Mela Tenenbaum, Virtuoso Musician



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Mela Tenenbaum, Virtuoso Musician
Mela decided to leave Kiev, where she was a soloist with the Kiev Philharmonic, following the devastating nuclear reactor explosion in Chernobyl. She recounts a Russian folktale about two frogs that fell into a milk jar: “One of them gave up immediately, saying ‘there is nothing I can do,’ and she drowned. The other started moving around, trying to get out until she whipped the milk into butter. I wanted to be like this frog. I couldn’t whip the butter yet, and I may never do it, but at least I’m trying.” A virtuoso performer on three string instruments, Mela is once again a soloist, giving concerts throughout the world with a renowned chamber orchestra, the Philharmonia Viruosi.
I was born in a small town called Chernovtsy. It belongs to the Ukraine now, but earlier in the century it was part of Romania. In another time, as Czernowitz, it belonged to Poland and later to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So it had a very special culture. Most of the people in this town could speak three languages and were highly educated. Aside from that, Chernovtsy was one of those Jewish towns that had its own Jewish professor, Jewish shoemaker, Jewish doctor, and even Jewish alcoholic. So I was raised in this very special environment, where I spent my childhood and part of my adult life. I studied at a music school in Chernovtsy. It was a very good school.

All of my former schoolmates now work as professional musicians in different parts of the world – some in Russia, some in Tel Aviv, and some in New York. The cultural differences between my native town and the rest of the Soviet Union were so immense that when I moved to Kiev, it was no less dramatic than my immigration to America. For instance, going to a concert was always a big event in Chernovtsy. People would prepare way in advance, thinking of what they would wear, how they would look. In Kiev, you could easily attend a concert wearing slippers, or a T-shirt; it was a much more casual event.

It's not easy to explain why I decided to leave Kiev. We used to say it was because we were Jews. In truth, it was the Chernobyl disaster that completely turned our lives upside down. My children became sick after the explosion of the nuclear reactor in 19xx. I thought we'd lose them. My eldest son was twenty-seven at the time, my daughter twenty-five, and my youngest son was ten. After the catastrophe in Chernobyl*, the general mood in Kiev was one of doom. People really felt hopeless. At first we expected measures to be taken to improve our living conditions, such as new apartments or raises in salary. But nothing happened. The authorities didn't spend a cent on social benefits. So we lost all hope of better living conditions. My family lived in a tiny apartment, and I had no room to practice. I wanted very much to leave, but that wasn't so easy.

I was a soloist with the Kiev Philharmonic. I went on wonderful tours and played with the best orchestras in the country. At a certain point, I made a deal with myself: that I'd never regret anything, even if I happened never again to play the violin. In the Soviet Union, musicians were always a privileged caste. The belief was that if you're an engineer, you were trained to become an engineer; but if you're a musician, you were born to be one.

Yet, after Chernobyl, we decided to leave the country. I left with my husband and children. Four days before our departure, I gave my last performance with the Kiev Philharmonic. So I had these fresh memories of the audience’s applause. They all knew me and loved me. From the time I was a child, I remember being always surrounded by people, wherever I'd go. Part of it was language: I knew and loved my language, the Russian language, I could express myself with precision, express the slightest overtone of meaning in this language. And now I was going to a country whose language I didn't know at all. I couldn’t ask for a piece of bread in English. I knew German very well. I could have gone to Germany, like a lot of our friends from Chernovtsy. In Germany we would receive passports right away. They don't call Jewish immigrants “Jews” in Germany, they call them “German citizens who practice Judaism.” I loathed those words the first time I heard them. Anyway, I couldn't seriously think of going to Germany.

We took a train from Kiev to Vienna. It was a peculiar experience. Imagine it: you throw your luggage, your suitcases, through the window into the train, and next to you in the compartment is a family of ten people, only three of whom are men. Two women are pregnant, and one of the men, the youngest, drinks nonstop. The oldest tries to carry the suitcases, but he's ninety-two years old so everybody shouts at him to leave the suitcases alone. But there is nobody else to carry those suitcases because the third man has no legs. So, all this: tossing the suitcases, children who are always ill on the road, overcrowded trains, kids looking for someone whose last name they don't know. When we finally arrived in Vienna, we stood in this long line on the platform with the other immigrants, absolutely faceless, because what matters to a Soviet person is his passport, not himself. So, we were waiting on this platform, with my son lying ill on the trunks, and suddenly we saw a crowd coming out from the nearby opera house. The show had just ended. We saw all these dressed-up people, talking, and not laughing – Austrians don't laugh, they cackle, they roar. And I began to cry: it was actually the first time that I cried in my adult life. I had this piercing feeling that I'd never again play the violin, never again be on stage. But I knew I had made my choice.

We went to Italy. It happened that we spent five-and-a-half months in Italy. We had wanted to go to New York, but New York was overcrowded with immigrants at the time, so we had to wait in Italy. We spoke Italian relatively well. We lived in a house in the mountains, near Florence, with nine other immigrant families. There were all kinds of people: a shoemaker, musicians, engineers. There is one observation I made about Russian emigrants. When they had to write their résumés, describing the positions they held back in Russia, somehow they all turned into “supervisors.” If someone was a shoemaker, he was a “supervisor-shoemaker.” If he was a doctor, he was a supervisor-doctor. I remember my first English teacher in America once asking her students, “Why have things turned out so badly in Russia?'” And I replied, using whatever bad English I had at the time: “Because all the supervisors have left.”

Our Italian friends tried to talk us into staying in Italy. One of them owned a photo shop. He often visited us and heard me play. There was a man who belonged to Italian high society. The man owned an enormous estate, as well as coffee plantations in Brazil. He had graduated from the conservatory in Rome and considered himself an artist. He was a painter and a hunter. Anyway, he invited us to his home for dinner one evening. I'll never forget his mansion – all that land, a huge lake with white swans. He greeted us wearing tall leather boots and a hunter's hat with a feather – an artistic look. Two tables were set up: one was for his wife, the woman who had introduced us, some other couple, and my husband; the second table was for himself and me. There were two servants to take care of us. The women were all wrapped in white sheets, like tunics. After dinner, he took a brush and began to paint these sheets, their dresses. I felt as if I were in a Fellini movie, only this was much more ridiculous. After he finished painting the dresses, he told me, “Well, now, we can play some music.” He sat at the piano. I took my violin. I thought I'd choke with laughter, but I had to accompany him. The women in painted dresses were sitting at his feet.

Eventually, we arrived in New York and settled in Brooklyn. We had friends living in Brooklyn, and they found us an apartment. Compared to our tiny apartment in Kiev, it seemed like paradise. Two of my cousins were born here, both doctors. Their father was the only one in the family who had emigrated to America before the revolution. After he had immigrated, one of his sisters wrote him about how hard life in Russia was at the time. What she really meant, but couldn't spell out, was the threat of pogroms. But he hadn’t understood and wrote back, “Don't think that life in America is easy, it's not.” Five months later she was killed, buried alive with her five small sons. And he bore a burden of guilt throughout his entire life. “If at any time someone from Russia tells you that life in Russia is hard,” he told his sons, don't respond that it's hard here, too. Because what they mean by ‘hard’ is an entirely different thing.”

My cousins are wonderful people, and they did their best to help us. I don't think they understood precisely what we were going through. Many Soviet people, when they come to America, are very needy. So I think they were scared a bit. But now, they’re the ones who keep calling us, inviting us over, asking why we don't call them. Now they eagerly follow my tours with the orchestra.

From the beginning, I decided that I'd never be on welfare. I realized that if I said to myself, even just once, “Come on, relax, there's nothing bad about it,” there would be no way out. I often recalled this Russian folktale about two frogs who fell into a milk jar. One of them gave up immediately, saying, “There is nothing I can do,” and she drowned. The other started moving around, trying to get out, until she whipped the milk into butter. I wanted to be like this other frog. I couldn't whip the butter yet, and I may never do it, but at least I'm trying.

I remember my first job in America. I was supposed to hand out flyers on the bridge, above the Battery tunnel. My English wasn't great at the time. I was supposed to pass out flyers to truck drivers. But I had never driven a car in my life. I couldn't tell a truck from a cab. My supervisor, an Indian guy, obviously didn't trust me very much. He stood next to me on this bridge, watching what I did. One time, a small car stopped next to me. It was so small that even I was able to notice it wasn't a truck. The driver asked me, “Can I have this paper?” And I said, “No, this is only for the truck drivers.” He reached into his pocket. During the training session, we had all been warned that if somebody didn’t want a flyer, we should never insist, because he could draw a pistol and shoot. So, when I saw that driver reaching for something in his pocket, I felt funny. But what he took out was a quarter. He handed it to me and said, “Lady, I'm giving you a good-citizen price. Take it and give me the paper.” So I took the twenty-five cents and gave him the flyer. When I turned around, I saw the Indian guy laughing so hard he had to hold his stomach. Then he asked me, in this quiet, almost intimate voice: “Are you Jewish?” “How do you know?” I answered. “Only a Jewish person can sell something that nobody wants to take for free,” he said, adding: “If you could sell this piece of paper, you will never be without a job.''

That's another thing I came to realize: if you do something professionally, you've got to be paid for it. Otherwise, people don't take you seriously. In my first year here, I didn't understand it. I remember one day walking down the street in Brooklyn, carrying my instrument. A man approached and introduced himself as the director of a school orchestra. He asked me to play for the school but said he couldn't pay me: the school had no money and was trying to raise funds for its music program. I agreed. My husband and I gave a concert. The principal of the school was there, along with some people from the Board of Education. After the concert, they kept thanking and hugging me. A year later, an old friend told me that he had gotten a call from that school. They were looking for professional musicians who lived in Brooklyn. About a year earlier, they told him, two people had come to play in their school, and the concert helped them to raise money for the music program. But now that they could pay, they wanted professionals, not people from the street.

That taught us a good lesson. In Russia we had gotten used to barter: you don't pay the doctor for treating you and he doesn't pay you for playing the violin. Or a neighbor asks you to give music lessons to her son, and you refuse the money; so she brings you a box of chocolates instead. But here it's different: if you don't accept money, then people think you're not a professional musician. The more money you take, the better they think that you play.

I never stopped practicing. And then I met a woman, an organist. She suggested that we ask the Chamber Music Society to arrange a concert for us. They asked us for a tape, a professional recording. The recording was very expensive, fifty dollars for an hour of work. For me, at the time, it was a lot of money. But we agreed and decided to share the cost. We found a sound engineer who had a studio, a Russian who had lived here for seventeen years. I'll be grateful to him for the rest of my life – and my future life, too. Everything good that happened to me in the next five years, I owe to him. We had arranged to make the recording in a small church in Queens. My friend was playing the organ, I was playing viola d'amore. We had hoped to finish recording in an hour, playing nonstop, so that it wouldn’t cost more than fifty dollars. As soon as we began to play, he stopped us and asked for my name. “You don't have to pay me anything, Mela,” he said. “I'll pay you, just to hear you play.” So we made the recording and sent it to the manager of the Chamber Music Society. Of course, he never even listened to the tape.

But I was lucky. It happened that this sound engineer, Misha Liberman, was listening to the tape in his studio when he had a visit from the orchestra conductor that I'm working with now. The conductor heard the tape and asked who it was. Misha told him about me. The conductor said, “I would like to meet this woman.” And we met. Because I played the viola d'amore on the tape, he was convinced I was a violist. “I'm very impressed with your playing,” he said. “Would you play just a few notes for me?'” And I did. After I had finished, he asked me to play with his orchestra in two weeks. It was the Philharmonia Virtuosi, one of the finest chamber orchestras in New York. I hadn’t told him I could play the violin.

I gave solo concerts, playing both viola and viola d'amore. But one day – the way it happens in Hollywood – the concertmaster became sick, and there was nobody to play first violin. “It's too bad you don't play the violin,” the conductor said. And I replied, “Of course I play the violin.” He was so surprised that I’d kept it a secret for two years. But I couldn't tell him any sooner. Competition was so intense among the musicians, and I felt I was, well, too strong for them. I couldn't just say, “Here I am, and I can play violin and viola and viola d'amore.” They would have killed me. You have to respect the rules, especially if you're in another country. Anyway, it has worked out well. I've been playing with the Philharmonia Virtuosi for five years now.

What I learned in this country is that one has to work hard in order to achieve something. Another thing I learned is that so much is left to chance – as Americans put it, “being in the right place at the right time.” Because the competition is so tough, being good at something is not always good enough.



I travel a lot now, touring with the orchestra. We've been to the most remote parts of the world. What we've seen in these past five years is enough to last a couple of lives. So I don't have any regrets. Still, I miss Russia terribly. I miss the snow especially. But I have a house in Canada now. I went to Canada two years ago and found this house on an island. Suddenly, there was everything I remembered so well from my childhood – only here it wasn't scary. I decided it was time to stop being frightened. There is always a place for snow in your life. It doesn't have to be in Russia.


* On April 26, 1986, Chernobyl's number four reactor exploded, spewing a cloud of radioactive material across a swath of Europe in the world's worst civilian nuclear reactor disaster. Officials estimate that about 30 people were killed immediately and more than 15,000 people died in the emergency clean up afterwards. Experts reckon that radiation equivalent to 500 times that released by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima was measured in the atmosphere around Chernobyl after the 1986 explosion.


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