A gentle knock on the door shifts me out of strange sleep.
“Monitchka…Monitchka. Time for coffee.”
By the time I fluttered my eyes open, my piano teacher was already gone, leaving me with a hazy autumnal morning light reflecting against the closed door. It was undoubtedly a Sunday morning. Or a Saturday morning. Most of my friends were waking up in their dorm rooms after a late night of partying, or movie-ing, or whatever it was college freshmen did on the weekend. Me? I chose to defer my first year and study one more solid year with an artist who many folks considered to be the last living Romantic pianist. And I was fortunate to call him my teacher and mentor since the summer I had turned 15 years old.
My idea of the best weekend ever was to go to New York Penn Station and hop onto the NJ Transit. I did that so many times, I bet I could purchase that ticket at the self-kiosk with a blindfold over my eyes. While most sane people were taking the train in the opposite direction into New York City, I would go to Morris Plains where my teacher or his wife would pick me up and drive me to their home. My “2-hour” piano lesson often dipped well past the setting sun. The richness of Schumann, Prokofiev, and a half pack of Marlboro’s later (he was a chimney!) would make our tummies rumble like the train tracks. Not only did I learn at the piano, I also learned in the kitchen. My lessons were accompanied by the smell of a simmering borscht, or caramelized onions for perogies, or a rack of roasting lamb. “Your nose must be as sensitive as your ear,” he would say. Once during a lesson, he was assimilating a delicate melody to the fragrance of fresh dill. When he saw my blank face and realized that I had no idea what dill was, he tossed me into the car and drove until we had found it. I remember the first 2 stores didn’t have the fresh dill that he was looking for. He did not give up until I had learned the smell of it. And of course, it ended up completing the borscht later that evening.
One would think that after such a late night of music and sustenance, he would want some peace and quiet. But after the morning summoning, I’d follow his cigarette smoke-scented trail down into the kitchen, and gulp down coffee that was as black and thick as the tar that must have clung to his lungs.
“Play something for me,” he’d rumble.
“But I’m not warmed up. My hands are icicles!”
I’m sure I mumbled something in defiance, but of course I played. It was like a recap of the previous day’s lesson. And to this day, I am quite undisturbed by less-than-favorable performing conditions.
Autumn drove harshly into a winter that suffocated what should have been spring. Soon, I was supposed to be in summer school. Instead, my teacher took me to St. Petersburg, Russia. My parents and auntie toured the city while I practiced and rehearsed. Every day he took me to a different stunning concert hall to practice. I knew he must have dealt many cards to get me into those halls. During one of those rehearsal days, he ran into Maxim Shostakovich. Something told me it was not a coincidence. As he introduced me to the son of one of my favorite composers, it was the first time I had ever heard him address me as his protégé. I beamed and my cheeks turned red. The whole week was an unforgettable experience, culminating in my performance of the Barber Piano Concerto with the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the late Sviatoslav Luther.
Eventually, my deferred year of wild weekends was at an end. And I had to go to school, which meant a complete change of teachers. He let me go freely. And I went on my way.
I wish I could say that I reciprocated his unconditional generosity. I wish I could say that life didn’t get in the way of keeping in touch more than once every couple of years. I wish I could say that I had made him proud. I wish I could say that I had told him just how much his existence meant to me. I wish that instead of hastily muttering goodbye, I had cried loudly into the phone when he told me that I was like a daughter to him. I wish that I could sit here and write these wishes unaccompanied by tears concentrated with regret.
In August of 2008, Alexander Slobodyanik passed away.
That was when I finally understood what he meant by “no news is good news.”
The memorial service was a blur. The reception was a blur. The tribute concert in Lincoln Center was a blur. Getting up on stage to speak at that concert was a blur. All but one memory of that painful time remains as clear as my first known scent of dill.
It is the memory of the weather on the day of his memorial service. I must say it was rather fitting. I stood on the steps of the Ukrainian Orthodox church, watching many familiar faces saunter in. The sun was gloriously shining and the sky was such a brilliant canvas that only a poet could capture it. And then, the most dramatic storm clouds rolled in out of seemingly nowhere. I think I was the only one who broke out into hysterical laughter when it started to hail.
Like anyone who loses someone whose love continues to fill our hearts, we need to be close to the deceased. We make visits to their final resting place to grieve, to love, to make amends. But Alexander made that nearly impossible. When I found out that his last wish was to be buried in his motherland of Ukraine, I surprised myself with the reaction of a defiant child. I thought, “How could he!” Struggling to make ends meet as a young musician aside, it was not like I could just pack a bag and head to the airport. I mean, Ukraine was not necessarily a popular travel destination. How was I going to tell him that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him? How was I going to tell him how sorry I was for being so neglectfully incommunicative? How was I going to tell him that dill was my absolutely favorite herb?
Several months after his death, I was online sifting through my list of potential international competitions, and researching the different eligibility and audition requirements. It is a tedious process that I am convinced is designed to either bore the applicant to death, or frustrate him/her into acquiescence before they even start:
-This competition is open to artists age 19-35, but the 2008 competition is open to bassoon, cello, and percussion
-Please look at the following competition years for your instrumental category. If you have surpassed your 35th birth year by the time your instrumental category is valid, you are ineligible
-You must provide virtuosic contrasting repertoire for the first round and at least one of those pieces must be a contemporary piece by a composer who is still alive and kicking
-That piece must not be more than 7 minutes long
-For the semi-final round, all competitors must perform this ridiculously obscure commissioned work that will never be of use to you
-You must include one substantially large romantic work in your multi-dimensional semi-final round, but your program cannot be a minute longer than 55 minutes
-You must choose 2 concerti from the following specified list, no exceptions
-Your audition CD must be a full live concert with the following repertoire requirements, no exceptions
-Your audition DVD must be unedited and consist of complete takes, with the camera linearly angled at 28 degrees from the horizontal keyboard and oh yes we have to see your feet on the pedals too
-Jump through these hoops, and the following esteemed panel of judges might give your audition material a pseudo-fair listen.
After several hours of this research, my eyelids were parched and weighted. I nearly fell asleep with my very warm laptop when one competition location grabbed my attention and fluttered my heart. Like the first time I ever saw a real live hummingbird. At first I wasn’t sure WHAT I was seeing. But then I knew, and it was such an unexpected surprise that I couldn’t help but smile. Kiev, Ukraine, it said. I quickly scanned the requirements and concluded that I was indeed eligible. Suddenly, the application and audition process was no longer daunting. And while my chances were slim and nothing was guaranteed, the thought of paying my respects in person was no longer just a wishful dream. I would jump through any hoop to get there.
A year’s worth of devoted work later, my application was in along with hundreds of other applicants worldwide. The audition jury’s decisions were to be posted and all we could do was await our fate. Or at least it felt that way. I must have checked that damned website every 5 minutes. Alas, due to the time zone difference, I had to resolve to a night of fitful sleep before waking up to judgment day. I launched at my laptop and reloaded the webpage. And there it was. Monica Chung, USA. I was one of 2 pianists representing the USA in the VIII Horowitz International Piano Competition. I was going to Ukraine. I was going to see Alexander!
It was a strange thing. I had traveled all my life for music. I went for this competition or that festival or this seminar or that concert. I was an experienced tough cookie who knew the game. But while this journey would start similarly to all the others, I was going to say goodbye to someone I loved very much. I had no experience with this.
Within an hour of settling in to my host family’s house, I was making my way into the heart of Kiev to explore. I was so very lucky to have been matched with the most amazing hostess. We quickly became friends. She told me later that she was shocked at my determination to go out by myself, and how it was such a contrast to the previous year when she felt like she was babysitting. I assured her that I could read enough Cyrillic to use the metro system and make my way around. She asked me if there was anything in particular I really wanted to do or see. When I told her that the only thing I had to do was to visit my teacher’s grave, she gave me a smile and a great big hug. I mean it was a very loving, but also an alarmingly strong hug. As I lay my head down to sleep in the guestroom, which also served as her study, I stared at a wall full of medals. Upon closer review, I learned that the medals were all hers. She had been the Female European Judo Champion. Many, many times.
The next morning, she asked me when I would like to go to the cemetery. I explained that I would wait until my commitment to the competition was fulfilled. And then I would go and pay my respects. I did not want to wear the burden of performance when stepping into unknown emotional territory. Understanding completely, she continued to be a formidable source of support and friendship for me. She accompanied me to my first round performance and sat in the audience. I had not realized how much I was in need of support like that. I was so accustomed to doing everything on my own. As I walked out onto stage and adjusted the artist bench at the piano, I realized that I was afraid that my emotions would speed away from me. I tried not to think about Alexander and all of my regrets. I tried not to think about what I was going to say to him. I had strategically packed my 3 competition rounds with intensely beautiful music that he loved. What was I thinking! How was I going to get through this performance?
Eventually, I gave in. After all, what was I there for, if not to speak to him through music? I learned from him how I best communicate. Some might say that I “played my heart out.” And so I did. And it would be the first time I had ever told myself that I was pleased with the performance. When I took my bow, I looked into the audience and saw my new friend’s beaming face. I was very, very happy.
After 3 days of the first round, all of the competitors gathered in the concert hall lobby to learn of the results. Everyone is sizing each other up and ready to see who advanced and who got clipped. I particularly appreciated competitions like this one, where you were granted the chance to converse with the jury upon elimination. So there we were, all 30-some competitors. About a third had dropped out before the first round, including the other American pianist, and never made it to the competition. There was great anticipation as the jury stepped forward and the semi-finals were posted. My name was not among that list.
After the buzz of both elated and deflated hearts had calmed down, I made my way to introduce myself to the famous names on the jury I had heard much about, and to receive any and all feedback which I greatly valued. Curiously, the very first juror I approached immediately shook my hand and said, “Congratulations! I look forward to your next round!” Needless to say I was a bit confused. I said, “oh, thanks Professor, but I did not make the semis.” And then he was far more confused than I. He even marched over to the results board to see for himself. After confirming what I had said, he shook his head and pulled out his score cards. “I don’t know what to say. I gave you full marks. I’m very sorry, my dear.” After some helpful feedback and encouraging remarks, I thanked him for his time and moved on, but not before noticing a harsh sideways look he gave to a few of his fellow jurors. While the politics of the competition world are predictable and not so difficult to handle, they do get old.
I was, of course, disappointed. But immediately following that sadness, I realized what freedom I now had to visit Alexander, and to learn of this place he so wanted to return to in the end. He taught me to make the most out of every moment. I was ready.
The day after elimination, my hostess and new friend was obliged to be at work. So, I was surprised to learn that she had already arranged for her “cousin” to take me to the cemetery. I met him in the lobby of her apartment building and we promptly got into his car. There was no way they were related. The only commonality they had was that they were both rather large in stature. Otherwise, there were absolutely no resemblances in appearance or personality. He looked like he had just stepped off the set of the Sopranos. Only instead of being Italian, he was Ukrainian, which is far scarier in my humble opinion. He didn’t speak a word of English, and I wasn’t about to let him know that I knew a few words and could read. I knew he felt like he got stuck babysitting. I’m sure he was doing my friend a big favor that was long overdue. But I didn’t care. Nothing was going to prevent me from visiting Alexander.
It was a very long drive. And silent. Baikove Cemetery was a much greater distance from the city than I had imagined. I gestured for the “cousin” to pull over so that I could buy flowers from a street peddler. He obliged. Eventually, we made our way up the cemetery’s main drive until the roads were too narrow and obviously appropriate for pedestrian traffic only. We parked and walked around. I had never seen a cemetery so vast or so colorful. There seemed to be no order to it. Many paths and sections extended this way and that, but it was all beautifully random and unpredictable. With flowers in one hand, I used the other to pull out a piece of paper from my back pocket. My teacher’s widow had handwritten a rough sketch of the cemetery, and drew the spot where I would find Alexander. We meandered here and there, guessing mostly, and weary of the possibility of getting lost. I could feel the cousin’s frustration. It was hot. And yet he wore a leather jacket. We were both sweating. And just as I began to fantasize that Baikove could be MY final resting place, I saw it. The gentle hill that sloped by a thicket of beautiful trees. I ran up the hill and knew exactly where he lay. I was met by 360 degrees of open land, with a most gorgeous distant view of the city. I crumpled to my knees and cried.
Perhaps the cousin did not expect this from me. But the air between us shifted in that instant. And he left the hill so that I could be alone in my grief, which was surprising even to me. But I wasn’t alone. Everything I had ever wanted to say to Alexander poured out and into the forms of each and every tear. I think I was hoping that my tears would seep into the earth and do the talking for me. He was such a monumental movement in my young adult life. I had so much I wanted to do for him. Including a triumphant competition win so that I could leave the stupid medal on his grave.
Instead, I was elated by the most personal music performance I had ever given. And I was truly lucky to be standing beside him on that hill in the most beautiful countryside I will have ever seen.
As I continued in my reflection, the cousin suddenly scrambled up the steepest part of the hill to get to me. He was sweating profusely and I was momentarily alarmed until I saw that he had found a plastic water jug, and had filled it with water. He gestured to the flowers I had brought and helped me fill the jug. It was rather ugly. But I couldn’t help myself from cracking into the widest smile. Alexander would have done the same.
My early elimination from the competition meant that I had several free days. I made sure to fill them with laughter, good food, strong drink, and lots of exploration. I met Alexander’s wonderful friends and family, who warmly invited me into their homes. Their thick accents and smiling eyes and tchotchkes felt like the love of old friends. I also made life-long friends. My hostess took me to visit with her Mama, who threw a huge BBQ and taught me how to drink vodka as if I had Ukrainian genes. I traveled with my new friends to Odessa and visited the Black Sea. Which is as black as an onyx. I bought a beautiful backgammon board that was carefully handcrafted by a kindly wrinkled artisan. I was blessed beyond words.
I may never have the chance to visit Ukraine again. But being there is not a requirement for me to speak with Alexander. I communicate with him through every note I play, every shot of vodka consumed, and every time I take out my backgammon board. But the most tender exchange is delivered by a far more delicate vessel. And it only requires two things: a sensible nose, and the scent of fresh dill!