Doctoral candidate plays Boston-St. Petersburg duet
By Michael B. Shavelson
During her years studying and teaching at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, School for the Arts doctoral candidate Ludmilla Leibman aspired to become a superior interpreter; her piano is covered with scores of sonatas by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Shostakovich, and other masters whose works she has interpreted in concert. But her appearance at the great Russian conservatory a month ago found her doing a different sort of interpretation.
"I was interpreting from Russian to English for my boss, Marjorie Merryman, the chairman of SFA's department of theory and composition," she explains. The visit was the second half of an informal exchange begun last fall when the contemporary Russian composers Boris Tishchenko and Alexander Mnatsakanyan came to speak at the SFA Composers Forum and to meet with SFA students and other Boston-area musicians.
"They came for a week starting October 25 -- the 80th anniversary of the October Revolution," recalls Leibman. "They were impressed with the Time's Arrow and ALEA III performances of their music, and the discussions afterward were quite vivid. The experience prompted Dr. Mnatsakanyan, who is head of the Conservatory's composition department, to return the compliment and invite Marjorie to come to St. Petersburg. The group of Americans who went to Russia included Marjorie, her husband, Edward Cohen, who teaches composition at MIT, and several local students. I went along as interpreter and guide -- and to revisit the city that was my home for 40 years."
Her former teachers include a number who studied at the Conservatory with the giant of mid-20th-century Russian -- or Soviet -- music, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Just as the Conservatory has dominated the country's musical life since its establishment in 1862, so have Shostakovich and his ghost cast long shadows over the institution.
"I remember him," says Leibman. "Although I didn't know him, I used to see him. By then he was no longer a professor there and had gone on to Moscow. But St. Petersburg is where all his premieres were performed. He's ours, not Moscow's!"
The Americans' trip to St. Petersburg gave Russian faculty and students the opportunity to discuss contemporary American music with Merryman and then to perform some of her compositions, along with pieces by Cohen.
"The cellist from the Quinten String Quartet, which later played some of Marjorie's pieces, came up and introduced himself to me," says Leibman. "At first I didn't recognize him, but he turned out to be one of my former stud