By Greg Cahill
It started with table talk. Seated at his family’s Thanksgiving dinner two years ago, Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik listened intently as his paternal grandmother, Luba Kutik—known affectionately as Baba Luba—recalled standing in the airport in Minsk in 1989 as Kutik and his parents, both professional concert musicians, embarked on a flight to America. The family was among an estimated two million oppressed Jews that emigrated from the USSR in the 1980s to the United States, Israel, and other Western nations.
Kutik was just four years old.
As his grandmother watched her small grandson pass through the airport security gate, she felt certain that she would never see him again. Yet, three years later, Kutik’s grandmother and grandfather, Isaac, joined the family in their newfound home in the small town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in
“As Baba Luba told her story, she brought out a photo that was taken at the Albany International Airport during the first several minutes of their arrival,” Kutik recalls, during a phone call from his home in Boston. “The camera captured the priceless expressions of my family members, especially that of my grandfather, Isaac [who had played in the National Symphony in Belarus], and Baba Luba, exhausted from their journey and filled with the overwhelming emotion of seeing their family again.”
That photo inspired Kutik to commission the music for Meditations on Family (Marquis Classics), an eight-track CD that features miniatures, each inspired by the composers’ cherished family memories. “Seeing this photo reignited a desire of mine to put music to family memories of joy, sadness, unity, and longing, and to translate that photo into a short work for violin,” Kutik says.
The new EP—produced by four-time Grammy winner Jesse Lewis—is an extension of 2014’s Music from a Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures (Marquis Classics), a collection of miniatures culled from the sheet music his parents carried with them to America. That CD, featuring Kutik and pianist
Timothy Bozarth, included works by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Khachaturian, and others.
“That experience allowed me to fill in the gaps. I dreamed up this project as a continuation of Suitcase, because I wanted to invite these voices to help me on this journey of exploration into family,” Kutik says. “I came to America when I was four, so for a very long time hearing these stories about our life in the USSR, but not being able to experience it, made me feel like something was missing. Poring through that music allowed me to fill in the gaps, to learn more about my heritage and my culture. Since then, I have felt that music is an excellent vehicle for exploring your family traditions.
“It’s a unique thing.”
For Meditations on Family, Kutik considered a long list of composers, including several with whom he had worked before. “I was interested in capturing as many ‘languages’ as possible, musically speaking,” he says. “I wanted to get as many voices in the mix as I could; some older generations and some very young generations—people for whom this project would be more than just writing a composition.”
The resulting miniatures are quite different from one another stylistically, but each has a rush of emotion that captivates the listener. “I worked on this project for at least a year and a half and I had no idea where it was headed,” the 33-year-old violinist says. “In the creative process, you often feel as if you are walking in and out of the woods. Once I heard it all together, I was so happy with the vibrancy of each work and how different each work is, emotionally speaking.”
True to Kutik’s vision, each miniature is a window into the composer’s emotional life. “I told the composers that I was looking for miniatures, no more than two to three minutes in length,” he says. “I like this idea that when you are flipping through a family photo album, you don’t spend ten minutes on each photo. Rather, you look at each one and there’s a rush of emotion and then you go on to the next photo. I wanted to recreate that. So I kept coming back to this idea of little meditations. You sit down for two or three minutes and meditate on an idea and then you go on with your day.
“I really wanted to capture that in this project somehow.”
In some instances, as with Timo Andres’ “See Above,” for violin and double bass, the composer’s own memory blends with Kutik’s emotional life. “I got married a year ago and my father-in-law—Edwin Barker—is the principal bassist of the Boston Symphony. So, now that I’m starting my own family, I thought it would be cool to incorporate a couple of pieces with him,” Kutik says. “After all, he is a brilliant double bassist. I’ve played a couple of concerts with him and am always in awe of his playing. This was a perfect chance to work together. Since I had worked with Timo before, I felt comfortable about asking him to compose for violin and double bass.
Music is a reflection of us, of who we are as humans today. Of society and life.
“He thought that was a perfect combination.”
Gregory Vajda’s “How to Draw a Tree” also is composed for violin and double bass.
Technically, the works are quite different and each presents its own set of challenges, including multiple-stops and extended harmonics. And due to tight schedules, compositional decisions had to be made on the fly. “I would first see these compositions as brand new pieces with ink still wet on the page,” Kutik says. “There’s definitely a lot of technical stuff you have to think about and you have to think about it very quickly. You have to learn them quickly. You have to internalize them quickly. Speaking from a purely technical standpoint, it was a very interesting project for me, because each piece is a different sound world.
“For example, Gity Razaz’ piece, ‘Cadenza for the Once Young,’ is a solo violin work that is just a little over two minutes long. He throws a lot of stuff in there, so you have to really dig into it to decide what colors you want to bring out, how much vibrancy you want. It’s very different from Joe Schwanter’s piece, ‘Daydreams,’ which makes the violin a soaring narrator. You can’t approach those two pieces in the same way.
“So the process included a very intense exploration into what each piece required of me as a violinist, which made last summer very interesting,” he adds with a laugh.
Kinan Azmeh’s “Rima,” a piece by the clarinetist and original member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, stands out for its catchy rhythm and haunting melody. “I had heard a number of his compositions, which have a very distinctive flavor, obviously drawing upon his Syrian roots,” Kutik says. “He has such an expressive voice. After he sent me the piece, he reminded me that less is more in this case. It’s a piece that just sort of floats along. Whenever I would add a bit more expression, he would say, ‘No, no, go back. Let it unfold, almost like a lullaby.’
“He says its significance to him was that the piece captures a profound moment of contentment. Rarely do you hear that. It’s just like a perfect moment of happiness.
“I love that piece.”
Kutik, who will make his Kennedy Center debut in April, is no stranger to contemporary music. His last album, Songs Without Words (Marquis Classics), used Mendelssohn’s work of that same name to expand upon the idea that music surpasses traditional language. It included two new works by Timo Andres and Michael Gandolfi.
“Even when I was a kid, like nine or ten, and still in my early days, in terms of my discovery of music, I would sit down and listen to new violin concertos,” Kutik says. “I think it’s important to have a deep commitment to new music, although I really don’t like that term. Music is a reflection of us, of who we are as humans today. Of society and life. You can keep playing Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, and they’re amazing, but I keep thinking, ‘What are we growing in our language?’ Until recently, it has seemed that [classical] music was almost frozen in time. But music is a living, breathing thing. To contribute music that in 100 years will reflect our time seems important.”
What Yevgeny Kutik Plays
Kutik’s primary instrument is a violin made in 1915 by Stefano Scarampella of Mantua, Italy. “It’s a very interesting instrument,” he says. “I’ve had it for seven or eight years. It’s a very bright, brash instrument, very powerful—it has a lot of brightness and darkness at the same time. It’s missing the midrange. It took a couple of years to find the tone. I worked with Ken Meyer in Boston who made various adjustments to the bridge, the pegs, the fingerboard—all sorts of stuff. And, honestly, it was just a matter of learning how to play it. When I first got it, I didn’t know how to pull out some of the qualities I was looking for. It can be frustrating to play, but I hear that from other players about their instruments, so I take comfort in that.”
He uses several bows, including a Hill and a cherished stick that may or may not have been made by Dominique Peccatte. “It was love at first sight when I met this bow,” he says. “It works great. It’s my favorite bow ever.” His Scarampella is strung with a Pirastro Tonica D and G, a Thomastik-Infeld Dominant A, and a Westminster E.
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2019 issue of Strings magazine.