interview with Yevgeny Kutik: 'Defiance'

June 29, 2012, 6:48 PM · It's been an intense few months for Yevgeny Kutik, whose first album, Sounds of Defiance, came to life this spring at the same time that he found himself playing in front of 12,000 people at Auschwitz-Birkenau for the March of the Living, and only a few weeks before the death of his teacher, Roman Totenberg.

The album both recognizes his Soviet beginnings and pays tribute to his Russian and Jewish heritage. The recording includes the Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134, by Dmitri Shostakovich; Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 by Alfred Schnittke; "Hebrew Lullaby" and "Hebrew Melody" by Joseph Achron; and "Spiegel im Spiegel" by Arvo Pärt. All are in collaboration with pianist Timothy Bozarth. Yevgeny plays a 1916 Stefano Scarampella violin on loan from a private patron, and his collaborator for the album is pianist Timothy Bozarth.

Yevgeny, 27, was born in Minsk, Belarus, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union. His parents were musical -- his father played the trumpet in the Belarussian State Symphony, as did his grandfather, and his mother is a violinist and violin teacher.

"I was surrounded by music, from before I was born," he said. He started violin at age five.

Times were turbulent in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s, and Yevgeny's family decided to leave in 1989, shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later.

"Mainly, it was to give my brother and me an opportunity to grow up free from the sort of religious pressure my parents had to face," Yevgeny said. "Anti-semitism was a big problem at that time, and they had to face it on a day-to-day basis. I was so young, I don't remember it firsthand. But at some point, both of my parents just said, 'Enough is enough. We grew up with this, but we don't want our kids growing up with it.' So they made a very brave decision to leave. I can't honestly put myself in their shoes, making that decision and going through with it. It was a massive undertaking."

Leaving the Soviet Union most certainly meant never coming back.

"It wasn't come-and-go as you want. If you left, you left. You gave up your citizenship, you left most of your belongings," Yevgeny said. "We sold our house, but we couldn't take that money. We were penniless, belonging-less, and we went into the unknown."

They left with a wave of Soviet Jews who emigrated in the late 80s due to the slightly more lenient policies of Mikhail Gorbechev. During this time, Yevgeny's family was helped greatly by the Jewish Federation System.

"We were brought to Italy for six months, and we essentially waited for somebody to sponsor us, to host us, because we had nothing," Yevgeny said. "The invitation eventually came from a small Jewish federation in western Massachusetts called the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. We were their first Russian family. They brought us in, and they started us from the beginning. That's the only way it would be possible -- if you leave with no money, no language, nothing -- what are you supposed to do?"

When Yevgeny was approached many years later to serve as a speaker for the Jewish Federation System, he was happy to do it.

"People from the organization had heard me play and saw my story. They thought, why don't we combine the two? So they invited me to be a speaker," Yevgeny said. He speaks several times a year, traveling to communities around the United States. He tells them his family's story and gives a short recital, emphasizing that his success is "all thanks to people who wanted to give refugees a second chance." He encourages people to "keep thinking about the other people in the world, Jews and non-Jews, who have to deal with pressure because of religious or racial or political reasons. There are a lot of places in the world where people have to deal with similar pressures that my family had to face, or frankly, a lot worse. Give them a chance to grow up, like I had the chance to grow up, without that sort of pressure."

Those pressures and his family's experiences are part of what made "defiance" a meaningful topic for Yevgeny's first recording.

"I started with the Shostakovich Sonata, which I had been playing for a very long time," Yevgeny said. "It's a massive piece -- it's really tough to play it live because it goes on for 40 minutes and it's so intense." The Sonata is not as well-known as Shostakovich's Violin Concerto or string quartets, but "the work is actually phenomenal, once you really get to know it, once you get inside of it," Yevgeny said. "Dmitri Shostakovich had a red mark on his back, directly from Stalin, and he lived most of his life in fear because he was forbidden from expressing himself. When you know this, the long silences, the barren landscapes, all these different textures -- they start to take on a whole new meaning. Shostakovich wrote this piece toward the end of his life. It's a really intense work."

"Alfred Schnittke had to deal with the same kind of thing," Yevgeny said. "He was blacklisted for so many years. Schnittke was really an individual. If you listen to a lot of his music, you'll think, wait, what? What was that? The sonata on this recording is still kind of mild, compared to what came later. But he was an individual. Though he was not physically brutalized, he was brutally repressed -- mentally, emotionally and socially -- for that style. Arvo Pärt had to deal with that same kind of Communist bureaucracy that Shostakovich had to deal with."

"I put those pieces together, then I thought, what about the pre-Soviet era?" Yevgeny said. "I knew the Joseph Achron pieces ("Hebrew Lullaby" and "Hebrew Melody"), and they're just really beautiful, and frankly, under-recorded. So I wanted to record these as well, knowing the history of what Jews faced in pre-Soviet Russia, with a lot of pogroms and just -- they just didn't like the Jews."

"So those pieces come from a very special place," Yevgeny said. "These composers wrote this music to express themselves, to say something they really needed to say, even though they might have been killed or punished for writing the pieces they did. They were taking a huge risk, and to me, that's a major act of defiance. I think that what my family did was also defiant -- to say, 'No, we're not going to live like this, with the anti-Semitic pressures and not being able to ultimately be free. We're going to be individuals, we're going to start fresh,' -- and that's defiance. I feel an affinity for the Russian aspect of these composers, an affinity for the defiance, and an affinity for the Jewish aspect of Achron."

Making the album was a journey in itself. After playing concerts and having audience members repeatedly ask him if he had a recording, he became determined to create one, even if he had to produce it himself. He started with the idea that he would produce it on his own.

Of course, "it's expensive," he said. "At the time I didn't have a label knocking on my door, offering me a ton of money to make a CD."

So he did what people do these days, he created a Kickstarter, an Internet-driven fundraising campaign.

"I was very nervous, doing that," Yevgeny said. "I had this nightmare: what if I put up this thing, and the next morning I wake up, and absolutely nobody's interested?"

Fortunately that was not the case. "It turned out that there was a ton of interest, and we easily met our goal," he said. Of course, after that, he had a new set of worries: "I saw that the money was starting to come in, so I was very happy about that. But we still had this huge thing in front of us. I went from being worried about waking up in the morning and having no interest, to waking up in the morning and thinking, now I have $10,000, what am I supposed to do? I can't fail, because now it's a crime!"

Fortunately, more help came, unexpectedly, when someone at Marquis Classics in Toronto learned of his project. "They said, I love your project, I love your playing, would you be interested in working on this together?"

"I didn't think that would happen, I really thought that I would do it on my own," Yevgeny said. "I was putting everything in motion to do it on my own, and frankly I was freaking out about it, because it was a massive undertaking. Then when Marquis came aboard, the parameters of the project, the direction of the project, changed a little bit. It was a three-month period where every morning I was waking up and learning something every day. It just took shape and I'm very happy."

The act of "Kickstarting" the project helped him find his focus, his support, and his audience. "It's an incredible way for you to sit down, really start to figure out who you are, what do you want, how hard are you willing to work, and what's your idea. It really focuses your thought. I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in doing this kind of project."

Another person who saw his Kickstarter video was a rabbi in North Carolina. "He invited me down for a concert, and then introduced me to the leadership of the March of the Living, who are based in Canada." March of the Living brings Jewish teens to Poland every year to march from Auschwitz to Birkenau -- the largest concentration camps from World War II -- on Holocaust Memorial Day in April. They invited Yevgeny to play for the occasion.

"It was so overwhelming, what I saw that week," Yevgeny said. "I was absolutely honored to do it. Some of it was kind of unscripted; at Treblinka, which mainly is a big monument, there is one symbolic reminder of a cremation pit, which possibly might be original. I stood by the cremation pit and I played Bruch's Kol Nidrei in the middle of the field, in 45-degree weather, in my coat.

"Something about this emotional, deep music, ringing out in that quiet space -- it really spoke, and it said a lot more than I could ever have expressed with words. It was the same thing at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the main killing field. It's essentially just a gigantic field where there were tons of barracks, and most of them are destroyed now. The violin was just ringing out and sounding across this massive space where a million people died. It was incredible."

Yevgeny Kutik plays Maurice Ravel's "Kaddish" at March of the Living 2012 in April, in Krakow, Poland. The music starts at :30:


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