Western Exposure

Russian musicians find a home with the Thouvenel quartet.

“The Russian poeople today have too many problems to be interested in music,” laments violist Igor Fedotov, “and many musicians are leaving.” Fedotov and his childhood pal Eugene Cherkasov are relaxing in Eugene’s new apartment in Midland, where the two are eagerly rebuilding musical careers that they established in their homeland. Fedotov, 33, and Cherkasov, 34, arrived last October to fill positions in the Thouvenel String Quartet, the fifteen-year-old string quartet in residence for the Mid-land-Odessa Symphony and Chorale. The pair also play in the symphony: Fedotov is principal viola, Cherkasov concertmaster.

But the harmonious arrangement with the Thouvenel emerged from discord. For Cherkasov, leaving the Soviet Union was not a matter of choice. Of Armenian descent, he was a member of a much-maligned minority in the predominantly Turkic republic of Azerbaijan. As such, he was unwanted in his homeland. “I was told that I couldn’t work in the Baku State Orchestra, where I was concertmaster,” he explains. “It was too dangerous.” Cherkasov fled with his family in 1989 from Azerbaijan to Moscow mere weeks before a cataclysmic civil war, which has since desolated the capital and his hometown, Baku. While trying to make a new life in perestroika-era Moscow with his wife, Larisa, and their two children, Cherkasov became convinced that the city was unlivable. The family moved to Mexico with Fedotov and another violinist, and eventually the opportunity came to immigrate to the United States.

Fedotov, an ethnic Russian born in Baku, admits, “I never wanted to leave Russia. But life there was too hard—especially for women.” Fedotov’s wife, Elina, had a job, but just getting food was a major problem logistically and financially. Fedotov, who was principal viola with the Moscow Symphony, loosened his ties to the Soviet Union by freelancing in Europe for a year before he alighted in 1990 in Toluca, Mexico.

Even though Cherkasov dreamed of living in the United States, he thought his hopes were unrealistic. “Lots of American musicians don’t even have work here,” he says. But during a phone call Fedotov made last June to his friend Emanuel Borok, who is the concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and also a Russian émigré, Borok mentioned that the Thouvenel needed a violist. It turned out that the Thouvenel also needed a violinist. After arranging a visit to Midland and a recording session with the cellist of the Thouvenel, Rebecca Seiver, Cherkasov and Fedotov awaited word from orchestra director Don Th. Jaeger. Within a month they had the jobs. Prospects for settling in Los Angeles were overshadowed by the Midland opportunity because “people here were so nice.”

Adjusting to a new life in arid Midland-Odessa hasn’t been much of a problem. Baku—also an oil town—was sunny, hot, and dry. “There was less air conditioning and more camels,” Fedotov jokes. Now, their days are consumed by rehearsals—in the mornings for the Thouvenel and in the afternoons for the symphony. Even their spare time is spent making music. Larisa, a pianist, and Cherkasov are working on a recital of French composers; Fedotov is planning two solo concerts. “The reason we are here and happy is because of the quartet,” Cherkasov says. “We want to play all over Texas.” Larisa is all smiles. “I didn’t know anyone here when we first came,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine my life without friends, and now I have them. The Friends of the Thouvenel have been wonderful to us. I miss my language and my books, but now I don’t need my country.” Cherkasov adds sadly, “Our country doesn’t need us—and that’s worse.”

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