Not until I started to include musical notes with my emails and started to write and think about it did I realize what an important role music plays in my life. Sometimes certain musical pieces almost serve as a bookmark for an event or color an entire time period. In the late ’80s, when I was still in Russia, my father and I watched the Carmen Suite ballet, with Maya Plisetskaya, on TV. Plisetskya is considered to be one of the best ballet dancers in the world – think of her as the Maria Callas or Luciano Pavarotti of ballet.
As we watched, my father told me the story of the music for this ballet. Plisetskaya’s husband, the composer Rodion Shchedrin, arranged music from the opera Carmen and other works by Bizet for her. Though this story is true, I recently discovered a sub-story that is a bit more interesting. It was Plisetskaya who wanted to do the ballet, and she first asked Dmitriy Shostakovich. When he declined, she went to another Russian/Armenian composer, Armen Khatchaturian, who said, “You have a composer at home, ask him.” This story reminds me a lot of marriages – anyone other than your spouse is a true expert.
The Carmen Suite has another memory associated with it. In 1991, a few months before we left Russia, I was on vacation, visiting my uncle and aunt in Saratov. One morning I woke up and discovered that the government had changed. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were no longer running the country, and a new, temporary government had been installed. Gorbachev was under house arrest, but we did not know that, because all news was cut off.
From today’s perch it looks like what happened over those few days in 1991 was pretty much a non-event – in three days the status quo was restored, without any blood being spilled. But at the time everyone feared the worst: Russia falling back into dictatorship. My uncle told me not to leave the house until things cleared. I had nothing to do but to read. Those were probably the best days of that summer – I sat on the balcony and read books from early morning till night and listened to the Carmen Suite.