Uspensky Music School: Twilight of a Phenomenon?

The Uspensky Music School for Gifted Children in Tashkent may be dubbed a phenomenon of the musical arts in Uzbekistan, especially if you take into account the number of graduates who have gone on to become international celebrities in the world of music. Another reason to think about this phenomenon is the recent performance of the Uspensky graduate, pianist Lola Astanova, at New York’s renown Carnegie Hall. Lola’s gala concert, dedicated to the memory of Vladimir Horowitz, and part of a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society in New York on January 19, drew a full house.  The event was lent the prestige of luminaries in attendance, the likes of whom included TV star Donald Trump as master of ceremonies, and special guests such as musical theater diva Julie Andrews.  Judging from the press reports, audiences received Lola warmly, and music critics less so.  Not all the critics viewed Lola Astanova’s interpretations of Chopin and Rachmaninoff favorably, and many opined that the extravagant clothing and jewelry of the pianist overshadowed her musicianship.   Indeed, Lola both on stage and off draws attention to her appearance, which could easily pass for that of a supermodel.  Apparently, this is her and her manager’s (Misha Levintas) idea, to market her to audiences and the press by playing up a little eroticism and scandal. Her own website and YouTube channel  capitalize on it in promoting her. If Lola’s other former classmates chose their paths to success via the more traditional and tedious path of performing at international competitions, then Lola, it seems, has decided to first and foremost to win the attention of the press. And to some extent, she has succeeded.

Regardless, no one can deny that Lola’s performance was that of an expressive and emotional virtuoso. She would have not been invited to the legendary Carnegie Hall stage, the launching pad of many stellar artists from around the world otherwise.  In fact, not one of her classmates from the Uspensky School,  except  Stanislav Ioudenitch, has performed at Carnegie Hall.

The twenty-six year old Lola has lived in the US since she was 17, when she left Uzbekistan. Her piano teacher at Uspensky School was Tamara Popovich (who has since passed away), who taught many outstanding pianists. Some experts note Lola’s commitment to the traditions of the Soviet school and repertoire, which were the foundations of her early training — Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin… In fact, it is these same composers that you will often find in the repertoires of other Uspensky School graduates.

This school was founded in 1939 and in 1949 took its name from the Soviet musician and ethnographer Viktor Uspensky, a collector of musical folklore of the peoples of Central Asia; it is a truly unique institution, one of those around which the Soviet school of musical arts was formed and developed. The school’s fame continued from the Soviet era, and was known for its exceptional teaching staff.  The school became, along with the Tashkent Conservatory, the center for the selection and training of Uzbekistan’s young musical talents. Lola is not the only, nor likely the most outstanding of the graduates of the Uspensky School, as there are many others who have found international recognition. Among them there are Еvgenia Rubinova, who has won a number of prizes at international competitions; Eldar Nebolsin, winner of the Grand Prix de Santander Piano Competition in Spain and the prize for best performance at the Sviatoslav Richter International Piano Competition; Alexei Sultanov (who passed away at age 35), as well as another graduate of the Uspensky School,  Stanislav Ioudenitch, who both were the winners (in different years)  of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Moscow among other competitions; Fazliddin Husanov, a graduate of a British musical college and who got a job teaching at the same place;  the pianist Ulugbek Palavanov  a true virtuoso  and even hero to the students of the school,  who won the Steinway Society Piano Competition in Berlin; Lolita Lisovskaya-Sayevich, who won a $7,500 prize at the Iowa Piano competition;  Vladlen Chernomor, who has become a permanent member of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; and a host of other talents, each of which has an outstanding story of their own.

In addition to all of the masters of musical performance from the Uspensky School, there are talented composers, such as Aziza Sadikova, who periodically has her work performed in various European cities, and Dmitriy Varelas, who now lives in Canada and has released four solo albums. Aziza and Dmitriy, like many other graduates of the school, come from well-known families of professional musicians. She is the student of another interesting composer, Dimitry Yanov-Yanovsky, known for his tireless work organizing the Tashkent International Festivals of Contemporary Music Ilkhom-XX held from 1996 to 2006.  The tradition of this festival, however, was broken by the Uzbekistan authorities despite the fact that international donors were ready to finance this initiative and that it drew the attention of the world music community, including world famous musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma.

Today, however, the Uspensky School has seen better times.  The best teachers have either left the country or passed away. Those remaining, still highly professional, must subsist on a monthly salary of no more than US $200, which is barely enough to make ends meet. After graduating from the school, students, as a rule, would continue their studies at the Tashkent Conservatory, after which they would have to face the problem of employment. In the entire country, there is only one national symphony orchestra, as well as one chamber orchestra, Turkiston, and one ensemble of academic music Omnibus. Of course, they cannot accept all of the graduates of the Conservatory. Therefore, a considerable number have to leave the country, joining the flow of emigrants in search of better opportunities abroad to continue to study and achieve their success. They usually go to Russia or to the West. The school’s unofficial site, created by graduates themselves, registers the location of 62 of these graduates. 12 of them now live in Russia, 10 in the US, six in Germany, four in Israel, etc… Among them only eight have remained in Uzbekistan. But in reality, many more have left Uzbekistan.

The decision to leave the country is not only due to economic factors, but also the decline that has prevailed in the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union, including in the country’s cultural life. Though popular music is rapidly developing in Uzbekistan, performers and composers of serious musical art forms (classical and contemporary) are not in high demand. The decline of Uzbekistan’s cultural sector can be attributed to the desire of the country’s leadership to spread its conservative and patriarchal system and its wary attitudes towards all cultural influences from abroad, especially from Europe. It has not yet completely eliminated everything associated with European culture, and this is largely due to the support to diplomatic missions accredited in Tashkent, as well as the reluctance of the country’s leadership to look too heinous in the eyes of the rest of the world.

Attempts by the authorities to destroy what remains as a symbol of the presence of Russian and European cultures, has led to a certain discomfort among the Russian speaking populations of Uzbekistan, which include quite a few Uzbeks,  in particular those who represent the cultural elite, and these cultural legacies. In the country, people have not yet forgotten the burnings of Russian books taken off the shelves of libraries, which the authorities sanctioned in the early 90s. Among  other more recent events triggering another wave of emigration was the murder of the director of the well-known avant-garde Ilkhom Theater, Mark Weil; the ruthless clearing of century-old plane trees (chinara) in Amir Timur Square, that used to be perhaps the most comfortable spot in the capital; the campaign lead by the State TV against rock music and rap.

The impulse to leave the country arises from the soulless and bureaucratic decisions that the country’s leadership has taken to manage the country’s cultural sector. In 2011, the government took a decision to merge  the Uspensky School with another musical school, the Khamza Musical College. This decision did not take into account the differences in the profiles of the two schools and was likely meant to economize on funding for culture and downsize the teaching staff. As a result, tension arose between the staffs of the two schools, and was compounded by the corruption of the joint leadership of the school. It later was discovered that the school’s funding from the state budget was embezzled. The blame was pinned on a young deputy director for instruction at the school, and according to the press, unable to bear the shame, he committed suicide, while the other school officials, who had close connections with the state, remained in their positions with impunity.

Of course, Uzbekistan will not stop producing new talent in the fields of science and culture, as evidenced by a new generation of rising stars in the performing arts that includes Laylo Rikhsiyeva, Nuron Mukumi and Kamila Garipova. But what awaits them in Uzbekistan? Will they too leave the country like the talents before them? And will the current system prevailing in the country ensure the preservation and cultivation of the creative potential of the country? This is a rhetorical question, given the fact that many higher education graduates work as janitors and laborers at construction sites in Russia in order to make ends meet, and many graduates of the Uspensky School have had to abandon music altogether in their quest for subsistence. It is gratifying to know that some of the graduates of the Uspensky School still manage to achieve success and use their talents, even if it is outside of the country. At least their talents are not wasted.

But what will the country itself gain from their talents, except for pride in the achievements of their compatriots? And is it worth it to continue funding the Uspensky School, knowing in advance that the best of its graduates will leave the country in search of success and a happy life.  The country’s leadership must consider this dilemma, as other developing countries in the world do, facing the issue of brain-drain. How to address this challenge? If they go the way of more cuts in funding, it will only exacerbate the decline of the country and its isolation from the rest of the world. The country will become a backwater, a remote and forgotten province. It would be more difficult, and probably would be more productive to create conditions in the country which on the one hand would provide greater creative freedom and cultural pluralism, and on the other, would cultivate the public with culture and tastes that strives for more than simple bubble-gum popular culture and pop music. Fine arts have always been, and remains predominantly a value of the middle class the formation of which is therefore critical for the preservation of Uzbekistan’s musical culture.


Filed under Arts, Culture, Music, Uspensky Music School, Uzbekistan

3 responses to “Uspensky Music School: Twilight of a Phenomenon?

  1. See if you can find out more about little Edward Yudenich and his professor V. Neymer. He has several videos on YouTube, but no other information about him.

  2. Don’t know if last comment went through…I’d like to see an article on professor V. Neymer and his young student Edward Yudenish. Edward has at least 3 videos on YouTube, but no other data about him!

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