THE ODESSA TEAR
(The original French version was published via National Geographic France and La Règle du Jeu. Click here to read).
The man from Odessa had taken off neither his coat nor his cap, he was carrying his bag on his shoulder and inside was an umbrella, his hands were tucked in his pockets. He was standing next to a piano still covered with a thick purple cloth that protected it from the dust. We could hear a heavy, repetitive, dull sound, a constant background of hammers and flashlights coming from the scaffolding below. The long gallery we were in was plunged into an involuntary gloom. It didn’t matter to the old and mischievous pianist who was playing standing up. At that moment, nothing could disturb him. He too had kept his long black gabardine on. He was impatient and unquenchable. A thirst of flats and sharps, a musical emergency!
I was standing on the opposite side of the piano, carrying on my shoulder a camera, which I barely knew how to operate. The sound was hesitant, and the underexposed image, blurred and distant—on the screen as in time—has remained to this day a testimony of a brief and joyful moment, the crazy promise of a Ukrainian port on the Black Sea, a city of poets and musicians, Odessa, suddenly free of the Soviet bear hug.
The 85-year-old Shura Cherkassky, often nicknamed the last of the romantics, let his tiny, thick, and hairy fingers resurrect on the keyboard the melodies of Chopin and Scriabin that he had played during his first recital in Odessa. He was then 9 or perhaps 10 years old. His mother Lydia had detected early on his musical and prodigious ear. A pianist herself, she is said to have once performed for Tchaikovsky in Saint Petersburg.
Her son was now playing for this Ukrainian man—was he a foreman, a construction worker, or a guard? He was the one who had just led us into this gallery. “There is a piano up there,” he had told the maestro, an old, unwept piano, but one that was sufficient for him.
– What would you like to hear? Cherkassky asked him.
– Bach’s Toccata, the Ukrainian replied, without the slightest hesitation.
Cherkassky, his impresario Christa Phelps, a BBC Radio journalist, my parents, and I had arrived two days earlier in this seaside town of Ukraine. It was May 1995. Cherkassky did not yet know that he would die before the end of December. A few years earlier, the dissolution of the Soviet Union had allowed Ukraine to regain its independence. The area around the airport was still littered with the wreckage and ruins of planes, helicopters, and tanks, all remnants of the Soviet era. The bathrooms of our hotel only delivered a trickle of frigid water. Still, the Londonskaya was the most beautiful one in the city, the only one that would accommodate foreign visitors. Odessa was obviously poor but had so much cultural heritage. The artistry was everywhere in its architecture, the colorful walls of the buildings, and the spacious avenues. Music was omnipresent in the restaurants and on the streets. It was a constant companion, so much so that every citizen of Odessa seemed to be a musician.
I now wonder what has become of all the people I briefly met, too quickly, through the viewfinder of the camera I had borrowed.
What has become of the Odessa Philharmonic musicians who, under the baton of their American conductor, Hobart Earle, performed Carmen’s overture in honor of Cherkassky?
This morning, almost 27 years to the date after this concert, as Putin’s army continues its work of invasion and destruction, Earle posted on the internet a photo of the Viennese-style opera house in Odessa, protected by fragile anti-tank barricades and sand-bags, and he wrote, “It’s 2022, not 1941!!!”
Odessa, once governed by the Duke of Richelieu (Rishelievska), who later became the Prime Minister of Louis XVIII, is also the city of the poet Pushkin, the writer Isaac Babel, the violinist David Oistrakh, the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, it is the city of the Potemkin battleship and the famous eponymous stairs. “Mercy for this universal masterpiece. Mercy for the people of Odessa,” begs the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy.
On this last trip to his birth town, Cherkassky was particularly moved to visit his childhood apartment on No. 61 Pushkinskaya. “My father was a dentist, and that was the waiting room,” he said, pointing to the façade of the building. A few moments later, he led us inside to a winter balcony and stood in front of a window. “It was during the summertime,” he told us. “I was standing here. There was a fighting Bolsheviks-Mensheviks, and suddenly a bullet—boom—and I was nearly killed.”
The danger was too great. Soon after the child prodigy’s first concert, Shura and his parents fled Odessa and settled on the East Coast of the United States in Baltimore in 1922. Rachmaninoff wanted to perfect Shura’s musical education, to make him his own pupil, a Rachmaninoff-like pianist with his own technique, but conditioned it to the immediate suspensions of all public performances. The parents refused. Shura’s concerts had become a source of income for the refugee family. Cherkassky then entered the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia as a student of Joseph Hoffman, himself a ward of the composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein, who had been born not far from Odessa. Serendipity at its best.
Decades after, here was now the old and spontaneous as ever Cherkassky, celebrated from London to Chicago, from Moscow to Tokyo, from the Salle Gaveau to Carnegie Hall, suddenly dancing with joy on the sidewalks of Odessa, hoping to meet with local musicians or to taste a Ukrainian dish—Shura was a gourmet.
Here he was again, applauding Ludmila Ginzburg, fearlessly interpreting for him a piano paraphrase of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. In the small group attending this privileged and musical moment, there was a man with a golden tooth, smiling and laughing. Where is he now? What happened to him? If he is still alive, has he joined the Ukrainian armed forces like so many of his compatriots, athletes, musicians, dancers, and authors?
I also remember this policeman who met me with a friendly look while I filmed him, these children who played with a horse in a building courtyard and made fun of the camera while chewing gum. Where are they today?
What has become of the violinist rehearsing a piece in a corridor of the Stolyarsky Music School, one of the best in the world? And those children who threw paper airplanes before entering class, where are they today? What has become of the 10-year-old girl who played her piano with little or no concern for the concentrated gaze of the maestro, whose concerts always ended with a long, celebratory list of encores?
Where is this woman, so elegant and proud, dressed in a gown from another era, colorful and extravagant, who also attended the premiere of an imperfect yet unbelievably sincere Traviata? I was sitting in the front row Orchestra next to her to shoot footage. She fought in vain to hold back her tears. Her mascara began digging trenches through heavy layers of makeup all the way to her skin as Violetta tried in a last effort to overcome her tragic fate on stage.
I think of the meaning of liberty, of Cherkassky’s free playing style, and of Romain Gary’s Kites, “He spent all his days at the piano, and when the music stopped, the silence seemed to me, of all the works of Chopin that I knew, the most heartbreaking.”
Odessa usually overflows with all kinds of music. The singular beauty of polyphonic Russian singing, which we witnessed, left on us an indelible impression. The theme of The Blue Danube conducted by Hobart Earle on Lilacs’ Festival Day accompanied a group of young teenagers eager to take on adult life. Arching their backs, they all expressed confidence and pride, the girls wearing yellow, white, and pink dresses, and the boys showing off their tuxedos, their necks constricted with too tight bow ties. They danced a waltz in front of their parents, full of hope.
Where are they today? Was it just a happy interlude, the promise of independence and peaceful friendship with their Russian neighbors?
The story of Odessa, like many European stories, is not a simple one. Cherkassky’s life is a testament to that.
“I was born here,” he told me. “We had a terrible time, almost starvation during the revolution (of 1917). I Have been back to Odessa but not like this. It is different, Odessa now. Communism is gone. I have come as a full-fledged, recognized world artist. I have come to find out many things. (…) I think this particular trip means much more than just a tourism; it’s a meaning for the future.”
A premonitory message, to never forget, to never stop dreaming?
Before leaving his native town, Cherkassky returned one last time to the concert hall where all had begun. When the man from Odessa asked—somehow instructed him to play Bach, Cherkassky immediately did. The music flowed again freely from the keyboard.
The man at his side remained incredulous, flabbergasted; he now requested the Fugue in D minor.
On his cheek, a tear appeared, which he wiped with the back of his hand.
To watch the full documentary Shura in Odessa, click here.
There are plenty of great recordings of Shura Cherkassky available on YouTube. I chose the one below, a concert recorded on the streets of Amsterdam in 1992. People sat everywhere they could, including on boats, bridges, and lamp posts to enjoy this unique performance. Cherkassky plays Lully, Hofmann, Liszt, Chopin, a boogie-woogie by Gould, and the 16 pictures by Russian composer Mussorgsky–the last one being, The Great Gate of Kiev. Cherkassky was born in Odessa, Ukraine when it was part of the Russian empire, he fled his home town during the bolshevik revolution, he became an American citizen, and he could not hide his joy to return to an independent Ukraine months before he passed away. (click on picture below to access the video)
But before this recent news video available on YouTube of Ukrainian military playing music outside of Odessa’s opera house.