13 December 2007

Elektrostal's hospitable artists

The Abuevs
Last Saturday about fifty people gathered at the Paustovsky Central Library in Elektrostal for a wonderful concert. Violinist Murad Abuev (a People's Artist of Dagestan) and his wife Zalmina Abueva presented a sparkling program dedicated to Edvard Grieg. The Norwegian composer is being celebrated internationally all this year, the one hundredth anniversary since he died.

The Elektrostal concert was entitled "Be Yourself" -- advice from a letter Ole Bull sent to Grieg. In between the musical performances, Zalmina read from correspondence between Grieg and his friends and mentors.

The evening's pianists were students of Elektrostal's own Scriabin Music School, who also dramatized scenes from the composer's life.

Murad Abuev
I sat there in the audience, simply marveling: here I was, a Norwegian-American and fan of Grieg's music, sitting in the obscure industrial city of Elektrostal, Russia, listening to this familiar music being played by Russian pianists and a noted violinist from Dagestan! Singer Antonina Yegorshina performed several of Grieg's songs, lovingly translated into Russian. And Zalmina Abueva, in her own remarks, praised the composer for his faithfulness to the spirit and natural surroundings of his native Norway. On the walls were my new friend Alexander Poroshin's paintings from his ongoing exhibition at the library.

Poet Anatoly Osmolsky ends the evening.
One of the most attractive features of the Russian character, it seems to me, is this warm welcome for the "other." Russian xenophobia gets its share of attention--but I've far more often experienced its opposite, the warmth with which Russians so often receive guests, try to learn about their culture, try to find out what we all have in common. In Elektrostal, the specific community that has gone out of its way to make me feel welcome is the one which circulates among the city's libraries and art galleries. I've met artists, poets, photographers, journalists, students, librarians, musicians, teachers, proud parents -- and several prophets. Among all of these people was the one -- now I can't remember which one -- who told me I simply had to attend this concert last Saturday. And I'm glad I did.

Tomorrow there's another event -- this time the opening of an exhibition of painting and ceramics dedicated to the art and design students of the New Humanities Institute, my own school. Naturally, I plan to be there.

(If you are reading this in Elektrostal: The exhibition's opening is at the Art Library, 24 Lenin Prospect, at 5:30 p.m.)

Meanwhile, back in the classroom, I've been showing more films. A few weeks ago, I mentioned Good Night, and Good Luck. Since then, I've shown the Ray Charles bio Ray and the high school drama Mean Girls to the American studies classes, while the third-year and fifth-year English students yesterday and today saw an episode from House, MD's first season. This may seem like an odd combination, but aside from their value in conveying the varieties of American English in voices other than mine, they were all united by one crucial theme: the power of redemption. The ending of Ray was particularly powerful, as Ray Charles draws on his foundational faith and the love of his late mother to break the bondage of heroin. A cynical throw-away line from the middle of the film, "Ain't nothing free in this world but Jesus," takes on a whole new meaning.

I prepare for all of these classes by reviewing the films and screenplays ahead of time, and preparing a page of important words and phrases. We review these ahead of the film, reserving the time afterwards for more important discussions.

Roger Cohen writes in the New York Times about secular Europe and the American political religiosity which troubles European observers. He quotes Karl Kaiser, a German political scientist: "The entrance condition for the American presidential race is being religious. If you’re not, you have no chance, which troubles Europeans."

Cohen mentions an important irony: Europe's religious wars were part of the reason the founding fathers decreed separation of church and state. However his column doesn't touch on another disconnect: What does the American political culture require of those who want to attract the support of evangelical value-voters? In practical terms of prophetic faith, NOTHING. They can support torture, vindictive anti-immigration policies, snarling attitudes toward Iran and other artificial enemies, and business-as-usual for people without easy access to health care.

If evangelical faith actually meant what Jesus says it means, would our politicians be so eager to don its mantle? And would secular observers be able to treat it so dismissively?

More righteous links: books I'm eager to read.

Dessert! Ana Popovic, "Comfort to the Soul."

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