The first time composer Lera Auerbach came to Sarasota was to visit the Warm Mineral Springs in 2009. She went swimming one foggy morning, and when her head breached the salty surface she heard beautiful, sad singing in the distance. Unable to see through the fog, she swam over to where a group of elderly Ukrainian women was singing a folk song.
Inspired, Auerbach swam to the shore and immediately began notating what she had heard, later asking the group of women to tell her the words. It was perfect for Auerbach’s current opera composition at the time, “Gogol” because the character Gogol is Ukrainian-born. The signing inspired a scene in the opera.
Auerbach will share other stories surrounding her work in a presentation Thursday, Dec. 12 at the Historic Asolo Theater. The event will showcase the 40-year-old, Russian-born composer and concert pianist’s art. The modern composer is in high demand internationally to compose works for famed groups such as the Royal Danish Ballet and the National Symphony Orchestra.
The 2009 visit sold Auerbach on the area, and she bought a vacation home here a month prior to her residency that year at Hermitage Artist Retreat. It’s a place where national artists of all disciplines are nominated to live and work in the serene setting of Manasota Key. Coincidentally, the home she bought was just down the road from the Hermitage.
And, when her New York home and studio — including her piano and manuscripts — burned down the last day of her four-week work residency, it was as if the world was telling her something: Just stay put.
The more time she spent in Sarasota over the next four years, and the more fresh Gulf air that filled her lungs, the more she felt at peace. This fall, she bought a new permanent home here with her husband, Rafael DeStella, their dog, cat, ferret, guinea pig and an eventual aviary for birds.
It’s not the only time in Auerbach’s life that greater forces took her somewhere new. It’s how her career took off in the first place. Auerbach came from a family where generations of musicians preceded her, on both sides of her family. The same time Auerbach learned to read in her hometown, Chelyabinsk, Russia, she learned to notate. And at age 4, as a child would, she’d dream up stories, but hers were illustrated with sounds. She remembers one tragically romantic story she wrote based on a poem by Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov about a sinking ship. By age 12, her community staged an opera she wrote.
At age 17, before the Soviet Union dissolved, she won a cultural exchange contest that granted her the opportunity to travel to the United States and perform a tour of concerts. Before this trip, she had never traveled anywhere, she spoke no English, had no money, and the only person she knew of in the United States was an acquaintance of her mother’s.
During the trip, her isolation continued as she traveled under the guard of a KGB group, where one untrusting man wouldn’t let her talk to fans following a performance. Feeling a surge of independence, she proudly told the man that America is a free country and she can talk to whomever she wants. So, when the other teens on the tour got to New York, and the rest of the group went shopping, they forbid Auerbach from going, instead leaving her in the hotel room. But, things have a way of working out for her.
“I had this sense, this feeling of freedom,” she says. “I sensed it so strongly and felt I needed it as air. I had this gut feeling that this is the place for me.”
With that gut feeling, Auerbach called her mother’s acquaintance, introduced herself and asked to be introduced to other musicians. After this friend called another, Auerbach ended up playing for faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, which was closed at the time. She played an uncustomary informal audition and was accepted on the spot. Within one day’s time, Auerbach learned she could either stay in New York or return home, stifling the opportunity — and her protective parents gave their blessing for whatever choice she made.
“The whole trip was a miracle,” she says. “…If I didn’t take (the opportunity) it wouldn’t have repeated itself.”
Without knowing when she would be able to see her family again, if ever, she made the leap. It was the Fourth of July, and Auerbach marks it her own day of independence. She transferred to Julliard the following year and was able to see her family five years after leaving her homeland.
Today, Auerbach’s plans for the future consist of finishing the pieces she commissions six years out. She’s working on a 21st century take on the opera “Eugene Onegin,” named “Tatiana,” for choreographer and director of Hamburg Ballet John Neumeier. He’s one of the first big names to begin commissioning Auerbach, and they’ve been collaborating for 10 years. The other big ballet they collaborated on, “The Little Mermaid,” won the 2012 Echo Klassik award for best DVD recording. The award is the European equivalent of the Grammy’s.
Before she can get to that piece, she’ll perform at Historic Asolo Theater. It wasn’t until a recent trip to Sao Paulo, where Auerbach is the composer in residence at the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, that she picked up a guest soloist for her Hermitage program.
The Brazilian orchestra performed a three-day profile of her work, in which Auerbach also performed. She performed one of her own pieces, “Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 69” with cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. Hakhnazaryan won the 2011 XIV International Tchaikovsky Competition, making him one of the most in-demand and sought after cellists of recent time.
“It was as if he grew up with this music,” she says.
And as fate (and fortune) would have it, he didn’t have a concert on Dec. 12 and decided to join her program. Life always seems to work out for Lera Auerbach; she always seems to strike the right note.
IF YOU GO
Lera Auerbach featuring cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan
In partnership with Hermitage Artist Retreat and The Ringling’s Art of Our Time
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12
Where: Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Road
Cost: Tickets $5; free to museum members, same-day ticket holders and students
Info: Call 360-7399
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