Lera Auerbach Part 1: Early years [by Carolyn Talarr]

This series of blog entries will focus on different facets of Lera Auerbach’s life and ever-expanding universe of artistic creation.*

Lera Auerbach seems just to live more than a plain everyday human.  Here are a few of the things she’s done in the past six weeks: the world premiere of a massive work for piano, choir and orchestra (including literal cracking ice as part of the percussion) entitled Arctica, which involved extensive in-person research in the Arctic.  The piece was co-commissioned by the National Geographic and the National Symphony Orchestra; conducted by Teddy Abrams, with Auerbach at the piano, at the Kennedy Center, it premiered to rapturous reviews.

She then zipped back to New Orleans, wherein between researching and composing Arctica, she had been serving since February as the first-ever Artist-in-Residence to the entire city.  There she conducted The Blind, an a capella operatic adaptation of the Maeterlinck play that she had composed in college—it was performed in the dark, with a special lighted-crystal baton she happened to have already. Then a week later: the US premiere of her song cycle Songs of no Return at the Graduate Vocal Arts Program at Bard College in New York State, where she is visiting Artist-in-Residence this year (during her other engagements she’d also been working with her students long-distance). The work is a setting of texts by Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin, and Auerbach herself.

Auerbach’s business card reads “pianist, composer, writer, poet, painter, sculptor” (to which she could also add “photographer” and “conductor”, but who’s counting?). No wonder her first book of poetry in English, illustrated with her own artwork, is entitled Excess of Being.  Just imagining the travel involved is exhausting, much less the massive amount of required creative energy!

Auerbach comes by her multi-dimensional life naturally; born in 1973 to a family of musicians on one side and writers on the other, she learned to read and write music and words at the same time and composed her first piece, a song about death, at age 4.  She has said that she knew by that age that she was “born to…work in art”, started serious piano study that year, debuted with an orchestra at 8, and wrote her first opera, which made her famous in the USSR, at 12. From then she won piano competitions that eventually took her to the United States via a tightly-guarded cultural exchange program in late spring 1991 when she was 17.

Once in the US, Auerbach became literally the ‘very last Soviet émigré artist’ (Flamm) before the fall of the USSR; she decided suddenly to stay in the US and risk never seeing her family again, because of the intense freedom and connection of nature and music she felt at the Aspen Music School. She found almost providential support through a family connection who got her an emergency audition on the July 4th weekend (in which she included a composition of her own) and immediate acceptance to the Manhattan School of Music, and then to Juilliard for degrees in both piano performance and composition, and later the College of Music, Theater, and Media in Hanover, Germany.

Although Auerbach has mentioned this fact in press extremely rarely, it’s significant that the city she was born in, Chelyabinsk 22, Russia, was not just an ‘industrial’ city, as virtually every biography notes.  It was, as she describes it, “a ‘secret city’ where the atomic weapons of the USSR were manufactured. In my city were the laboratories where the experiments were carried out by the military. Nobody could enter or leave.” (Couto).

Even more significant, Chelyabinsk was the site of the little-known but catastrophic 1957 Kyshtym Nuclear Disaster.  Covered up by the Soviet government until the 1980s, it is now considered the third-worst ever, causing immediate death and widespread lingering effects ever since. The townspeople were forced to clean up with no protection, there was distinct racism in the different fates suffered by different ethnic groups (e.g. ethnic Russians were evacuated, ethnic Tatars and others forced to stay) and the medical records of those affected are still tightly held by the government. It was and continues to be a radiation danger to the area and anywhere on the continent, the wind blows, with flares and coverups as recently as 2017.  Auerbach joked ironically in the interview with Couto that people from Chelyabinsk “glow green in the dark.”

Given the intensely oppressive atmosphere in Chelyabinsk 22, it’s understandable that escape into mythology, which weaves through much of her work, obviously including her first symphony, the Chimera, has also been integral to her experience of the world since her earliest days.

“As a child, I lived in ancient Greece.  The book of myths was my favorite and the world of jealous gods and god-like humans was more real to me than the world outside of my windows, full of bloody red flags (the red of the Soviet flag symbolized the blood of the heroes of the Revolution) and the Soviet-trinity portraits of Lenin-Marx-Engels with the occasional bushy eyebrows of Brezhnev looking at me from the walls of the buildings. The world outside made much more sense through the perspective of the ancient Greek myths, where it was quite common for a power-protective god to devour all his children. ” (This is the beginning of Auerbach’s own very valuable program notes on Icarus, which she created by extracting the last two movements of her first symphony in 2011; more on this in the second blog entry).

The usual story Auerbach tells is that her preoccupation with the liminal, with human and superhuman, with life and death, came from when her Polish nanny would stroll her through the cemetery as a toddler.  But it’s clear that the influence came from more than just the cemetery strolls; not only mythology, music and poetry but also issues of life and death, decay, constraint, repression, and freedom were powerful, constant companions in her formative years.  It’s only natural that they would end up appearing in her music, poetry, and art.

*All blogs by Carolyn Talarr appeared first at the Portland Youth Philharmonic’s website (www.portlandyouthphil.org) on April 19 and April 22, 2019.

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