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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bittersweet Legacy




The State Symphony Orchestra of Russia is one of the most prestigious in the world, andfor the Sergeyevs f father-and-son violin players f it has been home for years.


But Friday, as the orchestra celebrates its conductor's 70th birthday with a gala concert at the Bolshoi Theater, Lev Sergeyev, 63, won't be there. He has taken his violin, his priceless classical expertise and his wife and reluctantly left for Germany. There at least he will get a pension worth the name; in return, European students will be able to draw on the vast experience he built up in the Soviet and then the Russian world of state-sponsored classical music.


Lev's son Leonid, 28, remains behind. Artistically he has freedoms that were denied his father, who was musically educated under the Soviet system f but that is little comfort to Leonid now. Not only has he lost his parents to another country, but professionally he feels robbed of another small part of his national musical wealth.


"I look at where my father was in the [orchestra] at my age and he had a family already, this apartment, a dacha and a car. He was comfortably supporting his family and playing his heart out," said Leonid in an interview at his home.


If classical music was a Soviet state treasure, in Russia in the twilight of the 20th century it is just another budget line item at the Culture Ministry, and musicians' wages hover between $100 and $150 a month.


"As it is now, I am living off of my father's past wealth, in his apartment, driving his car, visiting his dacha. If it weren't for these things I would have nothing. And yet I am playing in Russia's best orchestra," Leonid Sergeyev said.


"Things have changed so much for classical musicians, just in this one generation between father and son. Life for a musician is now measured by the same criteria of everyone else f the financial situation. Do I have a car, do I own an apartment, do I have enough money to support my family, or even buy groceries? These banalities of everyday life were never an issue for my father. For him there was music and there was music."


The younger Sergeyev dreams wistfully of what professionals refer to as the "golden years" of classical music in the Soviet Union f the '50s, '60s, and '70s. In these three decades, classical orchestras were generously funded f and closely controlled f by the Soviet government.


"My father and I experienced completely different atmospheres [in our years studying] at the Moscow Conservatory," Leonid said. "My contemporaries and I f we were raised not only on the classical tradition, but on the absolute necessity of a second or even third job.


"We have become far more pragmatic as artists and I'm not so sure that pragmatism has a place in classical execution. It is beginning to affect the way we render the music."


But the older Sergeyev clearly also knows something himself about pragmatism: After playing 38 years with one of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, he is trading national fame for foreign obscurity and 1,000 Deutsche marks ($625) a month.


It's not an outcome he ever expected.


"When I was studying [music], no one could get out of Russia, and, to be honest, there was not a great desire to do so," Lev said shortly before leaving for Germany. "Being a classical musician at that time was perhaps one of the most prestigious professions. And that kind of respect, that kind of support is crucial to an artist."


Now the respect and support are gone, and so is Sergeyev. Having qualified for a special visa under a program for pension-aged Russian Jews, Lev Sergeyev will be allowed to teach violin and to collect Germany's national pension. He and his wife will also receive an apartment free of charge and comprehensive healthcare. In Russia, he would have received only 400 rubles (about $26) a month.


Leonid is also toying reluctantly with the idea of playing in an orchestra abroad. The Sergeyevs are hardly the first Russian musicians to feel the tug of despair over music in Russia.


In the last decade more than 12,000 Russian musicians have emigrated to Israel alone, according to an Associated Press report.


Others have traded music for more lucrative pursuits in Russia f among them Anatoly Kopchelia, who once sat in the cello section of the same orchestra as the Sergeyevs, but today works for Gazprom.


"I'm still playing of course at home, and sometimes I fill in at the [orchestra] as a freelancer," Kopchelia, 29, said in a telephone interview from his Gazprom office. "But I just couldn't live on the wages ? I couldn't support my family. It's a tough decision to make."


But somehow, the institutions they leave behind continue to modestly prosper. The State Symphony Orchestra of Russia, for example, continues to play to packed houses around the world, from London to Vienna to New York, and new invitations from abroad come in constantly.


The orchestra is conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, whose birthday is an occasion for a Bolshoi Theater gala. Svetlanov himself is such a towering figure in classical music that most people only know the orchestra he heads by its semi-official nickname, the Svetlanov orchestra.


Orchestra veterans caution against too much nostalgia.


"I wouldn't necessarily call those years the glory years," said Vsevolod Lezhnyov, a close friend of the Sergeyevs and a former Svetlanov cellist who defected during a 1969 concert tour in Philadelphia. "Everything that we played had to be checked over by the political censors. We were very restricted in our repertoire f most modern compositions were just simply forbidden," said Lezhnyov, who was in Moscow last month for the first time in nearly 30 years. "The younger generation like Leonid [Sergeyev] f they have had an opportunity to play a truly wide variety of music and to experiment with a full range of manifesting that music."


In that sense, it is just a matter of different problems f and different music f for different times.


Leonid has far more of an ear for modern composers than his father, for example. While Lev's taste for the contemporary stops at Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Leonid listens further.


"I have been surrounded by MTV, discos, flashing lights f the disorder in modern composition is not strange to me. The works of Alfred Schnittke are in some ways closer to Madonna than to Bach and I can find something interesting in them," Leonid said. "My father prefers the melody, not the abstract. He cannot stand cacophony or disorder."


More formally, Leonid has also been exposed to modern and postmodern classical works at the Svetlanov f which remains musically conservative compared with orchestras in the United States or Europe, but has been forced to expand its repertoire in the last five years in response to international tastes.