On Friday night, Camerata Pacifica welcomes pianist and composer Lera Auerbach to join the group’s principal cellist, Ani Aznavoorian, for a performance of Auerbach’s Twenty-Four Preludes for Cello and Piano, Op. 47. The varied program includes other interesting composers such as Alberto Ginastera and Arthur Foote, and a host of outstanding musicians, including Camerata Artistic Director Adrian Spence, principal violist Richard O’Neill, and guest violinists Tereza Stanislav and Agnes Gottschewski. However, the evening’s most ambitious undertaking remains Auerbach’s monumental duet, which works through the 24 keys in the course of approximately 46 minutes, taking the listener on a journey the composer has likened to both the different countries of the world and the different experiences in a lifetime. Auerbach and Aznavoorian have performed Twenty-Four Preludes several times before, including a version that serves as the live accompaniment to a John Neumeier three-act ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, an acclaimed new work that will receive its American premiere at the San Francisco Ballet in March 2010.
Auerbach may be the world’s hottest classical composer at the moment. Her Symphony No. 1, “Chimera” was performed by the Louisiana Philharmonic just two weeks ago, and her Requiem for Icarus is on the program of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in February. Her style recalls Chopin and Liszt, but spans a greater range of moods and techniques than either of these masters. As Anne Midgette, the distinguished critic for the Washington Post, put it when Auerbach last appeared at the Kennedy Center, “She offers 18th-century forms and a 19th-century sensibility (that of the brilliant virtuoso) expressed in a 21st-century vocabulary.” The Preludes for Cello and Piano have been called her most enjoyable work and cited for their exquisite balance of passion and craftsmanship.
In addition to being a pianist and a composer, Auerbach is also a prize-winning published poet, and her personal story is like something out of a 19th-century Russian novel. In the winter of 1991, when she was just 17 years old, after having won several important piano competitions, Auerbach booked her first United States concert tour. Her home, the Ural region of the Soviet Union, was engulfed in the excitement that attended the final six months of the Soviet empire. When Auerbach decided to stay in New York and attend the Juilliard School beginning in 1992, she became among the last Russian artists to leave the Soviet Union spontaneously and seek asylum in the United States. Since then, a fantasy of international success has attended her prodigious output, including world premiere symphonies, books published, and operas performed.
Ani Aznavoorian has been one of Auerbach’s closest musical associates since they entered Juilliard together in the early 1990s. Aznavoorian, who has the distinction of being the youngest student ever to win the Juilliard cello competition, can more than hold her own with any cellist on the planet. In fact, she speaks candidly and with a delightful irreverence about her imaginary rivalry with the somewhat better known Yo-Yo Ma. The young Auerbach made a gradual but powerful impression when they lived next door to one another during their first year. Coming to know and befriend Auerbach, Aznavoorian learned that she had already written symphonies, novels, plays, chamber music, and operas. Even at a place full of prodigies like Juilliard, this phenomenon was something of a shock-the shy girl next door was, at 18, a full-fledged Russian composer.
Alas, a novel-like story would be incomplete without some element of tragedy. On October 20, 2009, Auerbach’s rental apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side suffered a catastrophic fire. Fortunately, no one was injured, but Auerbach lost a valuable Steinway concert grand piano that had been given to her while she was still at Juilliard, and a priceless library of mostly Russian books and musical scores, the fruit of years of collecting and correspondence with her family. This disaster has left her without the three things she once cited as essential to her creative practice-a good piano, a library, and a quiet place to work.
Despite the loss of the most tangible link to her Russian past, her library, the artist has been able to find solace in composing. In a recent email to friends about the fire, Auerbach revealed that there can be a virtue in accepting such a loss:
One of my poems that I read yesterday during the poetry reading at the Hermitage deals with the concept of letting go. I wrote this poem a while ago, but it had a new meaning for me now. : I have been also fascinated with the myth of the phoenix, rising from ashes. In fact, my Piano Sonata No. 1 is titled “La Fenice (The Phoenix).”
On Friday at Hahn Hall, Santa Barbara will get its chance to observe and hear the sound of the phoenix rising.
Camerata Pacifica’s evening performance will be Friday, November 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall. For tickets and information, visit cameratapacifica.org or call 884-8410.