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Local connection helps a renowned pianist find refuge from Russia-Ukraine war

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Mikhail Voskresensky is staunchly against the war that began when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.

The renowned 87-year-old piano player from Russia considers the violence a “real horror” and said there is no reason for the war that he considers a tragedy for all nations.

He also knows the risks of dissent in his home country, where Russian authorities have arrested thousands of anti-war protesters.

It is a very difficult decision to leave your native country, and when the war began, I, of course, tried to look (for) the possibilities, how to be against the war,” he said in a conversation over Zoom on Monday. “It is very difficult to be against in our country because when you announce your position, you may be taken into prison, etc. So, I understood that I must try to leave Russia.”

He started reaching out to people in the spring, seeking an opportunity to leave the country with his family.

Just one person offered a response that could help: Veda Kaplinsky, chair of the piano department at The Juilliard School.

She also teaches at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

There's nothing that we can do on a personal basis about this international conflict,” Kaplinsky said in a phone interview last week. “But when we can help somebody who was victimized by it, it gives you a sense of being useful in some way.”

She has known Voskresensky for about two decades.

She said she even tried to recruit him about 10 years ago for a one-year position at Julliard, but his other obligations precluded him from a yearlong commitment.

So, “that was that,” she said. “And then I got an email from him in the spring, telling me that he's writing out of desperation because he's suffocating in Moscow.”

The message was “heart-wrenching,” she said.

“I felt so, so sorry for somebody who had given his entire life to a country that he loved,” Kaplinsky added. “And to be betrayed by that country to the point where, at this age, he was willing to leave everything and forget everything that he had there, and come here with his young wife and child. … I told myself, ‘I’ve got to help him.’”

Kaplinsky reached out to Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, because she knew the organization could help with visas for international musicians.

Fletcher said helping Voskrensensky leave Russia felt more significant than some symbolic acts of resistance.

“If we had, for instance, decided not to perform any music by Russian composers, I don't see that people in the Kremlin would have been shaking,” he said. “But to have really one of the most important working musicians in Russia decide to leave, and to be able to play a part in that, has just really been a very moving experience.”

Voskresensky arrived in Aspen around the middle of the summer season, but his journey wasn’t exactly a direct flight.

First, his family had to get a U.S.-approved COVID-19 vaccine, since Russia’s “Sputnik V” version wouldn’t pass muster upon arrival in the states.

So, he took up an opportunity to perform and teach a master class in Ankara, Turkey, where he could get the Pfizer vaccine. His family made a quick visit to get the first dose in early June, then returned for their second doses — and some performance time for Voskresensky — a few weeks later.

Then, the family headed to Naples, Italy, where they lived for about a month while waiting for his O-1 visa, which is for “Individuals with Extraordinary Talent or Achievement.”

One of the Aspen Music Fest board members made a call to U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., to move things along, and the visa came through in mid-July.

When Voskresensky landed in Aspen shortly thereafter, Fletcher says he got a warm response from the festival community.

“He is just full of warmth, and love and love for music, and love for people, and so people responded immediately to that,” Fletcher said.

After summer in Aspen, Voskresensky and his family headed to New York City.

Fletcher said the musician just recently got a piano that fits inside the family’s apartment in the Bronx borough. That’s good news, because for Voskresensky, music has long been his mode of expression.

“I expressed through music, my feelings, my stressed situation, my feelings … of this situation and the war,” Voskresensky said. “Of course, it is not words, it is music. Music has its own language and this language penetrates to the souls of people and sometimes helps them.”

Voskresnesky’s last concert in Russia was May 20 at the Moscow Conservatory.

He wants to play public performances again, but as of Monday, he was still waiting to get his work-authorization papers in hand so he could start taking gigs.

He says he has had plenty of offers to teach and perform. But for now, he waits for paperwork and hopes everything falls into place soon.

“My idea, my love, my sense of my life is to play,” he said. “And I would be very happy if it would be some possibility to play in the United States, like a pianist, like men who can express their ideas, their thoughts, their feelings through classical music. This is my wish.”

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Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.