The classical touch
Russia's loss has been Canada's, and, now the Semiahmoo Peninsula's, gain.
Internationally-noted concert pianist and musical educator Eugene Skovorodnikov – who begins a new city-sponsored four-concert classical musical series at White Rock's First United Church next month – left his native land in 1990.
"I went to a music festival in Italy and just 'forgot' to go back," is the way he puts it.
"It was the period of the pre-Yeltsin disintegration of everything. We felt it, but we didn't how it would end up – or that it would end up the way it has. We felt the system just didn't work any more."
Skovorodnikov's distinguished career has since included performances at such famous venues as the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Hall (Russia), the Theatre Bibiena (Mantova, Italy), the Grand Theatre (Shenzhen, China), and the Xinghai Concert Hall (Guangzhou, China).
He also spent 20 years on the music faculty at UBC before deciding to devote his time to the Vancouver International School of Music, for which he's both principal and co-founder, and to pursue more opportunities in an already busy international touring schedule.
A Richmond resident for 10 years, he organized concert series for his Music Encore Society there before moving to the Semiahmoo Peninsula in 2011.
When he approached the City of White Rock about establishing a similar city-sponsored series here, he was referred to Leisure Services director Eric Stepura and Claire Halperin, the city's new manager of cultural development – both of whom were excited about the potential.
"On their advice, I got in touch with Wendy Bollard and Geoff Giffin of Peninsula Productions who are co-presenting the series.
"Eric, Claire, Wendy and Geoff have been great – it's a delight to be able to work with such capable people," he said, adding he hopes to be able to develop the series into a regular season that augments, rather than competes with, venerable White Rock Concerts' almost permanently sold-out subscription series .
For the current series at the church (15385 Semiahmoo Ave.), 3 p.m. on selected Sunday afternoons until May, he's assembled a line up of world-class musicians.
On Feb. 2 he'll be joined by Vancouver-based violinist Yuri Zaidenburg for an all Mozart and Beethoven concert, while on March 9, clarinetist Julian Milkis (who had the distinction of being Benny Goodman's only student) will join him for a "kaleidoscope" of short pieces encompassing "everything from Bach to Benny."
On April 6, Skovorodnikov will be highlighted as soloist in an all Schubert program ("he's one of my favourites – even in his compositions in major keys there's an underlying sadness," he said).
Rounding out the series will be a solo performance of Liszt and Robert Schumann pieces by Italian pianist Marco Tezza.
"He's a wonderful, very sensitive pianist, with an inventive and unusual approach," Skovorodnikov said.
"He's multi-talented – a pianist, but he graduated as a violinist. He looks into a composition not only as a pianist, but also as a conductor and a composer."
Before he left his homeland almost a quarter of a century ago, Skovorodnikov had risen to a position of prestige in the Russian cultural world.
The son of musicians, he was a prodigy who learned to play the piano almost by osmosis from hearing his mother teach while he was still in the crib ("it sounds cliche, but it's also the truth," he declared).
Beginning formal piano studies at five, the former Ukraine resident was himself teaching by the time he was 16 and teaching at college level when he was 23. A few years later he was invited to become the youngest faculty member of the famous and historic St. Petersburg Conservatory.
"I was happy to be invited to teach there after I completed post-graduate studies," he said.
Yet, at the same time he felt he was "suffocating" in the then Soviet Union – not the least because of the hardships of working three jobs to survive and provide for a family on the meager salary he was given.
Skovorodnikov recalls standing in queues for the chance to buy groceries – "and this is for essentials – I'm talking, literally, about bread," he added.
"I remember once I cancelled teaching a few classes so that I could stand in a lineup for an hour and a half at -28 F temperatures to buy a half a kilo of cheese."
"Later, when I'd tell people in Italy about this, they'd ask what kind of cheese. They couldn't comprehend it was just cheese, that's all. There was only one kind – that's all there was."
Skovorodnikov said he really had no plan, beyond leaving the Soviet Union. But after he found concert work in Italy, and was able to bring his then-wife and son to the country, he started looking for other opportunities.
On Jan. 18, 1991 – almost 23 years ago to the day, he landed in Vancouver.
"I'm thankful every day I made this choice – the best place in Canada, the best country in the world," he said.
And though he has made frequent returns to Russia as a performer since 2001 – it's been a point of pride to be there as a representative of Canada.
"I'm a Canadian, psychologically," he said. "Every time I leave (Russia) again I feel lucky and happy."
Tickets are $25 ($15 seniors and students) for each concert, or all four for $80 ($50 for seniors and students) are available at Kent Street Activity Centre, Centennial Arena, White Rock Community Centre and Surrey Arts Centre.
To book tickets, or for more information, call 604-541-2199 or visit www.peninsulaproductions.org