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Off the Shelf: Three Decades as a Jewish Musician in Russia

Stormy Applause

Stormy Applause

Stormy Applause: Making Music in a Worker’s State, by Rostislav Dubinsky (New York: Hill and Wang), 1989. 292 pages.

Soviet emigre violinist Rostislav Dubinsky recalls the first three decades of the Borodin Quartet in Stormy Applause: Making Music in a Worker’s State. On one level, this is a scrapbook of the adventures (and misadventures) of this new quartet. Mr. Dubinsky tells of its formation and naming, and describes each of the quartet members and the sometimes strained relationships between them (chamber musicians, both amateur and professional, know how difficult it can be for a small ensemble to work together even for a short period of time). We are permitted to visit their rehearsals and follow them as they begin a concert career. Through Dubinsky’s eyes we catch glimpses of notable Soviet musicians and politicians, such as violinist David Oistrakh, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, composers Alfred Schnittke and Dmitri Shostakovich, and Joseph Stalin. The book is replete with vignettes worth re-reading, such as that of the funeral of Joseph Stalin and another describing Shostakovich drinking (there is a great deal of alcohol consumed in this book) and singing along to his own music being performed by the Borodin Quartet.

This book is more than simply a scrap album, however. It is the story of a talented, ambitious musician frustrated at every turn by a rigid, corrupt political system. From the preface to the last page, Mr. Dubinsky makes his point clear: a musician must be free in order to make music. He documents how politics interfered with his music own making. During one of the first rehearsals of the quartet, he describes a disagreement over tempo. No one could agree. Finally the cellist, Valentin Berlinsky, said, ‘”If only we could play for Comrade Stalin . . . Every thing would become clear. We would have no doubts.’ Suddenly I did not feel like laughing anymore. ‘You don’t really think he knows the right tempi of this particular quartet?’ ‘He knows every thing,’ Berlinsky said solemnly.”

Rostislav Dubinsky and pianist Luba Edlina will perform a sonata recital on November 7, 1993, at 3:00 PM in the UWM Fine Arts Recital Hall. Tickets are $20 each, and may be obtained by calling 229-6121. All proceeds will benefit the String Academy. Copies of his book, Stormy Applause, will be available for purchase in the Recital Hall foyer before the concert and during intermission, or may be purchased at Audubon Court Books

From the left: Dubinsky, Berlinsky, Shostakovich, N. Barshay, R. Barshay

From the left: Dubinsky, Berlinsky, Shostakovich, N. Barshay, R. Barshay (1946)

My favorite story in the book relates how the Borodin Quartet toyed with the Soviet fascination with foreign people and foreign goods in order to get service in an overcrowded restaurant while on tour in Siberia.

I explained the plan to my colleagues [Quartet members Alexandrov, Berlinsky and Shebalin] and we went down to the restaurant. All of us, except Shebalin, had dressed in our noticeably foreign suits, with white shirts, exquisitely knotted ties, and a large, bright handkerchief in the front jacket pocket. We spoke among ourselves in Italian musical terms. The crowd moved aside for us, and our large Shebalin,  ith his open Russian face, loudly and authoritatively knocked on the restaurant door.

Carelessly tossing over his shoulder, *Fermato poco ma presto subito, which we could guess was supposed to mean “Wait for me here, I’ll be right back,” he advanced softly to the doorman and whispered in his ear, “I have foreign guests. I’m going to the director.”  The doorman didn’t dare to stop him. The people looked us over as if we were rare birds in a zoo. Shebalin soon returned, accompanied by a small, round man who, seeing us, said ‘Please come in, gentlemen!”

Shebalin “translated” at once: Sigttori, andante fugato e molto resoluto….

Bandits,” said Alexandrov softly. “And what if he finds out now from the administrator what sort of Italians we are?”

“Don’t talk,” said Shebalin, continuing loudly for the benefit of the waiter, who had just emerged from the kitchen with a tray, Mezzo voce consordino legato comodo nott troppo scherzando.

* To appreciate the humor, you need to recognize these pseudo Italian phrases as common musical terms creatively strung together.

-James Olsen

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