, so many thanks to you, Emil! (He knows he's welcome back any time ;)

Nina Beilina started her career in Soviet Russia, where she studied with Abraham Yampolsky, Julius Eidlin and David Oistrakh. She later emigrated to the United States, where she currently directs Bachanalia and is Professor of Music at the Mannes College of Music in New York.

Left, Nina Beilina; right, David Oistrakh.

Violinist Emil Chudnovsky is a soloist who has toured worldwide, won nine international competitions, and most recently made his first recording with the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, scheduled for a September release with works by Wieniawski and Ysaÿe. Born in Moscow, he is based in Washington, D.C. His late father was the opera conductor Israel Chudnovsky.

Emil Chudnovsky for What was your relationship to David Oistrakh?

Nina Beilina: I was his post-graduate student, but had an unusual relationship with him. To understand why it was unusual, I have to take you behind the scenes to the personal politics of the Moscow Conservatory. In the Conservatory, there were two factions among the violin faculty, roughly speaking: there was the clique to which my first teacher, Abraham Yampolsky, belonged and then there was the Oistrakh faction. As a Yampolsky student, I was a Montague to the Oistrakh Capulets.

When I graduated, as a straight-A student, from the Conservatory with the equivalent of a B.A. in hand, I applied to the Conservatory's post-graduate department. I can only speculate as to why I was not even allowed to audition; that is to say, my application documents were summarily rejected. Was it the line identifying my nationality in my internal passport? The line which read "Nationality: Jewish"? Or was it the "membership" in the wrong clique? Either way, what it certainly wasn't, was my grades (all A's, remember) or my playing – since I wasn't even allowed to audition.

So, understandably angry, I left Moscow to go to Leningrad to study with Julius Eidlin. He was a disciple of Leopold Auer, and I am immensely grateful for the time I had to work with him. As a parenthetical aside, I can say that he re-did my Bach completely from the over-Romantic approach then popular in the Soviet Union to something approaching a Szeryng mentality. But I digress.

What is relevant is that Eidlin became very, very ill. He was unable to continue teaching and yet I had no "home" to which to return in Moscow since Yampolsky had passed away. So Eidlin made the olive branch move: he called David Oistrakh, asking him to accept me. Thus – a phone call as a flag of truce. And so Oistrakh took me on as his student back in Moscow, at the Conservatory, towards the end of my Masters equivalent.

Emil Chudnovsky: How long did you study with him?

Nina Beilina: I worked with him for two years at the Conservatory, but then continued playing for him as I prepared for the Enescu, Long-Thibaud and Tchaikovsky competitions. [Emil's note: Gold medal, Grand Prix and Bronze Medal, respectively. These were the only competitions in which she took part, and she won prizes in all three. No small feat when people do dozens of competitions, nowadays, and consider it a victory to win prizes in some, or even just one.] We became good friends, and when my husband, Israel Chudnovsky, died, it was Oistrakh who wrote the obituary for the newspapers.

Emil Chudnovsky: What was David Oistrakh like as a teacher? What are the most valuable ideas and skills you took from your lessons with him?

Nina Beilina: He was, as you might imagine, the Voice of God when it came to a student looking for performing experience, for what advice a veteran and a titan performer could offer a neophyte. If you wanted to know what to do in performance, what worked, what didn't…well, you could hardly ask for anyone more knowledgeable or better able to answer.

[Emil's note: I frequently remember my mother telling me what Oistrakh told her when it came to playing with not top-tier orchestras. "Ninochka," she told me he said, "if I find that I'm not together with the orchestra because they don't follow me, or the conductor doesn't follow me, I follow them." In other words, don't insist on hard-wired tempi or rubati and be aware of your collaborators. Sounds simple and self-evident, but it's amazing how often I have personally witnessed train-wrecks when the soloist is either in a world of his/her own, or is too proud? stubborn? to follow the conductor.]

Nina Beilina: As a teacher, Oistrakh was as demanding of his students as he was of himself. He was incredibly picky regarding any and all conceivable errors. As a violinist, he was what I call a "jeweler". This meant that he put every piece under a virtual microscope regarding every shift, every bowing. Everything had to be completely secure, consistent and unshakable. I remember one lesson which he tape-recorded, then played the tape back to me at a slower speed. Obviously, everything was at a much lower pitch, but one could hear all the micro-events – a shaky shift here, a clumsy bowing there, an unfocused attack elsewhere – and it was incredibly instructive.

Unsettling, but instructive. He also didn't exempt himself from this sort of magnifying-glass examination. His own sound engineer once gave him a copy of his own playback wherein he noticed how his own vibrato was inconstant. Guess what the first item on his practice agenda was for a while thereafter!

One other unusual element to our teacher-student relationship was that I wanted at all costs to avoid becoming an Oistrakh clone. So, to this end, I would come to lessons with pieces which I had already bowed, fingered and learned. I'd be looking for him to "put on the final polish", as it were, but I'd have very definite, established ideas about what I wanted to do with any given work. He certainly noticed this; in an article he wrote for Sovetskaya Muzika, Oistrakh referred to me as his "rebellious student". But it meant also that instead of our lessons becoming training sessions in how to play like Oistrakh, they became training session for how to play the violin. As well as possible. They were far more technical, far more specific, than one might think considering that this was post-graduate work I was doing.

And, to be fair, sometimes my set musical ideas misfired. Once, I recall, I brought in the Ravel Tzigane for a lesson. I played the opening very rubato, to the extent that I was probably altering the relative lengths of notes. Oistrakh insisted that I bring the Tzigane back the following lesson, but completely metronomic. Only after I could play the text precisely as written, he explained, would my rubato choices be faithful to the text and, most importantly, not just a representation of how I had gotten used to hearing the piece.

[Emil's note: One other, very specific, lesson-by-example that Oistrakh imparted to my mother and which she then imparted to me was that he'd start each practice day with a Mozart concerto (presumably one movement only) played at ¾ speed and COMPLETELY non-vibrato. Such a warm-up has actually helped me to develop a vibrato which is automatic, relaxed and variable. Moreover, it helps intonation like you wouldn't believe!]

Emil Chudnovsky: What is your most interesting memory of David Oistrakh?

Nina Beilina: It was probably the evenings we spent in Piarno, with Oistrakh and his wife, Israel and myself, often many other musicians as well. Piarno was a favorite vacation spot and many musicians would descend on the town for the swimming in the warmer waters, and the quiet practice time it offered. In the evenings, we'd go for walks along the boardwalk, and tell endless jokes and anecdotes. I should point out that in Soviet times, the ability to tell jokes well was a weighty social accomplishment. Seriously. And David Oistrakh and Israel Chudnovsky were generally acknowledged as championship-level anecdotists.

A much less happy, but infinitely deeper-etched memory was when I snuck in to visit him in the Kremlin hospital, after his first heart attack. That had to be around 1970. The Kremlin's hospital was for high-ranking Party members only, so it was a mark of the status he had that he was taken there. He was lying there, pale-faced, with deathly pale hands utterly still, on the bedcovers. I still remember that because I was so unused to seeing them unmoving. But I also remember how alive, how intense his eyes were. And I remember him saying to me "Ninochka, I am never complaining about my health, ever again. I don't want to be in this place ever again." After his fatal heart attack in 1974, the autopsy revealed that he had, in fact, had another heart attack between the two – the 1970 and the 1974 – but had never told anyone. He wanted to live, not just be kept alive, just existing.

[Emil's note: I don't remember the meeting itself, but was told how my mother brought me to meet Oistrakh in 1973. I was three, presumably barely verbal. He supposedly asked me to sing him something and I obliged with the third movement of the Beethoven Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano. He sighed, looked at my mom, and said "I am so very sorry for you. But I'm afraid he's going to be a violinist."

He then gave me a small toy Model T Ford with functioning wheels and steering. Which I have to this day.]

Emil Chudnovsky: Many people have watched David Oistrakh perform, heard him play, even taken lessons from him, but you knew him personally as well. What was he like as a person?

Nina Beilina: Complicated. As with every person, he wasn't any one thing – good or evil – but a set of moral stripes. Some might have encountered only one side of him, but it's important to remember that both were present. We used to refer to him as "The Parliament", since Jascha Heifetz was "The Emperor", since Oistrakh was so extraordinarily intelligent and diplomatically savvy. His sentimental side was always present but it was always, always subservient to his intellect and to diplomatic necessity. Basically, he played his cards close to his chest, but I was lucky to see the secret human being behind those cards. On occasion.

Emil Chudnovsky: What do you think Oistrakh meant to the Soviet people? What did he mean to the Soviet state?

Nina Beilina: He was the government's poster boy – or one of them, at any rate. He was a true star. And a propaganda machine, without question. A chance for the State to say to the world "look at what our system can produce!"

For the people he was a hero. Famed, respected and loved. By the way, note the contrast to American heroes, who tend to be actors or athletes, in this country where films and sporting events are precious distractions, shelters from the storm, as it were. In the Soviet Union, notwithstanding all the inarguable horrors of the system – or perhaps because of those horrors – it was concerts that were shelters from the storm of life. And those who played concerts were therefore heroes, not just to the small segment of the population that was in the musical world, but to the population at large.

Emil Chudnovsky: What was it like to be a violinist in the Soviet Union, in Oistrakh's day?

Nina Beilina: Politics ruled everything. I don't just mean musical politics. Foreign politics, domestic politics. Everything was in some way connected to the sense that First Prize is Everything. Being in the finals is not enough. This was the calling card of the Soviet structure, that the Russians must be first in everything. First to invent the lightbulb. First to invent the steam engine. First to invent the wheel!

Even as an artist – no, especially as an artist – you weren't an individual. You were a representative. You represented the Party and the country and, as a violinist, you were doing so not in some obscure way in the back forests, but in the eyes of the whole world. It was all done for export, for international credibility.

And, not unimportantly, Party membership was therefore a vital asset in terms of one's career. After all, what good does it do the State if you go and score international triumphs but your lack of Party affiliation gives the lie to the claim that you are somehow a product of Soviet superiority? It wasn't just citizens the State needed to show off. It was loyal citizens. Party members, in other words. Those who, like my husband, refused to join the Party out of conscience found their career emphatically limited. For a conductor like him, that meant no prime opera posts, no permission to perform abroad. Not even permission to object to or complain should there be an incompetent musician in some orchestra he conducted, if the incompetent was also a Party member.

It isn't that Party membership should be seen as either weakness or agreement with Soviet policies. It was a pre-requisite in the U.S.S.R., that's all.

Emil Chudnovsky: How did Oistrakh help shape the musical scene for Soviet musicians?

Nina Beilina: Oh, he had a huge influence on the overall level of artistry, in the days before Kogan, and on playing and on politics. He was the head of the Soviet musical "school" of violin playing, as Gilels was for the piano, or Rostropovich for the cello. His friendship with Prokofiev (with whom he had frequent grandmaster-level chess matches) and with Shostakovich was the catalyst behind the composition of countless masterpieces which have become staples of the repertoire. A good analogy might summarize it best: what Joachim was to Brahms, Oistrakh was to Shostakovich and Prokofiev. And probably many other, lesser-known composers as well. He was a Fountainhead.


October 3, 2008 at 04:56 AM · Thank you so much for this insightful interview.

October 3, 2008 at 07:52 AM · Thank you for this interview with someone in a special relationship with David Oistrakh. This is a unique and fascinating portrait of the great violinist by someone who had both a personal and a professional relationship with him.

I'd like to add something I've learned about David Oistrakh from other sources. One was a video called "Artist of the People." (I thank Scott68 for giving me a copy.) Oistrakh was under extreme pressure to win first place in every international competition he participated in. Winning second or third place was unacceptable in the eyes of the Russian Communist Party. Oistrakh had to show that the Russian Communist system produced nothing but the very best. One other reason that he was made a showcase for Russia was that he was Jewish, and the Soviet government wanted to show the world that anti-Semitic prejudice no longer existed in the USSR. Oistrakh was given the title "Artist of the People," and a video of that name to show that he gave concerts for the Soviet Communist blue collar workers, who loved to hear him play classical music, whether or not this was true.

I got another perspective on David Oistrakh as a human being from reading Isaac Stern's autobiography, "My First Seventy-Nine Years." A great friendship developed between the two men. Having an honest conversation with Oistrakh was almost impossible because the KGB was always present. The two violinists developed little tricks like getting into a large, noisy crowd and speaking very softly. A great personal friendship developed between the two, and Stern had enormous affection and respect for Oistrakh. Stern once asked Oistrakh why he didn't defect on one of his many international tours, and Oistrakh simply shrugged and said very softly, "my family."

David Oistrakh sounds like a very appealing person. Can anyone recommend a good biography of him?

October 3, 2008 at 10:39 AM · What a fascinating interview!

October 3, 2008 at 12:29 PM · What a fascinating interview! Thanks to both Laurie and Emil. I'm learning so much from these interviews and the contests.

October 3, 2008 at 12:30 PM · Oops, sorry Rosalind. I made my comment before I read yours. I guess great minds think alike ;-)

October 3, 2008 at 12:58 PM · Utterly riveting interview! Thank you for sharing. The warm-up on Mozart is very interesting, and I can't wait to try it.

October 3, 2008 at 04:42 PM · great first hand account and interview, thank you emil and your mother. always a pleasure reading emil's is very rare to write as well as one plays violin.

October 3, 2008 at 07:14 PM · Reading about the politics that were going on during Ms.Belina's student days reminded me how things haven't changed that much,or should I say will take more time to change. When I arrived at Mannes thirty years ago there was Ms.Belina alongside Felix Galimir. I got her vote that day and I'm very grateful. Even though we're celebrating Oistrakh's birthday this month I would like to thank Ms.Belina, truely one of the great artist teachers of our time. Also congratulations to Emil on a great interview.Thanks

October 5, 2008 at 12:56 PM · Wow! Awesome interview--cheers Emil!

Danchenko has some good Oistrakh stories as well, I'm sure you've heard them all--my favorite is the one he told us at studio class one day, about how Oistrakh's studio class was so terrifying that even playing on the biggest stage in the world was relaxing by comparison. :)))

October 5, 2008 at 07:10 PM · Superb interview.

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