ASPEN - Lera Auerbach says she is the type of person who "carries her world with her." So Auerbach still feels the gravitas that accompanied music-making - all facets of life, really - in her native Soviet Union, even though she has lived more than half her 38 years in the relative freedom and lightness of the United States.
"A premiere, say, by Schnittke wasn't just a premiere. There was a sense of life and death intensity; it was an event of incredible significance," Auerbach, a pianist and composer, as well as a poet and visual artist, said of concerts in the former Soviet Union. "I think every concert should be like that - it's about being transformed. If we're not transformed, we've just wasted two hours. For an artist, it's important never to lose the life and death intensity."
While intensity was in great supply, there was another necessary ingredient that Auerbach couldn't find in Chelyabinsk, the industrial Russian city, 600 miles east of Moscow, where she was born. For her music, she needed freedom - freedom to interact with other artists, freedom to experiment with all kinds of sounds.
"As an artist, I needed that climate, to explore," said Auerbach, who has lived in the States since the age of 17. "At that age I'd already explored the best of what Russia had to offer, but I was hungry to see what else there was."
So hungry that Auerbach was willing to take a breath-taking gamble with her life. In 1991, Auerbach, who had entered a school for gifted musicians when she was 4, was selected to participate in a cultural exchange program. The musicians in her group numbered just two, she and a violinist from Germany, but the retinue comprised several Russian businessmen - that is, KGB agents - whose job it was to make sure that Auerbach didn't experience too much American-style freedom. The first stop was in Denver, where Auerbach performed at a convention of clock- and watch-makers. After the concert, Auerbach was approached by someone who offered to take her to a wonderful music festival that was close by. The next day, an open day on her schedule, she found herself making the four-hour drive, in a foreign country, with strangers, into the mountains, to see the Aspen Music Festival.
Auerbach was taken straight to the Aspen Music School campus, a short way up Castle Creek Valley. She didn't see any performances, though she did witness a master class in composition, and saw a handful of students with their instruments on the wooded campus, which was fascinating enough.
"To me, this was incredible," she said. "I felt like I was discovering this exotic place, Aspen. You'd see students practicing in nature, these wonderful creeks. It felt like a fairy tale, like one of my childhood dreams. It was a first step on my crucial line."
After Colorado, Auerbach and her group made its way to New York City. Auerbach had the phone number of the one person in the States her mother knew - Ilya Lehman, a violin teacher who Auerbach's mother was slightly acquainted with from decades earlier. Auerbach called Lehman, who wanted to hear her play some music. Lehman called in a friend, a conductor, who was impressed enough to put in a call to the Manhattan School of Music. The date was July 3, but miraculously the president of the school was able to quickly arrange an audition. Auerbach played one of her own pieces, Prokofiev sonatas, Liszt etudes and some Beethoven. On the spot, she was invited to enter as a student come September.
Auerbach's handlers were already nervous; in Denver, Auerbach had been talking to some immigrants from Eastern Europe and had shown a liking for freedom. "I was 17, not wanting to be told who I could talk to," she recalled. "I said, 'This is America. You cannot tell me not to talk to people." In New York, she fully exercised her freedom: When no one was looking, she went to her hotel, took her things to Lehman's, and called her parents.
"I asked them, 'Do I return home to Russia or do I stay here?'" she said. "They said, This is a decision that will change your life - it must be your decision. They gave me their blessing, whatever I wanted to do."
Auerbach had much to weigh. If she returned to Russia, she didn't know if she would be permitted to leave again, ever. (The collapse of the Soviet Union was still six months away.) If she stayed, she had no idea how she would pay for school, how she would live on her own, whether her parents would suffer for her defection. Eventually she called the Soviet agents and told them she would not be joining them on the flight back to Russia.
"They said they would call all the KGB in New York, handcuff me and put me in prison in Russia," she said. The date of her scheduled return trip was the Fourth of July: "My personal independence day," said Auerbach, who performs a recital on Saturday at Harris Hall, with a program that includes her own 1999 piece, 24 Preludes, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.
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The maternal side of Auerbach's family are all musicians; her mother was the piano teacher at a local college. On her father's side, they were all writers; her father, though a professor of engineering, wrote poetry on the side. Auerbach learned to write words and music at the same time, and composed her first piece at the age of 4.
"It was a pretty similar experience to write a sentence or a musical sentence," she said. "I just felt it was the most natural thing to do. I thought everyone does it."
Stories and music were fully intertwined. When Auerbach went to the piano, what came out was a combination of sound and story. One of her early piano pieces was a translation of a poem her mother read to her, about a sailboat, the ocean and a terrible storm. Auerbach played arpeggios from one end of the keyboard to the other that represented the sea. "Whatever my parents read to me at night, I would improvise. It was a little bit like painting with music," she said.
Coming from Chelyabinsk, rather than a more cosmopolitan Russian city, Auerbach didn't dream much of places like New York. She arrived with an almost total innocence. "From Chelyabinsk to America - it was like coming to the moon," she said. Her only New York touchstone was Carnegie Hall, and she clearly didn't know much about how the venue operated: On her first day in New York, when Ilya Lehman asked her what she would like to do, she said she wanted to play at Carnegie Hall, explaining that she had a free evening.
Auerbach's creativity continued to flow in an almost child-like way, as she absorbed most every influence around her. "The main impulse was the sense of freedom that everyone talks about," Auerbach, who transferred to Juilliard, to study piano and composition, after a year at the Manhattan School of Music, said. "In Russia, it felt like a dead end. I felt I needed to be in a place like New York, where you get that global culture, musicians from all over the world, these different ingredients. You're free to explore what speaks to you. Listening to Indians playing these crazy instruments in the subway - that influences my sound world. Sometimes I don't know how to make these sounds I hear in my head and I remember these sounds I heard in the subway and think, 'Oh, maybe I can integrate this.' If you have something you know you want to say, New York is this wonderful resource."
Aspen has also figured in her development. She spent four summers here in the mid-'90s, and learned to drive on Independence Pass. 24 Preludes was commissioned by valley residents Tom and Vivian Waldeck (though it premiered at the Caramoor Music Festival, in New York State), and Saturday's performance is dedicated to the late Aspenite Saul Barnett, who had been a close friend of Auerbach's. The recital is her first performance here since her student years.
"This is my coming back. After all these years, I am very happy coming back," she said.
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Auerbach's output has been extraordinarily prolific and wide-ranging, even without considering the fact that she often appears as a soloist, typically performing programs that include her own work. (She also has time for poetry, and says that in Russia, she is better known as a poet than a musician.) Auerbach has written pieces for David FInckel and Wu Han, the Tokyo String Quartet, Hilary Hahn and Gidon Kremer's Kremerata Baltica. She has created operas and ballets; her opera "Gogol," based on her own original play, premiered in Vienna last November, and her ballet "The Little Mermaid" (which has little connection to the Disney version) has been performed more than 150 times since its 2005 debut in Copenhagen. In 2012 alone, there are premieres of ballets, orchestral pieces, chamber music and her Quartet No. 6; next year will have premieres of several ballets, two string quartets, orchestral and vocal music. Auerbach is currently the composer in residence with the Staatskapelle Dresden; from Aspen she heads to Vermont, for a residency at the Marlboro Music Festival.
Among her recent pieces is one written as part of her Dresden residency. The work began as a Requiem, but morphed into Ode to Peace, inspired by the destruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche - Church of Our Lady - in the final days of World War II, and its reconstruction, as a symbol of reconciliation. It is a piece that affirms Auerbach's belief that a concert can be a monumental experience: 90 minutes long, with a text that uses 40 languages, passages from the five major religions, and a prayer offered by a pastor after the 9/11 attacks.
"It addresses today - war and religious conflict," Auerbach, who is Jewish, said. "It was an enormous undertaking, to absorb all this darkness of war, the tragedy of the Dresden bombing, the Holocaust, and give it form that somehow gives a sense of hope, hope for hope, for peaceful coexistence of religions."
Auerbach has no doubt that leaving Russia was the right move. She expresses sadness that her parents, who now live in New York City, missed the early part of her career. "Looking back, I realize how many things could have gone wrong, how fortunate I've been to meet some wonderful colleagues," she said. "I think I had lucky stars; things have been very generous to me."
Auerbach doesn't miss Russia or Chelyabinsk. What she misses most is the language. "It's difficult to be separated from the language, from the reader," she said, in reference to her poetry.
"I think what one misses is one's childhood. Not the country itself. That's why we have memories, the gift of remembering."