Special to the Jta: the Sound of Freedom
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Special to the Jta: the Sound of Freedom

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The story of Soviet refusenik pianist Vladimir Feltsman is one of particularly sweet music, as it involves the unflagging interest of a host of concerned lovers of music and human rights in upstate New York, and the assistance of radio broadcasts, both in the United States and the USSR.

Feltsman, 35, left the Soviet Union Thursday with his biologist wife Anna and their four-year-old son Daniel. After eight years as a refusenik, the acclaimed musician whose career was severely curtailed since he applied to emigrate in 1979 was en route to a promising teaching position at the State University of New York at New Paltz as a distinguished university professor in music, with responsibilities as well at other campuses of the SUNY network of universities. He expected to arrive in New York later this month.

A good deal of Feltsman’s permission to emigrate appears to have to do with the diligence of the owner of an upstate New York radio station and its classical disc jockey, and particularly with the president of The College at New Paltz, Dr. Alice Chandler.


Chandler, of Russian Jewish background and a long-time advocate of human rights, was made aware of the details of Feltsman’s case by friends and colleagues Sasha and Jerry Gellman. Sasha Gellman is vice president of The College at New Paltz Foundation, and her husband Jerry is the former owner of radio station WDST in Wood-stock, NY. Both had been greatly involved in behind-the-scenes activities on Feltsman’s behalf, along with veteran music critic and record collector Leslie Gerber, a classical music programmer and disc jockey at the station.

Last year, as Chandler was planning a trip with five other university presidents to Vienna to attend the follow-up talks of the Helsinki Accords, Gellman and Gerber, with the help of the State Department, arranged a special program that would include a telephone hookup to Feltsman in Moscow. Gerber interviewed the refusenik pianist on the air and played recordings that the pianist had made years earlier, records not available in the Soviet Union since. Feltsman had applied to emigrate.

In January, Chandler and the other university presidents made their trip to the Vienna talks, with a three-day stop-off in Moscow, where they were dinner guests of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov and his wife Yelena Bonner shortly after the couple’s return from exile in Gorky.


In Moscow, Chandler visited Feltsman and proposed a novel idea — a cultural exchange between Feltsman and Latvian-born New Paltz professor of music Gundaris Pone (Po-nay). According to Chandler’s highly creative plan, Feltsman would perform Soviet music during the college’s Music in the Mountains Summer Festival and Pone would play contemporary American music in either Moscow or Leningrad.

Feltsman “expressed immediate interest,” according to Karen Summerlin, assistant vice president of the Office of Development and Public Affairs at New Paltz.

Following her return to New Paltz, Chandler continued to pursue the proposal, corresponding with and speaking to many Soviet and American officials. When Secretary of State George Shultz returned from a mid-April meeting in Moscow with Soviet officials — after attending a Passover seder at the American Ambassador’s residence at which Feltsman was present — he brought back a list of 45 people being considered for emigration. Feltsman’s name was on the list.

Shortly afterward, Chandler learned that Soviet officials had told Feltsman there were “problems with processing his papers.” So, on May 16, on the eve of the centenary celebrations of The College at New Paltz, Chandler arranged a telephone interview with Feltsman from her office by Voice of America correspondent William Skundrich.

Midway into the interview, in which Feltsman spoke of his life as a refusenik, the line went dead. That conversation, including the click, was broadcast into the USSR the following week.


On July 2, Feltsman was summoned to the OVIR emigration office in Moscow and informed that his visa was being processed. Subsequently, Chandler began a search within the SUNY system to locate a teaching position for Feltsman Working with the acting chancellor of SUNY, Dr. Jerome Komisar, she was able to offer Feltsman a definite position at New Paltz.

Feltsman will remain in Europe for the time necessary to process him as a refugee and will then visit briefly in Paris with former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Arthur Hartman, who befriended the award-winning pianist in the past. In February 1986, Feltsman gave a concert at Hartman’s residence that was for a few hours threatened when vandals damaged several strings of the Steinway grand piano on which Feltsman was to play in honor of Hartman’s 37th wedding anniversary. Members of the Embassy staff re-tuned the piano, unable, however, to fix the low E string. However, Feltsman’s performance of music by Franz Liszt went on as planned.

Feltsman — the son of renowned Soviet composer-songwriter Oskar Feltsman — had been regarded as a highly promising pianist since 1971, when, at the age of 19, he won the Marguerite Long International competition in Paris. He appeared with major Soviet orchestras and concertized in Europe and Japan, but his wife was not allowed to accompany him. Following his application to emigrate, he was only permitted to give concert appearances outside the major Soviet cities, his recordings were no longer broadcast and he was not even permitted to teach.

However, at the highly publicized seder at the American Ambassador’s residence, Feltsman announced that he was again being permitted to give a concert in Moscow. Since then, Feltsman’s story has resonated with all the right chords.

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