Syracuse Herald Journal
September 23, 1976
Soviet violinist new addition to SU music school staff
By Joan E. Vadeboncoeur
“I cannot live more in the system. You cannot belong to yourself. What you can do, what you can think – all your head and heart belongs to the government.”
That slow, painful realization resulted in the addition this fall of celebrated Russian violinist Rafael Sobolevsky to the Syracuse University music faculty. The courage, persistence and sacrifice involved in his move almost halfway around the world seemed remote – as the greying, curly-headed genial art musician recounted it.
The genial artist already appeared to have adjusted to American life, only eight months after fleeing the Soviet Union and with the concerns of a brother and his wife’s parents still in behind the Iron Curtain still weighing on his mind Sobolevsky concedes willingly that communism in his country helped him in his career. “It started as a very good system, but it is not the same as 35 or 40 years ago.” When he was but six, he was plucked from his small Volga River town and sent to a music school in Moscow that was an adjunct of the city’s famous conservatory.
“A teacher offered to me lessons one year before,” he explained in his eight-month-old English. “I accidentally chose the violin,” he added with a smile. “I could recognize many pieces played. I knew what was Beethoven.” Neither parent played an instrument, he reported. His father was a tailor, but he did inherit the good ear from his mother.
Stalin’s dictatorship was seeking to build a new Soviet music reputation. Little Rafael was one of 50, 60 or 70 students selected for the school that now teaches 500 or 600.
“Not only did they give scholarship, but they gave a very generous stipend each month. Frankly, that was the reason my parents moved, although my father did well in his business,” Sobolevsky stated.
The violinist admitted freely that as a concert artist and faculty member of the Moscow Conservatory, he had a good position. But as years went by, he found living in the Soviet Union intolerable.
Small incidents and problems build to the breaking point. “For instance,” he reported, “when I was in Norway, I wanted to go see Grieg’s memorial. I had to ask the ambassador to permit this. He asked “Why?” and I told him I wanted to say thank you for his music. He wouldn’t let me go.”
Nor could the violinist negotiate his own contracts when he performed. Agents had to deal through the ministry of culture.
A year and a half ago, Sobolevsky became convinced that, living in Russia, he was not a whole man. He applied for permission to emigrate to Israel since direct admission to the U.S. is not allowed. The request was made for his wife and two sons as well.
“It was the hardest time in my life,” he recalled. The minister of culture was not so pleasant. I explain reason many, many times but he was so angry he pound the table. I call every two or three weeks and get different answers.
He continued, “ I wanted for one year. I stop playing concerts. I was afraid to travel through the country. It is so easy – an incident by car. I stayed only in house. I didn’t teach. I left conservatory before I applicate (apply) and live on savings. If it had gone on I would have had to go out in street and ask for money.” The last came with a small smile.
Then the violinist was told he could leave. In 25 days, he had to sell everything – piano, Italian violin that went for $60,000, as well as household possessions. Learning that he would be permitted to take one fur with him, he invested money in a sable coat for his wife which he hoped to sell here to help pay living expenses.
The Soviets would not be circumvented. At the airport, he was told sternly that, since he was no longer a citizen, the coat would be remanded to the government. However, the musician managed to fool the officials on one score. The violin has been returned to him, but how it was smuggled out must remain a public mystery.
Decides on U.S.
Once in Vienna, the first stop, Sobolevsky changed his mind about Israel and decided to emigrate to the U.S. “It is the freest country in the world,” he said. After a stay in Italy awaiting a visa, the family flew here.
His world-wide reputation, and exposure to foreign musicians in his country and on tours abroad, had provided him established friendships that proved invaluable. A call to the widow of the late Boston Symphony music director Serge Koussevitsky won him a Lincoln Center concert date playing a memorial concert honoring the late conductor on the 25th anniversary of his death.
Joseph Silverstein, the same symphony’s concermaster, arranged for him to spend a month at Tanglewood’s Berkshire Festival. Years before, Silverstein, Ashkenazy and Sobolevsky had been winners in the coveted Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition.
Fellow Jews aided in finding an apartment and with money. Then musical circles turned up the information that Syracuse’s College of Visual and Performing Arts had a superior music program and might be looking for a violin teacher. Besides nine students there, the bespectacled artist beamed when he reported “I have my first private students, too.”
His 18-year-old son has enrolled in SU in pre-law and journalism but the 12-year-old, said his father firmly, “He will be a violinist.”
There has been a letter from his wife’s parents, but no written communique from his older brother, an engineer. A phone call made by a gravelling friend at Sobolevsky’s request resulted in the report that his brother was so afraid he asked that Rafael not contact him and the phone was hung up abruptly.
Such reports diminish the joy of Sobolevsky’s new life. But the smile returned to his face when he said,”Now for the first time I can say that I am a Jew – a 100 percent Jew. I never say it loud before. I only write it when I have to fill in forms.”