By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Acclaimed Russian-American violinist Yevgeny Kutik, who will perform at Ravinia Festival on Saturday, Sept. 7, was five-years-old when his family emigrated from the deteriorating Soviet Union to the United States. Kutik and his family had to leave most of their possessions behind. They emigrated with the help of the Jewish Federations of North America.
The family was allowed to leave only with two suitcases. Kutik’s mother, a violin teacher, filled one of the suitcases with sheet music from the family’s collection, believing that their music was a significant part of their family’s history.
Years later, Kutik began to explore the music from the suitcase and was enthralled with the pieces he discovered. He recorded a selection of this music on his 2014 album, “Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures (Marquis Classics),” which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Classical chart. The album garnered critical acclaim and was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in The New York Times.
As he continued to explore this music, he said, the pieces “began to organize themselves into a distinct array of moods and themes, suffused with the character of Russian folklore, fantasy and poetry. The pieces on this album carry with them a simplicity and directness, and with this immediacy, a striking beauty. It reminds me of what we went through and how far we’ve come.”
Passionate about his heritage and its influence on his artistry, Kutik, 34, continues a close association with the Jewish Federations of North America Speaker’s Bureau, annually performing throughout the United States to raise awareness and promote the assistance of refugees from around the world, a cause to which he is particularly dedicated.
He learned from his parents about the anti-Semitism that pervaded their lives in the former Soviet Union. “It was present in everyday life,” Kutik said. “My mom was fired from her job as a violin teacher because they had exceeded their ‘Jewish quota.’ I was made fun of going to preschool because I was Jewish.” Frequently, his parents would hear that they should leave Belarus as it was not their real home. “My family had to hide any semblance of Jewish tradition or observance behind the curtains.”
Kutik is grateful for the local resettlement assistance given by the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires. “The community ended up becoming an extension of my family providing the most basic things for us to restart our lives.”
Kutik was a featured performer at the 2012 March of the Living observances, where he played for audiences at the Krakow Opera House and for more than 10,000 people at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “To make music on the same soil that saw the suffering and horror of so many millions was profound and humbling. It was also inspiring, thanks to March of The Living, to see the vitality of 10,000 living souls, many of them Jewish youths, on this same hallowed ground. I saw that the future is in good hands and that the past will never be forgotten.”
As an extension of “Music from the Suitcase,” Kutik commissioned a diverse group of today’s leading composers for another album, “Meditations on Family.” “I wanted to continue this exploration of family, tradition and heritage using a wider array of music as my vehicle,” said Kutik, who will perform two works at Ravinia from that album. “ I have commissioned eight different voices in composition today to help build a living archive devoted to family. Each composer has translated an old family photograph of theirs into a short miniature for violin as part of this project.” The album was released on the Marquis label in March of this year.
The New York Times critiqued Kutik’s music as having a “dark-hued tone and razor-sharp technique.” Other write that Kutik has captivated audiences worldwide with an old-world sound that communicates a modern intellect. Praised for his technical precision and virtuosity, he is also lauded for his poetic and imaginative interpretations of standard works as well as rarely heard and newly composed repertoire.
Kutik began violin studies with his mother, Alla Zernitskaya, and went on to study with Zinaida Gilels, Shirley Givens, Roman Totenberg and Donald Weilerstein. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.
Kutik has performed with orchestras worldwide. He debuted at the Kennedy Center this past April. His 2012 album, “Sounds of Defiance,” also on the Marquis label, features the music of Achron, Pärt, Schnittke and Shostakovich. Funded in large part by a Kickstarter campaign, initiated by Kutik, the album focuses on music written during the darkest periods of the lives of these composers.
Kutik performs the music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Strauss and Mahler among other composers at the Ravinia’s BGH Classic Series at 6 p.m. Saturday Sept. 7 at Bennett Gordon Hall, 201 St. Johns Ave. Highland Park. Tickets are $12 and information is available at www.ravinia.org.