Suitcase Stories: Violinist Yevgeny Kutik draws from his family’s emigré history

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Yevgeny Kutik will explore the Russian miniature repertory, using sheet music that his mother took in a suitcase from the Soviet Union.
Photo provided

What does a family of six pack to leave home forever when they can only bring two suitcases?

It was 1989, and Yevgeny Kutik’s mother, Alla Zernitskaya, a Jewish violin professor, eschewed the pots and pans, sheets and comforters, for something far more precious. The family was fleeing Minsk, and the Soviets forbade carrying a violin out of the country. So she filled one oversized suitcase with the family’s musical legacy — books and volumes of sheet music. Many were short compositions by Russian masters that were virtually unknown in the West.


“I remember what the suitcases looked like, but I don’t remember much else,” Kutik, 34, said last week in advance of his April 23 Kennedy Center debut. On the Terrace Theater stage he will dip into that suitcase for a project he calls “Music from the Suitcase,” which draws on his family’s musical legacy and reflects his family’s history in these characteristic Russian works, fusing the folklore, fantasy, poetry and musicality of his birthplace.

Following brief stays in Vienna and Rome, the Kutik/Zernitskaya family was settled in the Berkshires, where young Yevgeny began the process of becoming an American kid. But his parents didn’t want him to forget his roots. Soon after arriving, the 4 year old began violin lessons. “My mom was my first violin teacher,” Kutik said. “I would play some of the easier songs from the suitcase collection. They were
always sitting there on a shelf in the house … although at the time I didn’t put much value to it.”

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But mothers know best and after graduating from Pittsfield High School, while a music student at Boston University and later the New England Conservatory, his mother reminded him about the music from the suitcase. “She kept nagging me: ‘You should really play some of the pieces from those books.’”

Five years ago, Kutik finally listened exploring those little-played gems. They became the basis for his 2014 album, “Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures.”


On Tuesday, he’ll perform selections culled from the suitcase, rare gems like Stravinsky’s Divertimento from “A Fairy’s Kiss”; Prokofiev’s waltz from “Cinderella” and Rubenstein’s Romance in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, No. 1.

“My thinking on making ‘Suitcase’ was that my story is not unique at all,” he said. Though too young to recall, Kutik heard stories from his parents — his father, Alexander, was assistant principal trumpet player in the Belarussian State Philharmonic — and grandparents about the antisemitism that permeated their lives in Minsk.

“My mom actually got called often to the director’s office at the music conservatory where she taught, and lost her job because there was a Jewish quota,” he said. “And I remember my earliest days going to preschool. The other parents all knew I was Jewish and my parents would hear anti-Jewish comments about me.”

He credits Jewish organizations for helping his family successfully become Americans. “None of this would have been possible without [the Jewish community]. Our story, our journey wouldn’t have been possible without HIAS and without that invitation from the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires,” Kutik said.

In addition to exploring the Russian miniature repertory, Kutik has commissioned eight of today’s leading classical contemporary composers for a new project, “Meditations on a Family: New Works
Inspired by Memories and Traditions.”

“I wanted other composers to do what I did: explore their own families and their immigrant history and hear what that sounds like in music,” Kutik explained.

So he asked each to select a family photograph. “Each would then write a very short little meditation upon what that photo might inspire. I was really amazed. Each photo was completely different as was each music piece.”

At the Terrace on Tuesday Kutnik plays two: Gity Razaz’s “Cadenza for the Once Young” about her Iranian grandparents, and Andreia Pinto Correia’s “Litania,” inspired by a photo of a stairway on the Portuguese island of Madeira, where his father’s family lived.

At the end of the concert, NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg will moderate a discussion with the violinist. “I’ve known Nina for years through [her father],” Kutik said.

In fact, as a high schooler, Kutik studied with Roman Totenberg, a master violin teacher, driving from Pittsfield, Mass., to Boston weekly. “I remember my very first lesson with him, he was about 89,” Kutik said. “We were playing an etude. When a normal teacher would focus totally on lining up your technique and solving those issues, [Totenberg] was so revolutionary for me because, instead of talking about
technique, his first comments were about how the phrasing was off.”

That comment completely changed the young violinist’s approach. “He just had the most incredible phrasing and really, most people don’t play like that …. He just had a full 360-degree approach to life. I was very lucky.”

Yevgeny Kutik, “Music from the Suitcase” and “Meditations on Family,” presented by Washington Performing Arts; April 23, 7:30 p.m.; Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington; tickets $45; visit washingtonperformingarts.org.

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