“A Renaissance artist for modern times”
Born on 21 October 1973 in Chelyabinsk, a city in the Ural Mountains near the border with Siberia, Lera Auerbach is considered one of the most exciting new voices among today’s composers. Her music communes extraordinary power and intensity and explores a wide range of forms and genres. Communicating brooding intensity and poetic expression, her works are characterized by a stylistic freedom that juxtaposes tonal and atonal musical language. In addition, she is also a prolific writer of three volumes of poetry and prose and an exhibiting painter and sculptor. She has rightfully been called “a renaissance artist for modern times… as all of her work is interconnected as part of a cohesive and comprehensive artistic worldview.”
Lera Auerbach Plays Auerbach’s “8 Preludes” from 24 Preludes
Auerbach was born into a close-knit Jewish community in Chelyabinsk, a city that is commonly referred to as an industrial city. However, it was a secret city where the atomic weapons of the USSR were manufactured. As Auerbach remembers, “In my city were the laboratories where the experiments were carried out by the military. Nobody could enter or leave.” Chelyabinsk was also the site of a nuclear catastrophe in 1957, and townspeople were forced to clean up with no protection.
Medical records of those affected are still tightly held by the government. It was and continues to be a radiation danger to the area and anywhere on the continent, the wind blows with flares and coverups as recently as 2017. Auerbach joked ironically in the interview that people from Chelyabinsk “glow green in the dark.” In spite of the usual Soviet government restrictions, Auerbach experienced a relatively carefree childhood and a broad education. A book of Greek myths was her favourite, “and the world of jealous gods and god-like humans was more real to me than the world outside of my windows.”
Lera Auerbach: String Quartet No. 10, (Frozen Dreams)
Auerbach’s mother was a piano teacher, and music was an important part of the family’s ancestry. Lera received her first piano lessons from her mother and gave her first concert as a pianist at six. Just two years later she first performed publicly with an orchestra, and she wrote her first opera at twelve. Concurrently, she began to write poetry in earnest. As she later explained in an interview, “I was born to do this, to work in art… I had this feeling when I was four.”
At the age of 17, Auerbach was selected to travel to the United States on a concert tour highlighting the artistic achievements of the Soviet system. Spontaneously, on the day of her return to the Soviet Union, she decided to stay. “I did not have any luggage, I only had a small carry-on bag… I did not know a single person in America, and I did not have any money.” Auerbach had been offered an opportunity to study in the US, and she now talked it over with her family.
Lera Auerbach: Piano Trio (Delta Piano Trio)
She phoned them, and her parents told her “This is a decision that will completely change your life forever. Whichever decision it is the right decision, but it has to be your decision.” For Auerbach, “17 was a good age for such drastic change—already formed as a person but with all life possibilities still open. I instinctively felt that New York, at the end of the twentieth century, was the best time and place for me to grow and mature as an artist in a global context. Thus, I decided to stay.”
Despite her lack of financial resources as well as her inability to speak English, Auerbach initially studied at the Manhattan School of Music and subsequently earned degrees at the Juilliard School in piano under Joseph Kalichstein, and composition under Milton Babbitt and Robert Beaser. Auerbach also studied comparative literature at Columbia University and earned a piano diploma at the Hochschule für Musik in Hannover.
Lera Auerbach: Gogol (excerpts)
Auerbach composed her first piano trio in the mid-1990s while still in her late teens and early twenties, and has since composed an astonishing catalogue of music including operas, symphonies, numerous concerti, and chamber music for various ensemble combinations. Her commissions and collaborations with leading musicians and ensembles have received international awards and recognition, and Gidon Kremer described Auerbach’s talents as “nurtured by a deep respect toward the past that still allows her creations to remain sincere and personal while being innovative and adventurous.”
Auerbach composes complex yet memorable music that “readily communicates while also offering interpretations from multiple perspectives.” Essentially, she creates stories with titles acting as triggers. “When I give a title to a work in a creative way,” she writes, “I want listeners to feel free to use their own imagination, drawing from their own dreams and memories. The titles are nothing more than starting points for any form of association.” This also relates to her work as a performer of other composers, where she discovers links back into her own composition. As the New York Times wrote, “Her versatility is almost incredible. She’s a passionate pianist with a lot of temperament, a natural composer and performer who can quickly grasp and transpose everything around her.”
Lera Auerbach: Lullaby (Allmanna Sangen; Maria Goundorina, cond.)
Balancing the many different strands of her career is “one of my greatest struggles and also one of my biggest hopes. I don’t know if it’s achievable, but it’s something I try to figure out on a daily basis.” Occasionally, Auerbach feels simultaneously blessed and cursed with the need to express herself in all these different areas. As she recalled in an interview, “When I was younger I was always asked to choose; even in music, between performing and composing, my professors would ask when I was going to make up my mind what I was going to do. Did I want to be a concert pianist or concentrate on composition?”
At some point, Auerbach realised that although it is not an easy way to live because each of these disciplines requires 100 percent commitment, “I am never going to make up my mind, because they are all part of me. It’s like picking a favourite child. If I concentrate too much on one activity, I get a sense of loss. I feel incomplete. I need to be able to reach all these different forms to keep going. It’s not something that I recommend. At the same time, it’s my choice not to limit myself.”
Lera Auerbach: Lonely Suite, Op. 70 “Ballet for a Lonely Violinist” (Vadim Gluzman, violin)
Auerbach is a polymath phenomenon that even in her most abstract moments “tell tales of time and conflict, loss and desperation, in a way which fuses different traditions of classical music while showing a way forward that avoids both the pitfalls of intellectually exciting but emotionally austere experimentalism and richly pleasing but overwrought sentimentality.”
For Auerbach, music is primarily an act of communication. “What I try to do as an artist is just to be very honest with each piece. I don’t try to please anyone; I don’t care to please anyone. I want my music to communicate.”
“All of my works have tonal centers,” she writes, “a place where you feel more at home than in other places. Unless you create a home base, how can you create dissonance? And my music is very dissonant, very dramatic – because there’s always a sense of knowing where the coordinates are…. As a listener, I really don’t care if what I am listening to is called ‘atonal’, or ‘tonal’, or ‘neo-this’, or ‘neo-that’, or even ‘post-this’, or whatever else it may be called. I am either changed by the musical experience, (perhaps troubled, perhaps inspired, moved, challenged, passionate), or I am bored and the whole experience leaves me cold.”
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