Preserving Russia's classical music through the violin

Amiran Oganezo
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When we planned our trip to the Olympic host country, photographer Steve Rhodes and I wanted to do a story on Russian classical music. The Olympic host country has a rich history of Russian composers including Tchaikovsky, Korsakov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff.

Steve and I share an interest in the violin. During our trip prior to the 2006 Olympics in Torino, we visited Cremona, Italy and did a story about the birthplace of the violin. 

So, we decided to find a story on Russian violins. We discovered an interesting story inside the Glinka National Museum Consortium of Musical Culture in Moscow.

That's where Amiran Oganezov, 78, works with an instrument he has loved all his life.

"This violin is marvelous. It's made of one piece of wood," said Oganezov. "This is a ready-made piece of maple, prepared to be used for the lower deck. Later, it will be removed."

Oganezov has created dozens of violins with his hands.

"I've never made two similar violins in my life. It's impossible to make two violins with the exact sound. It's impossible to predict the sound of the violin. The final result is unpredictable," said Oganezov.

Each of his violins have different names.

"This violin now lives in Germany. It's the name of my auntie. Eleonara," said Oganezov. "With my 70 violins, all of them are in somebody's hands. They're all being used. It's a pleasant feeling that all my children are in somebody's hands."

His career as a violin-master completes a musical journey that began with a tragedy. His parents were shot in 1936 when Joseph Stalin was in power. In 1952, the KGB sent a letter saying his parents were not criminals. Oganezov was introduced to the violin by a relative.

"One day, my aunt gave me the violin and said you will be a musician," said Oganezov. "I looked inside the violin and there was a paper - Antonio Stradivarius 1715. Of course, it was a German copy from the 19th century. But since that time, my life is connected with Antonio Stradivarius."

He even bears a striking resemblance to the violin's creator. Those who play Oganezov's instruments are dazzled.

"This viola was made by a friend of mine and the perfect master. He put his soul into it. It's perfect. Above words," said another violinist.

Sadly, the art of violin-making may not have a bright future in Russia.

"Unfortunately, it's true. This art is not in revival in Russia. It is dying. Unless some school opens so children will become disciples and receive education, it will die forever," said Oganezov.

The unforgettable music from Russia lives on, inspiring symphonies all over the world including the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, which held a September 2013 concert featuring Sergei Prokofiev's fifth symphony.

The ISO has several Russian players including Konstantin Umansky who is the Principal Second Violin. According to ISO spokesperson Jessica Di Santo , "Umansky left Soviet Russia in 1979 and was stripped of his citizenship. He went to Brooklyn for two years then moved to Indianapolis in 1981. He became a US citizen in 1985 and he's a very proud American and great player."

Di Santo says Vladimir Krakovich was one of the first violin players for the ISO. He was born in Kiev and immigrated with his family to Cincinnati in 1979. He joined the ISO in 1984.

Meantime in Moscow, Oganezov is now preserving the classics from Russia.

"Russian music is very close to my heart. There is no other instrument like the violin in the world. Not the piano. Not anything else. It sings with the human voice," said Oganezov.