Prodigy ponders meaning of creativity and of freedom



Lera Auerbach believes in miracles. For instance, the miracle that she was ever allowed to leave Russia in the first place. If you go to New York University’s “Music Out of Conflict” performance and discussion, tonight (Wed., Apr. 30) at 6 p.m., in the Lillian Vernon Center for International Affairs, you can ask her more about it.

It was 1991. Lera Auerbach was 17 — already a poet, a composer, a remarkable pianist — and had been invited on a concert tour of the United States that would take her as far as a mysterious town out of the movies called Denver, Colo.

“On the last day in Russia, still no visa,” she says these years later. But, somehow, at the last moment of the last day the visa did come through — and Lera was off for America. So were five other people who were packaged onto the journey with her.

“I had to run away from them,” she says. “They were checking on me.”

It was from Denver that she was to return to Russia via three days in New York. At some moment during those three days in this city, she suddenly saw “that fate had given me a chance.”

She telephoned her parents, back there in Chelyabinsk, in the Ural Mountains “just where Siberia begins.” She thought she’d like to stay in the United States, she told them. What should she do?

Her parents are Lev Auerbach, a professor of economics (then at the Urals State College in Chelyabinsk), and Larissa Goldman (Auerbach), the pianist who was also Lera’s first piano teacher. That they are Jews, and so is she, made the granting of a visa even more of a miracle. (A further miracle: Her mother and father now live in New York. So does she, on the Upper West Side. Her brother Igor is a professor of mathematics at Toronto University.)

“When I phoned my parents that time, they were quite wonderful,” says their daughter. “They said: ‘You will never be able to see Russia again, but it’s up to you.’”

She was one of the very last artists to defect from the Soviet Union when the Soviet Union was still the Soviet Union. Lara Auerbach, age 17.

“I had no money, spoke no English, didn’t know anyone in America, and it was the first time I’d ever left my parents. It was a hard decision to make.” But she made it. And now, at 29, she has lovely, fluid, inventive, Russianly accented English. She is also now famous and in demand around the world, with appraisals of her music and musicianship ranging from “powerhouse” to “staggering” to “volcanic powers of communication.”

Her folks had given her one name here, that of an old acquaintance, violin teacher Elya Lehman. Lera’s first week in New York, she stayed with him and his family; then was taken in hand and given shelter near Lincoln Center by Russian-born Henrietta Gardner, the widow of composer Samuel Gardner (now dead herself).

Was 17-year-old Lera scared?

“I’m sure I was scared,” she says, “but with such a big decision, there was no turning back.”

Elya Lehman arranged for her to play a bit of piano before some of his friends, including the president of the Manhattan School of Music.

“This was summer, July 1991, but the Manhattan School of Music was miraculously open,” Lera recalls. “The president of the school called a few people from his faculty, who were also miraculously still in town. I played for them, and they told me I was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music without any conditions.”

From there she would go on to Juilliard, to the Hochschule fur Musik in Hanover, Germany, and to Columbia University for an M.A. in comparative literature.

“Hanover Notebook” is the title of a soon-to-be-published (by Slovo/Work) day-to-day poetic record of her student year in that city. Three books of her poems already published in Russia are “Dialogue With Time,” “Birth of Sound” and “Sokolumie” — which translates roughly to “40 Moons.”

Here, in a translation by herself and Sarah Bliumis, is “Silence,” written when Lera was 16, the year before she left Russia:

I know the price of Silence

When on the threshold of sound,

It congeals in the contour of emptiness,

Blends with the beating heart.

The air is charged with fear

And opens into voiceless space.

Hypnotized by incorporeality,

The wind unfurls its wings in dance.

Silence parches the mouth

As I catch it on my lips,

Mesmerized by the muteness of sound,

The dreary whiteness of the page.

She has also written two (as yet unpublished) novels, “Mirror” and “Devil’s Violin.”

Are they novels about herself?

“Well, everything is about myself, one way or another.”

Tonight’s event at the Lillian Vernon Center, 58 W. 10th St., admission free, produced and moderated by Nancy Shear, consists of an interview of Lera Auerbach by Shear interspersed with the (recorded) playing of music by Russian greats, selected by Auerbach; the live performance by her with cellist Ani Aznavoorian of some of Auerbach’s own preludes; and a running Q&A — at any non-musical moment — between Lera Auerbach and the audience.

Many of the evening’s works by the Russian greats — Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Gia Kanchelli, Alfred Schnittke, Galina Ustvolskaya — were of course written under both pressure and oppression.

“Freedom,” says Lera Auerbach — who, born Oct. 21, 1973, in Chelyabinsk, Soviet Union, has been drinking it in for 12 years now — “freedom is, for Americans, like air. For people born into it, it comes as naturally as air. Everybody talks about it, but unless you’re from the Soviet Union . . . . Also it is essential for me as an artist.”

And for Shostakovich and Prokoviev?

“Essential for them too. But they had to struggle.”

Where, Miss Auerbach, do you think the greater art comes from — times and countries where you live in a vise, or when you do not have to live in a vise? (Think Orson Welles, the Renaissance and the cuckoo clock.)

“Good question,” says Lara Auerbach thoughtfully. “Historically, great art did come from difficult times. But at the same time, freedom is essential.”

One must breathe. It also doesn’t hurt to have long dark hair, the face of a flower, God-given talent and volcanic powers of communication.

“Music Out of Conflict,” with Lera Auerbach, composer, pianist, poet. Produced and moderated by Nancy Shear. Tonight, Wed., 6 p.m., at N.Y.U.’s Lillian Vernon Center for International Affairs, 58 W. 10th St., 212-992-9091, admission free.