Treasure Hunting

Anya with tango dancer Zoya Altmark

Anya with tango dancer Zoya Altmark

A Third World country somewhere far away, tropics, hot and humid, beat-up old roads, intoxicating unfamiliar aroma of street food on every corner, a lot of weird people, dirty streets, everything screams DANGER! Yes, I am describing a very popular Discovery Channel TV show about hunting gemstones.  A couple of brave guys go, let’s say to Burma among other places, with the mission to find precious gems and sell them in the west for a hefty profit. I am in a similar business, but I hunt talent, not for profit but for pure love of world class art and this time my mission took me to New York (for the most parts fits the same description…) I was met at the airport by a very petite and charming tango dancer Zoya. She was recommended by my reputable sources as the best tango dancer in New York. I was very surprised to find out that she is Russian. She invited me to an Argentinean Tango theater in Soho so I could handpick the couples for the Music Without Borders International Music Festival in May 2015. We took the subway and talked on the way. It turned out she was a figure skater while living in Moscow, then immigrated with her parents to Israel. Many years later she danced in Italy and then New York. Why tango I asked?  “It was a love at the first sight,” said Zoya…and I did not feel like digging any deeper. Zoya and her dancing partners were my first significant find in New York, my gem number one!

New York has so much to offer on any given evening that every time I am there I feel like a kid in a candy store. We have been trying to build a relationship with Cuba (music relationship mind you) and have not been successful so far for various reasons that I choose not to disclose in this blog. One day during my stay in New York my Internet search announced that tonight, Melpaso Dance Company from Havana Cuba was to perform in the Joyce ballet theater, YES! I just had to go! Just a short taxi ride later and I was sitting in the last row that was rightfully deserved by the last-minute tickets buyers. With a little effort looking over my left shoulder I still could see a part of the stage and despite growing neck pain loved the performance; modern, fresh, young and VERY professional. The executive decision was made to meet the Artistic Director. I approached one of the musicians during the intermission, as I do feel most comfortable with the musicians because deep down I am still one… and honestly told him that I am an Artistic Director from San Antonio and would love to meet the Cuban Director. “San Antonio! I love your city!” “Sure, let’s go I will introduce you to him.”  I followed him backstage to find myself face-to-face with a very good-looking Artistic Director from Havana. He was very polite and expressed interest in working with us in the near future. Mission Accomplished! Another gem in my bucket!

During my battle with neck pain at the Cuban ballet I received a text from another lead for a bandoneon player. There is no way I would allow any dancer to perform for Musical Bridges with a recording. And let’s face it, it is not Argentinian Tango without the fabulous bandoneon to take the lead. The text said, “Anya, you need to go to the corner of Broadway and 52nd street, building number 354, ring the bell and go to the 5th floor.” I felt the rush of the chase of a hunter on a trail of the sweet smell of prey. “They will play from 10-12 tonight, they are expecting you.” I take my leads seriously and headed that direction, on my own, at night … in New York armed with my passion to find that diamond in the rough. I rang the bell, took the elevator to the 5th floor and unexpectedly found myself in an elegant Tango nightclub surrounded by well-dressed people of all ages. To give you a better picture about my appearance…I was dressed in my hiking big city-safari outfit that can take any distance and any weather; needless to say I was not invited to dance. My vibe was one of rather…stay away…I am working here. I found no gems on the 5th floor of N 354 but had a lot of fun. My search continues.

Off to a new adventure! The Silk Road Project Education Program is my next stop. Queens, here I come!  And that was spectacular, eye opening and educational for me and is a subject of another blog or rather, a dissertation…

Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Project performers

Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project performers

As you have already figured out, just like in the treasure hunting TV show I have my own lead people. Among them is THE ONE AND ONLY FANTASTIC Cristina Pato. I met Cristina three years ago in San Antonio when she performed with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project for Arts San Antonio. I just boldly approached her, “Do you play without Yo-Yo Ma?” “Sure!” she said.  And that conversation changed Musical Bridges life once-and-for-all!  Since then she has performed for us many times and feels that coming back to play for Musical Bridges is just like coming back to see her family. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Cristina. On stage she is a wild force of nature with green hair and a sexy vibe. In real life she is smart, practical and genuine. Cristina is a generous person, and this is the most important quality that I respect in people.  She just performed for First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House, but it did not go to her head and she is still humble and a very personable human being–a joy to be around. Cristina gave me a few new fantastic leads for future artists. I trust her impeccable taste and am extremely excited to bring a bucket full of new precious gems to our future programing. During our creative breakfast in the West Village we have solved many of the World’s problems but most importantly we came up with the piece de resistance for Festival Grand opening night.

Shane Shanahan, Anya, Sandeep Das, Cristina Pato

Shane Shanahan, Anya, Sandeep Das, Cristina Pato.

The real gems hunters from the show hunt rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. I hunt unique one-of-a-kind talent that shines on its own like a diamond in the rough. I am looking for world-class musicians with western education but at the same time connected to their ethnic background by an umbilical cord. I have a nose for talent and can smell it from far away. Needless to say, it is a very difficult task to find these people because they are truly one-of-a-kind. I believe that by introducing different cultures through music and dance to each other and the rest of the world is a great humanitarian mission and I am very proud to be one of a few in the world in this field of work. I am determined to find the best musicians for our mission and I spare no effort to do so. I am happy to report that my adventure in the jungle of dangerous New York City was extremely productive. I found a basket full of SPECTACULAR MUSICAL GEMS to bring to our Festival. Among others: World Class (FINALLY) Bandoneonist, Tango Dancers and Columbian Harpist–TOP NOTCH! A Cuban Ballet company and most of all Silk Road and San Antonio Favorites Cristina Pato, Kinan Azmeh, Sandeep Das and Shane Shanahan. Now it is my job to arrange these gems on the thread of the festival in the most spectacular one-of-a-kind pairings so these precious gems will brightly shine in the golden setting of the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

This time I nibbled on the Big Apple’s cultural scene and hardly made a dent. Will be back soon for more…

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Passenger

Every time I go to a very familiar tragic opera, I still hope the ending will somehow miraculously change and everyone will live happily ever. Unfortunately, despite my prayers, Tosca every time jumps from the bridge, Cavaradossi gets shot, Gilda and Carmen stabbed, and Aida and Radames buried alive.  Welcome to the fun world of the opera!

Rigoletto Rayan McKinny and his dead daughter Gilda Uliana Alexyuk

Rigoletto Rayan McKinny and his dead daughter Gilda Uliana Alexyuk

Knowing that I am doing everything possible to shield myself from negative emotions, Rob proclaimed after looking at the HGO upcoming performances: “Anya, you do not want to see this opera for sure”. He was talking about “Passenger” by Weinberg, premiered at the HGO as a part of this season. We hold season subscription and drive to Houston three times a year for a two operas weekend. I was so busy this year that I totally forgot to reserve tickets for this set of operas. He was on call and couldn’t go, so it was decided I will go with my mom for Rigoletto and will skip “Passenger”. I did not really check why he thought that I should not see it; I trust he knows me by now as we will have been married seven years this February.

My father reads the Russian newspaper Our Texas published in Houston and distributed throughout the Russian speaking population in Texas. “Do you know that there is a Weinberg festival going on in Houston this month?” said my dad and he sounded extremely excited. To be honest with you, it took me a while to remember who Weinberg was. “He is a fantastic composer” he said. “I played most of his symphonies and Shostakovich loved this guy as well, I want to see his opera.” It does not happen too often that my father wants to see an opera so I took his wish seriously. Since I had tickets to this opera anyway, it was decided all three of us would drive to Houston for an opera weekend. I called the theater and purchased the third ticket for my father.

opera_women_prison-350Passenger was shocking. How do you write an opera about concentration camps? What do you use as a musical language? Pretty themes would be totally out of place. The colors were muted, the musical language sharp and descriptive in some places with occasional gunshots and a crying violin in the background. This was such despicable recent history; the Holocaust, which took the lives of some 6 million Jews and millions of others. It is incomprehensible and inhuman and no matter how you describe it there is no way to connect to it. My family lost relatives in the Holocaust, in Babi Yar in Kiev and probably in some other places. Many were fighting in the war and never came back and I still cannot connect to it. I do not understand why anyone would do something like this.

When I was a little girl, just like every other little girl, I wanted to become an actress… the star of course as you can imagine. After many hours of convincing my parents to add a small acting club to my music routine I was taken to a theater group for children. My dream was to play Madam Bovary or some other well-dressed respectable French lady. The role I was offered was the one of Zoika Kosmodemyanskaya, a partisan heroine of the Second World War. I did not take the role and dropped that class and for some reason attending this opera reminded me about that incident. I guess because this is too close to home. My mother, a little girl at a time with her family was walking on foot through the Ukraine and Russia away from the Nazis, seeing a lot of death hunger and destruction on the way. She easily could be one of those women in this story. What a terrifying thought!

Back stage picture of two prisoners Uliana Alexyuk soprano and Carolyn Spraule mezzo soprano

Back stage picture of two prisoners Uliana Alexyuk soprano and Carolyn Spraule mezzo soprano

I know many of the HGO singers who took part in this opera in a woman’s department of Auschwitz. All of them are young, beautiful, and very talented ladies. The staging director did a great job in erasing their personalities and muting their look to the point that if I had not read their names in the program I would have no idea who they were. Wasn’t this the point of the concentration camp, to turn individuals into numbers on their forearms? I could be one of them. How would I behave? Would Nazi break me and make me week scared and depressed? Would I be able to keep human dignity or I would I get sick from cold and hunger and hopelessness and be killed in a gas chamber with millions of others?

This is dark side that I was trying to avoid from early childhood. It was very difficult because the Soviet teaching curriculum was very heavy on the Second World War for obvious reasons; Russia lost the most of the people in this War. And here I was, facing my fears, brought to life by the Jewish composer Weinberg, who walked from Poland on foot to Russia to avoid being captured by Nazis and put into one of these “charming” places like Auschwitz with only one way in and no way out. We do remember. We remember even if it happened not to us, but to millions like us. We are disgusted that humanity is capable of things like this and this opera did a great job of reminding us about it. MAY IT NEVER EVER HAPPNED TO ANYONE! AMEN!

All of us are passengers of life in a matter of speaking. May our ride be fun, creative, productive and dignified! On a brighter side, after  “Passenger” Rigoletto felt like a comedy…and I am trying to bring Gilda, sung by a fantastic Russian soprano, Ulyana Alexchuck for the final concert of Musica Without Borders festival.

New York! New York!

anya-artAs soon as we arrived to New York we got screwed. A great looking and know-it-all guy offered his limousine so elegantly and quickly that I did not get a chance to think. During the short and pleasant drive filled with conversation about his family in Egypt my feeling of being screwed grew by the minute. He dropped us off at the back door of our hotel, knocking down all signs warning against it on the way, then told me “$85 dollars, how much do you want back? “Living in Texas and dealing with nice people for the last 24 years have dulled my sense of survival which I grew up with in Moscow and I gave him a generous tip. During the first couple of hours in New York I did not meet any native English speakers, but just about everybody else. Distances were long, traffic was terrible, streets were decorated with huge garbage cans and people were in a hurry. Welcome to New York!

I attended the Chamber Music America Conference held every January to find new talent for Musical Bridges and be made aware of what is going on in the industry. The conference is, of course, my first priority while in New York, but I also try to squeeze in as much cultural activities as possible.  Museums in the morning, conference artists showcase in the afternoon and Broadway shows in the evening. On the way to Metropolitan Museum of Art, I spotted a long line in front of an old building. It was cold, windy with occasional light rain and despite that, people we firmly holding their spots in the long line. Coming from the Soviet Union I was used to lines. But this line was not for groceries, nor to buy boots or football tickets, but this was a line for an art exhibit from the Netherlands. I loved it! It is good to know that there are still people in the world willing to spend hours in line to see great art. Maybe there is a hope for humanity after all.

times_squareAnother impressive sized line is always located in Time Square on the corner of Broadway and 47th street and it is for discounted tickets for Broadway shows. Yes, I was in that line twice and I am proud of it! Got to see two fantastic shows; Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and Avenue Q. Both smart and dark musical comedies, just the way I like it. I remember seeing my first Broadway show in ‘89, the year of my arrival to US. It was RENT, the hottest show on Broadway at the time. That was love at a first sight. Growing up on serious arts, I always looked down on any sort of “pop” endeavors. Broadway has converted me into a Broadway groupie. The two shows I got to see this time just confirmed my admiration and pure love of Broadway and made me want more. Maybe I should come to New York more often after all?

As we all know one never forgets how to ride a bicycle, have sex, or drive a car. I can add to this triptych of universal knowledge; one never forgets how to navigate in a big city. Get a little rusty maybe, but never forget. In a few hours I started to genuinely believe red lights were just a suggestion and I joined the never ending parade of New York’s international visitors. I am happy to report that the food was good at every occasion at every restaurant in Manhattan and the pastries can proudly stand up in the same row with famous French petit fours. I love the hustle and bustle of New York! It seems to be extremely accepting of everyone regardless how weird they are. It is easy to blend in, nobody is judging or as much as paying any attention to anybody else and it is liberating in a way.

anya-conferenceThe Chamber Music Conference as always was informative and inspirational. Workshops and artists showcases presented an impressive group of young and seasoned musicians with very diverse programing. Many musical offerings included unexpected instrumentations and were truly high-end classical ensembles. I am looking for Musical Bridges future programing and spotted some fabulous prospects for next season. I was charmed by a young cello and piano duo, passionate, smart with their own comedy show on YouTube. I also liked an all-women Klezmer ensemble lead by a tall and charismatic clarinet player and short cute blond on double bass. The grand finale was presented by a Russian piano duo. What a Surprise!!! Young, beautiful, dressed in Gothic / Romantic white outfits. They looked like gods and played like ones as well. Liszt Concertino for two pianos by memory! Bravo!

The Metropolitan Opera surprised me as well. L’elisir D’amore by Donizetti is a very light and virtuosic opera and it was a pure pleasure to watch it there, the mega of the world opera. Especially with Anna Netrebko as Adina and Ramón Vargas as Nemorino. The quality was outstanding just as expected, but I was very surprised that the majority of audience was Russian. I guess people who grew up next to the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow do get addicted to a great opera. The next surprise awaited me in the Guggenheim, where one of the guides offered her services in Russian. She immigrated to the US from St Petersburg, the City-Museum Under the Skies and found her new love here at the Guggenheim. She very much enjoyed enlightening me in the matters of the Guggenheim family history and was genuinely proud of what they have done for American and International art in general.

Everyone finds what is dear to his or her heart in New York. During this visit I saw one opera, two Broadway shows and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art. For some people New York is not America. To me it is Quintessential America; it is a small version of the world in its idealistic future. Yes, it is messy and it is uneven and it has a lot of problems but it is probably the only place in the world where everyone coexists together without sacrificing personal identity. Everyone finds their own New York and it belongs to them. This blog started as a traveling story to a busy city with dirty streets and a lot of traffic and some how ended up as another homage to the arts, perhaps just with a hint of Russian flavor…This is New York I love, the rest does not matter to me, this is what I am going to miss and try to come back to. During this trip I found MY New York.

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“Tis the season to be jolly!”

Traffic! Lots of people everywhere! Crying children! No, this is not a war I am describing, this is Christmas shopping! Yesterday I spent 45 min in the car between IH10 and the La Canterra shopping mall on a trip that normally takes me 5 min.  I’m wondering how can it be? Why? What comes over Christians and non-Christians that inspires us for heroic acts during this hectic time and even makes us enjoy it? I saw a Muslim woman praying at 4 pm in the middle of the mall parking lot on a small rug that her granddaughter placed before her. She was bowing in the middle of terrible parking situation surrounded by cars and angry drivers hopelessly driving around in hopes of finding an empty spot. I loved it! Christmas in America!

Do we like to buy? Do we need more stuff? May be just a little bit of that, but I think the answer is WE LOVE TO GIVE. It is the bug of giving that makes us go through inhuman traffic, yards of wrapping paper and ribbons, boxes and boxes and more boxes and finally long lines at the post office. Yes, and I am no different. Although my religious believes could be summarized in JewBuU translated as Jewish Buddhist Universalist, I love Christmas! I love shopping; I love a lot of people, beautiful decorations, jingle bells everywhere and the general atmosphere of excitement. I also love to give and I get genuinely offended at a “no gifts” policy often imposed on me by friends and family. With all due respect, Christmas is the time for presents!

As the director of Musical Bridges, a non-profit organization, I see the seeds of giving grow every year. Our Board of Director, staff and volunteers give money, their valuable time, and their talent regardless of Christmas or any other incentive. The Giving Bug is very powerful and will change the world, eventually, I hope. When a highly educated Webmaster takes time to open the doors at the concerts or a brilliant graphic designer runs after tourists with free concert flyers in her hands, it is fascinating! Everyone gives in his or her own way; this bug contaminates us all and to a great extent is responsible for the quality of our lives.  And in return we give the gift of music, the gift of beauty and education to our local community.

Dec2013_Girls_400I normally make my list a month in advance and try not to forget anyone including the “no gift policy people.” Of course, the most fun is shopping for my two little nieces who live in another country at the moment. During Christmas time I like to send flowers to people from my past that helped make me who I am now, my teachers and my mentors. I thank people who greatly affect my quality of life by their dedicated work, like my housekeeper, laundry driver, my hairdresser, my fabulous seamstress and Zumba teacher. My life is full and busy and I actually take time to remember and give thanks to these special people during Christmas. Despite a hectic time I actually slow down for that.

Among the “no gift policy people” are my parents. Not only they do not like presents, they are genuinely against me spending any money and especially on them. They are very vocal about it… just in case I forget… you know what I mean… But it is priceless for me to see their faces light up like a little child’s when they unwrap the boxes and carefully take out the presents. I try to remember to have change with me during this time of the year to give to people on the street corners. I am not a God to judge them, all I can do is to give a little something enough just for one meal. I like to receive presents as well but on the scale 1-10, giving goes off the charts. I feel very fortunate, the universe is good to me and I want to give back. Giving is the privilege that fills my heart with love and brings “Tis the season to be jolly!” to life

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Bon Appetit!

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My new kitchen took the best of me. During the renovation process I started 10 new blogs but my heart and creativity went into the kitchen sink-16GA, 10 inches deep. The decision making process was painful and invigorating at the same time. Deep in my heart I always dreamed of becoming an interior designer and this was my ultimate test.

It all started with our 50-year-old kitchen sink threatening to fall on the floor and take a wall along with it. “ Let’s buy a new sink” sad Robert innocently believing that this will be it… “Hmm, If we are going to create a mess why not to get rid of a couple of walls”… thought I in return. Two months and many thousand of dollars later, we are missing two walls and have a brand new slick stainless steel kitchen with new granite countertops, new appliances and a new window, framing our picturesque view of Texas hill country and Yes, I forgot to mention a NEW KITCHEN SINK!

During this process I learned a lot about the construction process, kitchen appliances, cabinets, the layout, granite and tile. But most of all I learned a lot about me. To my dismay I found that I do not deal well with change and suffer from severe fear of commitment. Who would think? I always thought I was creative, flexible, spontaneous and brave. No Way! Every time we would make a drastic change like taking down a wall or opening a new window, I had symptoms similar to a mild heart attack.

Our very dear Russian crew often found me in the morning, in my pajamas, moving cabinets from one side to another. The agony of making the FINAL decision! After an enormous effort to choose the backsplash for the kitchen I wasn’t to commit to stonewall and left it bare. The magnitude of this decision for me could only be compared to premarital jitters… Commitment for life! After this renovation I developed all new respect for Robert. How did he talk me into a second marriage!

How do you bring the space to life? One thing is for everything to function properly but how do you make it cozy and welcoming, simple and sophisticated? In other words, how do you phrase it?  When we started to see the light at the end of the construction tunnel and kitchen took its final shape I felt that something was missing. I exhausted my arsenal of designer knowledge by balancing warm and cold elements but my new kitchen looked at me with the cold intimidating glare of a professional restaurant prep area.

And I found the answer! Mademoiselle Chandelier! I found her at an auction. She was from an old estate in France and I proudly brought her home to my very resilient Russian friends and construction team, who became my personal shrinks during this stressful two months that changed us all forever. “Anya, it needs to be rewired” was the verdict. And they did so, and SHE brought that final touch of class, glamour and sophistication that I was longing for. Now my kitchen, eclectic and beautiful, resembles a modern Parisian apartment and I love it!

My long distance degree in Interior Decorating along with countless hours with the famous designers of the HGTV home improvement channel finally paid off and I came out of the closet as an Interior Designer. Now I am full of plans for future renovations and new creative endeavors. One of which is a new Musical Bridges International cooking video show. Just like on a big stage, my guests will come from all over the world to share their cultural roots through their culinary creations. This time the center stage will be my new kitchen and the artistic medium – food. Bon Appetit!

Kentucky Fried Cuy

Anya_cuyvOur guide in Peru had a fabulous sense of humor. “Angel! What are we heaving for lunch today?” “Kentucky Fried Cuy,” was the answer that sent a wave of terror throughout our bus filled with mostly American and Australian tourists. “No! No! No! Anything, but cuy!” in deep disgust cried the bus. Cuy is guinea pig for those of you who did not figure that out already, and it is considered a delicacy in Peru. So our Peruvian guide Angel played the role of the devil once in a while and messed with our bus, just for the heck of it. I got to taste the controversial cuy and I liked it. But this blog is not about cute little rodents that live under the beds of people’s homes enjoying their short lives in-between major holidays before they become a gourmet centerpiece on a festive table.  Believe it or not, this blog is about another subject that cuy symbolizes for me – Fusion of the Arts! Surprised? Come on! Have faith in me!

I was very fortunate to visit Spain, India, and Peru this year. Each country is fascinating in it’s own way and I am overwhelmed with their unparalleled beauty. Although located on opposite sides of the world, to my dismay I found some similarities in all of them, which could be summarized as Mergers and Acquisitions! One of the common trends was to build new structures on top of the previous ones regardless to the fact that the land next door to them was still on the market. The intent was to build bigger temples for bigger gods, obviously, because every new god was superior to his predecessor. New humongous temples had to be constructed on top of the previous temples, maybe because people there were forward thinkers and this was an early version of recycling. Or maybe they just wanted to make sure that the previous god would stay put under the foot of the new, superior one.  I guess it was a matter of making a statement: “My temple is bigger, richer and more powerful than yours!” Size matters after all!

The more I learn about the history of human civilization, the more disillusioned I become with the human race. It seems we can justify just about anything if it happened for a greater good, which of course is extremely subjective.  I am very tempted to write about Spanish Conquistadors in Peru destroying everything within their reach, including the very records of the entire great civilization of the Incas. Do not get me wrong, Incas were no saints themselves and by the time the Spanish arrived, the Incas had conquered most of the other Indian tribes in the region. I’m tempted to write about first the Moguls and later British Conquistadors in India. The Spanish Inquisition is one of the many other charming topics I am tempted to write about, especially after my trip to Spain last summer that reminded me once again about what it did to MY people. Then, I feel that I would do great unjustness to the rest of our world! How about all the other wars that constantly reshaped our civilization in the past and are still making daily headlines in the press today?

BUT I WILL NOT GO DOWN THIS ROUTE! I am not a historian or anthropologist and cannot look at all of it objectively! I refuse to turn to the dark side and entirely lose my faith in humanity! I choose to put on my cheerleading face and write about what I love – THE ARTS!  And I will call it Fusion of the Arts or Kentucky Fried Cuy! Sounds a lot more cheerful, doesn’t it?

Artists of all times represent the enlightened side of humanity. Their job is to make sense of, and reconcile all that mess that was done by the dark side for one reason or another. Artists effortlessly marry different cultures with all their subjective views into one without any bloodshed in a process. Artists built real temples throughout history literally and figuratively speaking. Because of them we know that those civilizations even existed. So now in Peru through historical “Mergers and Acquisitions,” the Catholic Cathedral of Cusco became a cultural melting pot of the symbolism of the Incas, European Baroque and Moorish elements coexisting a lot more peacefully than their original creators; and us American Tourists, the main source of income for Cusco region. The grand apotheosis of this ginormous historic merger and acquisition is a very special painting taking a modest place in a in Cusco Cathedral by an unknown local artist, a student of a Spanish master, Last Supper Peruvian style with the Kentucky Fried Cuy as a the centerpiece that seals the deal!

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What Do Opera and Fitness Have in Common?

On the morning of our travel to Santa Fe, I woke up with an uneasy feeling that we had missed our flight.  “Our flight is delayed for an hour and half,” said Robert, who was awakened 3 times during the night by American Airlines customer service flight status updates. He continued, “Maybe we shouldn’t go? It’s raining in San Antonio and it’s going to rain in New Mexico the entire time we’ll be there.  We have opera tickets in Santa Fe for tonight and if we don’t make our connecting flight in Dallas, we’ll miss the opera and an entire day out of our already very short vacation…  We can just hide here in the house for a week and nobody will know we’re here.”  However, I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time and with a little persuasion, we decided to take the risk and go anyway.

I love that moment when the plane takes off and pushes upward into the heavens.  I love the feeling of a free bird observing the world under the wing with light curiosity.  I love to fly because it gives me an opportunity to look at my life from far away atop the clouds.  I always think about all these people going about their business while we pass them by above.  We made the connection and both flights from San Antonio to Dallas, and Dallas to Albuquerque were quite pleasant. We arrived in New Mexico mid-afternoon, rented a car and embarked on the drive to our final destination – Santa Fe!  Every turn in the road opened new breathtaking vistas, as far as we could see in every direction.  New Mexico truly is the land of enchantment!

La Donna De LagoThe trip took its toll on us and after checking in to our hotel we decided to take it easy.  The time to go to the opera was inevitably approaching and both of us had some serious doubts as to whether we should go.  On one hand, we spent over $300 on opera tickets and the cast was supposed to be incredible, with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and coloratura tenor Lawrence Brownlee leading the production.  But on the other hand, we were tired and the opera, although by Rossini, was promising to be the full-length production… which in opera time, means at least 3 and a half hours.  We were convincing ourselves by saying, “Yes, we made it on time so we should go, the theatre is beautiful, the cast is fantastic and the closest world-class opera theatre to San Antonio is Houston, 4 hours away mind you, and we still drive there because we are serious opera buffs, at least most of the time.  And here… we’re already here!”

We made a tremendous effort, got dressed and drove to the opera.  I forgot to mention that the hotel we normally stay in is only 4 miles away from the Santa Fe Opera… we sort of leave out all possible excuses for us not to go!  We made it to the theatre without any trouble and took our seats.  The opera La Donna del Lago is one of the lesser-known operas by Rossini and is rarely staged.  And here we were, listening to the greatest singers of our time in Santa Fe, one of the most scenic places on the face of a planet.  When the tenor and soprano embarked on a spectacular duet in the second act, the music took on a life of its own, penetrated my soul, and suddenly I felt a spring of joy flooding my entire being and I felt absolutely and totally happy.  At that very moment our overall effort to just get there reminded me of the same dilemma I have before I go to the fitness club.  I really do not want to go, but after the exercise is over, I feel so great!

la-fitness-group-classAnd although sitting through the opera I don’t lose weight and hopefully don’t sweat to death, for the sake of my peers in the audience, I enter a different realm of existence where everything coexists in perfect harmony.  It makes me feel totally at peace with myself and the universe around me and this feeling is addictive!  I come back for more, and join the army of endorphin seekers!  Well, guess what?  It turns out that during a great opera performance or a great exercise session, our brains produce the same chemicals that are responsible for feeling happy – those magical chemicals called endorphins.  YES!  Opera and fitness do have a lot in common, they both make us feel happy and alive.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if all heavy drug users and endorphin seekers became opera addicts instead?  Our world would become too good of a place to live and the opera houses would be too crowded!  I wish for all the drug addicts and the majority of endorphin-seekers to choose fitness, and leave this lovely opera-high to me.

Eulogy for a White Panama Hat

My husband Rob took me on our first trip to Santa Fe when we were still dating and since then, New Mexico holds a special place in our hearts. It has become a tradition in our family to visit Santa Fe on a regular basis. We love New Mexico with its mind-boggling combination of culture and beautiful scenery, and we plan plenty of activities every time we go, opera, chamber music festival, art galleries, dining, and of course, hiking. Rob takes our trips very seriously and prepares ahead of time. He takes care of the important things like airfare, rental car, hotel reservations and opera tickets. This time he also bought us little smart backpacks that carry a gallon of water and can be used anytime hands free. The extent of my preparation for the trip sums up to: walking shoes, sun block and my well-traveled and very cultured white panama hat, which visited Alhambra among other wonders of the world last summer.

Hiking can be fun and invigorating, it also can be scary and dangerous. On our last trip to Santa Fe we experienced both. But, the one that stuck in my mind is not the fun one… We decided to visit Tsankawi, a section of the Bandelier National Monument once home to the Ancestral Tewa Pueblo people, on the way to Los Alamos and lost track of time. By the time we got to the park it was midday – hot and sunny. The trail that was supposed to be one mile long turned out to be three miles with steep climbs and descents. There were no bars on our cell phones that could offer any comfort. We were alone in a universe of rough rock and narrow walkways from centuries ago. On our way down, a ladder made out of branches was suspiciously loosely attached to the cliff, in 100-degree heat, with nobody around for as far as the eyes could see.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation that made you think, “THIS COULD BE IT?” Rob went down the ladder first and was waiting for me to descend. He was worried, I could feel it… and I joked that if he would take my picture at this moment (from the bottom up) he could blackmail me with it for the rest of my life… but in my head I was writing a eulogy for me and my white panama hat. I always thought that at a moment like that I would want to summarize my life: Did I accomplish everything I was supposed to? Did I raise a son, plant a tree, was I as nice as possible to both relatives and strangers? Did I build a legacy of any sort? Did I make a difference? Despite what you might think, none of these life-summarizing questions popped in my head. I just thought, “Come on Anya…keep your cool and just keep trying!”

My husband is the best company possible for this kind of adventure. Rob is a Retired Colonel of the US Air Force who went through survival skills training more then once, so hiking did not present a big danger to him. But he had his precious cargo with him. Me – the white panama wearing European chick with a great sense of humor and equally great lack of physical fitness, with very different survival skills experience! Anyway, my company was way better than his… At first, he was cheering me up while I was settling my bargain with the universe and contemplating my eulogy. By the time I got down this ladder and we took this picture, life came back to normal. The picture of course was taken for Facebook, because as we all know, if it isn’t on Facebook it didn’t happen.

As I am still alive, I decided not to give up my everlasting and very difficult dreams. After all, KEEP TRYING and DO NOT GIVE UP is what came to my mind on that cliff when I was writing my eulogy! Now I am religiously going to Zumba three times a week because I keep trying to look young and learn dancing; I started practicing my old favorite Beethoven and just surprised myself by impulsively ordering another “best in the world” Spanish audio course. So far I am talking to myself while driving, but I hope one day to get enough courage to strike up a conversation with my native Spanish-speaking friends. And when things get rough I remember my eulogy for the white panama hat and that voice that saved me comes back, “Anya, while you are alive, all you can do is just keep trying!”

panama

Musical Moment

Last year I sold myself at the auction. Not just any auction, the MBAW auction and I sold my solo piano recital and was extremely excited about it. The upcoming performance got my creative juices going and gave me an opportunity to get back to the piano. I started with selecting a beautiful program consisting of contrasting romantic miniatures by my all times favorites: Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. It included many beautiful Musical Moments both literally and figuratively speaking. It was great to get back to an everyday practice routine that truly is a part of my biological being; it is healthy for the mind and the soul to spend many hours at the piano communicating with great creators, geniuses of the human race through their music. Things were looking up and I was putting some good 4 hours a day of practicing piano in anticipation of this project.

Every morning I started with the newest pieces in my repertory while my brain was still fresh and uncorrupted by a gazillion things to do. Musical Moment in E-minor by Rachmaninoff is a part of my morning routine, sort of my morning fitness workout for my fingers and brain. “Six Musical Moments” Op.16, is a set of solo piano pieces composed by Rachmaninoff in 1896. The individual pieces have been described as “true concert works, being best served on a stage and with a concert grand. “Although composed as part of a set, each piece stands on its own as a concert solo with individual themes and moods. In an interview in 1941, Rachmaninoff said, “What I try to do, is to make my music say that which is in my heart when I am composing”. And it was storming in Rachmaninoff’s heart when he wrote Musical Moment No.4 in E-minor… take my word for it!

Rachmaninoff  was a fantastic pianist himself and he did not hold back when he wrote for other pianists; the texture of his piano pieces in general, and musical moments in particular, is incredibly complex and virtuosic which gives an equal challenge to the mind as well as to all 10 fingers. Sometimes it feels that he himself had a few more fingers than the average person … at least 7 on each hand. The piece begins with a fortissimo (very loud) introduction with a thick texture in the left hand consisting of chromatic swirls of storming wind. All this “joy” is happening in the left hand that is performing a sequence of acrobatically challenging passages on the joyful journey of seven pages. This was sort of his homage to the Revolutionary Etude by Chopin and just as challenging, if not more.

duke-1Rachmaninoff’s post-romantic musical language gets more complex. As you might have guessed, the most technically challenging part of this piece is the left hand throughout the entire piece. In order to maximize the effectiveness of my morning musical exercise I drill on the most difficult parts. So, one particular sunny morning I decided to waste no time and really thoroughly work on my left hand. My husband and our then new puppy Duke were minding their business politely coexisting with me in the living room for some time. And suddenly… Our three-month-old golden retriever mix puppy Duke, who never showed any musical inclination snatched his squawking toy skunk and took off running around the living room creating a lot of squeaking sounds.

It took me a while to figure out that he was filling the gap created by the absence of my right hand by giving his interpretation of the melody; a squeaking melody is better than none! It is so tempting to put your own spin on the loud fiery passages in the left hand that resembles the roaring thunder of a waterfall. It makes one’s blood boil and wakes up the artist in anyone! Duke felt the pressure to create!  After all, it is too much to bear for any self-respected puppy to listen to the Rachmaninoff’s Musical Moment in E-minor without the melody and he did what he could to fill the void. In six musical moments, Rachmaninoff illustrates, “that which is in my heart.” Well… Duke did his best to do the same… This was his MUSICAL MOMENT; everyone deserves to have one once in a while.

VIVA LA ZUMBA!

skater_cartoon

I have had a controversial relationship with physical activities from early childhood.

My mom took me to gymnastics when I turned 3, then to figure skating at 4 and finally piano at 5. For the piano bench my bottom turned out to be a perfect fit but in figure skating my bottom was frustratingly non-cooperative when it came to creating figures… I fell on it every time I tried to sit on one leg and extend another one forward. If I remember correctly, it is called the PISTOL-figure. Some of my mom’s friends still call me PISTOL-girl, bringing those unforgettable and somewhat fun memories of my early childhood…

Then came my public school PE classes with its terrifying rope climbing, horse jumping, and high standards of Russian gymnastics. Our PE teacher did not suffer from a tremendous amount of sophistication or as a matter of fact, any kind of human compassion in general and “lovingly” assigned me a nickname-The Bag of Fertilizer.  This was the beginning of my journey in the field of physical education. Despite these troublesome childhood experiences, I was not scarred for life and turned out just fine, except that I really do not like working out and have to make a special effort to get some exercise into my routine.

Most of my friends do yoga, hot and cold, or spend a tremendous amount of time dressed in sexy leotards navigating between slick torture devices called muscle building equipment in the fitness club. I even know and genuinely admire one Elliptical Queen! I am proud to declare that I tried all of it during my 23 years in the US and still am bored to death with all kinds of sweat-producing repetitive motions. Looking at the mirror without regular exercise has become equally painful and I knew SOMETHING NEEDED TO BE DONE! So I started looking for ballroom dancing, ideally within walking distance of my house, and I found ZUMBA!

Unobtainable Dream-THE PISTOL

Unobtainable Dream-THE PISTOL

Cuban Salsa, Puerto Rican Merengue, Greek Syrtaki, Russian Kalinka, Arabic Belly Dancing, Jewish 7/40, to name the few.  This is sort of a Musical Bridges Around the World in it’s own way. The idea of Zumba fitness is actually quite international. It merges elements of different cultures through the rhythms, harmonies, and dancing steps of folk and traditional music and then… it gets kicked up a notch by infusing some beloved exercises for a desirable outcome… I could go on and on how all these cultures work well together and how much fun it is to dance all of them within a one-hour time frame, but I will not…

Now, I am extremely proud of myself because four times a week I am dancing Latin Salsa, among other things, with a small group of women behind our very fit and very sexy Zumba teacher and trying hard not to get intimidated by the size of her bottom. (Just in case you wonder, she is a size 3). The music is fiery and beautiful, it feels great to move and I am loving every minute of it! One day I hope to remember all my steps and learn to move as gracefully and effortlessly as my new teacher.  My bottom is out to the new test in Latin rhythms where I hope it will not let me down. No PISTOL for me any more! VIVA LA ZUMBA!