Russian Intelligence

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Alison Reese is editor of Harp Column. She is a freelance performer and teacher in West Michigan. Email her at areese@harpcolumn.com.

Learning about a tradition previously closed off enriches us all

As I sat in the audience listening to the final stage of the 2007 USA International Harp Competition in Bloomington, Indiana, I remember being so blown away by one of the performers that I quickly turned to her bio in the program to see who she was. Her name was Maria Krushevskaya. She was a young Russian harpist and a student of Milda Agazarian at the Gnessin Academy of Music in Moscow. Krushevskaya would go on to receive the gold medal in Bloomington that year, becoming the first Russian to win the competition. 

I had the opportunity to interview Krushevskaya the morning after the USA finals, and she spoke at length about her gratitude for her teacher. 

“Winning this competition is congratulations to her, not only to me,” Krushevskaya said in our interview for the September/October 2007 issue of Harp Column. Agazarian was Krushevskaya’s only harp teacher, guiding her from the time she was 6 or 7 years old, through all her schooling until her graduation from the Gnessin Academy. “I’m like her child,” Krushevskaya observed. “She is like a second mother to me. She worked very hard and spent four hours a day before the competition with me. We worked together…it was our victory. A victory for both of us…”

Krushevskaya also said how delighted she was to receive a new instrument as the grand prize for winning the competition. The gold Lyon & Healy Style 23 pedal harp was a godsend to Krushevskaya who only had an old Russian harp at home that was, in her words, “not good.” Her Soviet-era harp was certainly not an instrument befitting a concert harpist embarking on her career. The only way Krushevskaya could have replaced it with a new instrument was to win one. 

I was intrigued by Krushevskaya’s story and her thoughts on the Russian harp world. Though the Iron Curtain had fallen more than 15 years earlier, we in the U.S. still didn’t know much about the Russian harp community. In fact, today—nearly 15 years after that interview—Russia is still a largely unexplored corner of the harp world. Here in the U.S. we are well-versed in the harp schools and methods that developed in European countries. Many American harpists study with harpists at European conservatories as part of their musical education. But Russia? Nyet. 

I knew one harpist who had studied in Russia. Nicole Brady, a classmate at the University of Michigan, had gone to Moscow to study with Agazarian. This was in 1999, only eight years after the dissolution the Soviet Union and well before there was reliable internet in the U.S., let alone Russia. Despite the distance and the hardships, Brady had nothing but the highest praise for her time under Agazarian’s tutelage and the different musical approaches the Russian school offered.

We have wanted to interview Agazarian for quite some time, so when the opportunity presented itself this summer, we were thrilled to have Brady sit down with her former teacher to learn more about this legendary pedagogue and the Russian harp school. Owing to her HarpMasters summer academy started in 2005, guest faculty positions at schools in Europe, and jury appointments at international harp competitions, Agazarian’s teaching is much more accessible now than it was a generation ago. “The main thing to remember is that it is not the speed or complexity of the performed program that is most valued,” she advises the next generation of harpists, “but such simple qualities as individuality, culture of sound and phrasing, inner freedom, and understanding of style, artistry—in a word: music.” A rich Russian musical heritage and nearly six decades of teaching experience have given Agazarian remarkable insights to share with her fellow musicians. Enjoy the harp world from her vantage point. Our tour begins on page 26.

Alison Reese is editor of Harp Column. She is a freelance performer and teacher in West Michigan. You can email her at areese@harpcolumn.com.

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Editor of Harp Column, freelance harpist, private teacher, hot yoga lover, and grammar geek.

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