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A Life in Music, on Two Continents

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 14:44
The violinist and vocalist Evgenia Zilberberg is exploring musical forms far from the classical music she grew up with in her native Russia.
Durell Godfrey

Though she may be better known locally for performances with South Fork bands, Evgenia Zilberberg, who has been teaching string orchestra and chamber music at the Ross School in East Hampton since September, is a trained violinist and vocalist with a distinguished history in classical music.

She recently performed with the Potter-Tekulsky Band at Springs Tavern and the Wamponamon Lodge in Sag Harbor, and is playing with the Hot Club of Montauk. She also sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a baseball game in East Hampton’s Herrick Park last year.

Country, folk, and gypsy jazz may bear little resemblance to Bach and Pachelbel, but Ms. Zilberberg’s origins might explain how bridging divides and blurring boundaries come naturally. She hails from Yekaterinburg, Russia, at the center of the Eurasian continent. “So we are kind of half Asian and half European,” she said. Known as Russia’s “third capital,” Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains, is both the political and cultural capital of Sverdlovsk Oblast (an oblast is akin to a province or region).

The city is home to the Ural State Conservatory and the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra, and Ms. Zilberberg was immersed from an early age. “We were always surrounded by music,” she said. “We always went to concerts — my mother used to buy these yearly memberships” for performances at venues including Sverdlovsk Philharmonic Hall and the Yekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. “We went there all year round.”

She first picked up a violin around age 5. “My mother wanted me to play piano, but there were no more spaces available,” she said of her early schooling. “They also thought that my body type and perfect pitch would be more suitable for violin — that’s how they would pick instruments for children back then.” After just one year at her local school, “I auditioned for one of the top schools in our city. I got in, and that’s where I studied until I left the country.”

With her family, Ms. Zilberberg emigrated to the United States in 1991, when she was 14, just months before the August Putsch, an attempted coup d’etat that destabilized and hastened the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The family settled in Brooklyn. There, too, the local school would not suffice: She lasted three days. Fortunately, she was able to enroll at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, near the Juilliard School and Lincoln Center.

“Immediately after getting into LaGuardia,” she said, “I auditioned for ISO,” the InterSchool Orchestras of New York, then directed by the late violinist and conductor Jonathan Strasser. “They were very prestigious orchestras to play in,” she said of ISO and LaGuardia, where Strasser also conducted. At 16, she performed at Alice Tully Hall for the first time, winning an award for best chamber music performance. “I still have it somewhere,” she said.

She also enrolled in the classical program at the Manhattan School of Music’s Precollege, a training and performance program for talented students. “Again, Jonathan Strasser was conducting,” she said. “I absolutely loved that school, because it gave me a lot of knowledge in how to become a professional musician. I met a lot of people there, of course. It was fun and I got some awards and scholarships. I loved those years.” After a year at Northwestern University in Illinois, she auditioned and was accepted to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where she studied with the late violinist Erick Friedman.

Back in New York City, where “I didn’t really know anybody anymore,” Ms. Zilberberg put down the violin and took up singing. “I met my future husband, and I started taking voice lessons, which I had always wanted to do.” She has sung professionally for more than a dozen years. “That was a big turn in my life,” she said, as were marriage and two children. “Then I got divorced, and then I moved here and restarted my violin career, slowly, meeting people little by little.” The pianist and teacher Jane Hastay was the first, she said. “She showed a lot of interest.”

Ms. Hastay invited her to perform at a Good Friday service at the East Hampton Presbyterian Church, which she has now done several times. On Good Friday this year, “she was the guest vocal soloist with our Chancel Choir, and she also played several classical violin pieces,” Ms. Hastay said. “Ms. Zilberberg gave a thrilling performance and was a great inspiration to our congregation. We’re very much looking forward to her joining us again on Christmas Eve for our 8 p.m. service.”

Ms. Hastay also told her that the Potter-Tekulsky Band was looking for a vocalist to sing the national anthem, which Ms. Zilberberg had never sung. “And she said, ‘By the way, take your violin.’ They were playing country music, and I said, ‘But Jane, I have no idea how to play this kind of music.’ She said, ‘Just try.’ I had no idea what I was doing — I had never played in a band before, only chamber music ensembles.”

The Potter-Tekulsky Band plays familiar music, she said, “but the beautiful thing about this band is, we also play a lot of originals. Job [Potter] writes a lot of his own songs. They’re really cool, I love those songs.” She had long given private instruction, and earlier this year answered the Ross School’s online listing, where she is at present teaching middle and lower school students.

Her own instrument was made by a contemporary luthier in Italy. “I bought it from a friend of mine, a Russian conductor. He was a very talented man who left Russia to go to Italy, where he was teaching, playing, and conducting.”

“But the violin I really love is in Russia,” she said, “and I cannot take it back.” Valuables such as fine art and musical instruments, she said, are difficult to extract from the country. “So it is still at my aunt’s house. Nobody’s touched it in 30 years. One day I’m hoping to try to get it.”

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