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Fri April 4, 2014

A Time Capsule From A Soviet-Era Childhood

Originally published on Thu April 10, 2014 3:49 pm

Violinist Yevgeny Kutik was born in 1985 in the city of Minsk, in what is now Belarus. When he was 4 years old, his parents decided it was time to leave the country and come to America.

"We were a Jewish family, and they were feeling pressure constantly for the fact that they were Jewish," Kutik explains. "My mom got fired from her position as a violin professor because they had exceeded the quota for the number of Jews that could be working there. I was made fun of, going to preschool, because I was Jewish."

As a condition of leaving, they were stripped of citizenship, as well as most of what they owned. Kutik says he was stunned at what his mother — who was also his first violin teacher — fought to keep.

"I think you can only take about $90 per person, and two giant suitcases. My mom insisted on putting in these old scores, collections that she had used playingwise and for teaching," he recalls. "My grandmother and my family were like, 'Why? Why are you wasting this precious space with these scores?' "

Included in the stash were compositions by Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and more. Kutik wouldn't explore the music himself until years later; now, he's devoted an entire album to what he found. He spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about the making of Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block in Dallas.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel in Washington and this is the music of a young violinist, Yevgeny Kutik. It's from his new CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This track from Kutik's CD is by composer Andrei Eshpai. It's called "Hungarian Tunes."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The album is called "Music From The Suitcase" and the suitcase the title refers to is an actual piece of luggage. Kutik was born in 1985 in the city of Minsk, in what is now Belarus, then Soviet Byelorussia. When he was 4 years old, his parents decided it was time to leave the country and come to America.

YEVGENY KUTIK: We were a Jewish family, and they were feeling pressure constantly for the fact that they were Jewish. My mom got fired from her position as a violin professor because they had exceeded the quota for the number of Jews that could be working there. I was made fun of, going to preschool, because I was Jewish. And so they abandoned Minsk Belarus and the condition was you get stripped of citizenship.

You sell your belongings. You get rid of everything, but you can't really take anything. I think you can only take about $90 per person, and two giant suitcases. My mom insisted on putting in these old scores, collections that she had used playing-wise in her teaching. And she put these, stuffed these into one of the suitcases, even though my grandmother and my family were like, why? Why are you wasting this precious space with these scores?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: So you've made an album, a CD of nearly all music from the suitcase and one piece that you found the sheet music for in there was Sergei Prokofiev's waltz from "Cinderella." This is arranged for piano and violin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUTIK: It's so elegant and magical. It's a stunningly beautiful piece that when I played it, I just knew that we had to record it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Your mother was, I guess, your first teacher of violin. Is that right?

KUTIK: That's right. We started as soon as I moved to the country and she taught me until I was about 10 years old and at that point, I think I was acting out so much during lessons that she decided to hand me off to someone else.

SIEGEL: You were too much trouble for her at that point?

KUTIK: I mean, I think it was a constant battle between the two of us, at that point. A lesson is such a interesting atmosphere because for an hour, you're standing there and this person, this adult person, is telling you every minute everything that's wrong with you and I don't think I wanted to hear that from my mom at the age of 10. I already thought I knew everything there was to know about the violin so I just kind of dismissed her and said, well, you're wrong. I'm right.

SIEGEL: What do you know?

KUTIK: Yeah. So she said, OK, I think we're done here. I think you're going on to a different teacher.

SIEGEL: You know, the idea of the suitcase here is all about mobility and about leaving one place and moving to another and what you take with you. But I wonder if there isn't also a dimension of remaining connected to the old place, what it is we want to keep that's from Minsk and that's from the place that you came from. In fact, does this legacy tie you to that place in some ways?

KUTIK: I think you're absolutely right. There is certainly a connection and these physical scores, sure they represent the journey to me, but they also remind me of, you know, my first home, where I was born and even though in my case, I don't really remember it, but these scores kind of embody that to me. There's a very interesting sort of connection that it always reminds me where I'm from.

SIEGEL: Now, of the pieces that you recorded for "Music From the Suitcase," the last one is not a piece that made the journey over from Europe to America, but this is one that you brought back to Europe. Tell us about "Oyfn Pripetchik."

KUTIK: Yeah, in 2012, I got invited by International March of the Living, an organization that brings thousands of Jewish young adults to Poland and they invited me to play and the annual Holocaust remembrance ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I played there and it was amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUTIK: Several days before that event, I went to Warsaw and was touring the largest Jewish cemetery in Poland and as I was walking by, I heard this Holocaust survivor, an old man, singing the "Oyfn Pripetchik" melody, which, at the time, I had no idea what this melody was.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUTIK: It was so beautiful, so simple, that I figured out what it was and it turned out to be "Oyfn Pripetchik," a song that - a Yiddish song that most people know and I loved it so much that I said I have to put it on the recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KUTIK: It's not just a traditional song. It was written by Yiddish poet/writer/musician named M.M. Warshavsky back in pre-Soviet Russia so I thought it fit in quite perfectly with this album.

SIEGEL: Yevgeny Kutik, thank you very much.

KUTIK: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And we've been talking about Yevgeny Kutik's new album, "Music From the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures," sheet music that his mother literally brought over in the suitcase when the family moved from Minsk in Belarus to the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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