Encores & Curtain Calls: the 'Barefoot Contessa' of the keyboard
“I wander silently and am somewhat unhappy,
And my sighs always ask “Where?”
In a ghostly breath it calls back to me,
“There, where you are not, there is your happiness.”
— “Der Wanderer” (“The Wanderer”), Georg Philipp Schmidt
During my several years completing a graduate degree in composition at UMass-Amherst in the early 1980s, I encountered, amidst the many eminent, and yes, erudite — but, it seemed to me, often needlessly august and uptight — denizens of the music faculty, a rare and radiant spirit who somehow managed to wear the mantle of professor of piano lightly and graciously enough to retain her warmth, humanity, joy and girl-like charisma. Her name was Estela Olevsky or, to be completely thorough about it, Estela Kersenbaum Olevsky, an Argentinian-born daughter of an Austrian father and an Argentinian mother.
Unless I am greatly mis-remembering, virtually everyone within striking distance adored Estela; students, men, women, faculty, staff. virtually all seemed to succumb to her irresistibly unique blend of spontaneity, intelligence and Latin charm.
In a word, my own abiding impression was that she was almost always fully present with whomever happened to be within her orbit in a way that few academics, alas, seemed capable of being. Other professors often, if not always, had something else on their all-too-beleaguered minds, creating walls, distances and tensions that required careful negotiations and strategies from those obliged to interact with them.
Not so Estela.
Even though an encounter with her may have been glancing, it left one with the abiding sense that all we who walk this earth need from our fellows — male or female — is a sense of being cared for, of being honored, even celebrated, as fellow human travelers, if not always as consummate musicians.
This, beyond her transparent artistry at the keyboard and her seasoned skills as a beloved teacher, is, I truly feel, what endears her to others. I want to say she is a “Great Lady” but that is simply too stuffy a phrase for the dynamic habanera that Estela Olevsky dances before our eyes. Let us call her, rather, the “Barefoot Contessa” of the keyboard.
I also loved her transparent personal and artistic honesty. One day, in presenting a live performance of American composer Aaron Copland’s thorny Piano Variations to one of our classes — a work in a style, I should add, largely alien or at least very new, to her musical soul — she laughingly confessed that she wasn’t sure she’d even begun to get a handle on exactly what the piece was about or how best to perform it. But, one could feel she was giving it her all, her complete self. She went on to perform the piece beautifully, perhaps more beautifully than Copland actually meant it to be performed, as it is nothing if not an exercise in bare, angular and percussive sonorities, rather than a rhapsodic, rapturous indulgence in lush keyboard emoting.
So there you are, a few fleeting glimpses of the one-of-a-kind, darling of academia: Estela Olevsky, a lyrical, intense, focused and, yes, sometimes fiery friend of music and mankind, but a spirit always ready, with the lyrical lilt of laughter and humor, to cushion the harsher edges of life for her companions.
Estela will be presenting her special brand of intimate artistry at a fundraiser for the Brick Church in Deerfield, Sunday, Feb. 9, at 3. p.m. At a suggested $10 donation admission, it remains, as always, the best deal in town for what can only be called a class act on every level. On the program are Schubert, Mozart, Albeniz and Bestor.
I spare the reader the rich dossier of recordings, encomiums, prestigious orchestral appearances and honors emerging from her long career, all of which may be accessed at www.estelaolevsky.com.
(Note: When reading the following, imagine Estela with her strangely hybrid Viennese-South American accent, still mint-fresh and just-off-the-boat, sometimes grammatically offbeat, still unmitigated by her decades of life in Yankee-land.)
JM: I’d like to shed some light on your own history; you hail from South America?
EO: Yes, I do. I hail from Buenos Aires and I started playing very, very early. My mother was a violinist and my father was not a musician but a music lover. She was Argentinian and Italian by origin, a Catholic, and he was refugee of the war. He was an Austrian Jew and they met while she was playing in a light orchestra (laughing) called “The Orchestra of Senoritas” in Buenos Aires.
JM: You’re quite a mixture ...
EO: (laughing) ... a real mutt!
JM: What do you feel like?
EO: Well ... can I tell you something? One of the things that attracted me the most about the “Wanderer Fantasy” by Schubert that I’ll be playing on the Brick Church concert program is that often I have felt like “Where do I belong?” And, yes, I belong in many places. But, have I felt totally Argentinian ever? No. Have I felt totally American ever? No. Have I felt good in both places? Yes. Have I felt good in other places? Yes. So, it’s a little bit of that feeling that appeals to me in the “Wanderer Fantasy” because of the original gorgeous poem on which Schubert wrote the German liede (art song) ... (sighing), it always moves me to tears, because it says:
“Where my dead ones rise from the dead,
That land where they speak my language,
Oh land, where are you?”
JM: I very much understand what you mean, There are certain people in our lives who hold the keys to parts of our being that nobody else can unlock but those people.
EO: Isn’t that the truth!
JM: And when those people pass from this world, the key to opening that part of ourselves, our lives, is lost.
EO: It’s gone!
JM: And that might be my mother, your mother or a close friend from one’s own culture who really understands one’s spirit. Whereas, in your case, you would be enjoined to be a completely different kind of being in Anglo culture, or at UMass, perhaps ...
EO: We are many people, too ... so, in a sense, my origin is that; I lived in Argentina until I was 20, when I met Julian (UMass professor of violin, Julian Olevsky), my future husband, and we had a wonderful life together. He was a fantastic violinist and it was a meeting just at the right time in my life, when I realized this was what I wanted to do, which was to play chamber music with a great violinist. We were a duo for many, many years. He was 18 years older than I was and when I met him he had a brilliant career, a child prodigy who had a musical career that was much more serious than mine was at that time. He was a wunderkind, as they call it, and wunderkind life was not easy on him. He played all over the world, made recordings, became well known. He grew up in Argentina because his parents had to leave Berlin, where he was born, a refugee of the Holocaust.
JM: I remember him as a fairly intense, solemn individual during my graduate degree years at UMass.
EO: Yes, he was a much more private person, whereas I was always an extravert, which made him not desirable for committees entirely! (laughs)
JM: As I recall, you’re performing a piece by (my teacher, retired UMass professor of composition) Charles Bestor?
EO: That’s right, it’s a piece he wrote a few years ago, retitled as “Thirteen More Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” He made some changes since then and he likes it now with a narrator, so I asked a colleague, Julie Nelson, if she would read the poems aloud.
JM: Will Charles be there at the concert?
EO: I hope so. You know, he’s very frail. We’re also doing the piece at UMass so he’ll definitely be at one of them. I’m not sure that any of us can really get into the poems. They seem to be a set of poems that people give very different interpretations.
JM: Then you’ll be doing Albeniz pieces ...
EO: Yes, I’m doing three numbers from “Iberia” and I love that suite, the entire “Iberia.” I wish I could play it all but, right now, it would make too long a program. Number one is “Evocacion,” evocation; number two is “El Puerto,” the harbor, depicting the life of the harbor of Cadiz, in Spain; and the last one is “Griana,” a section, I believe, of Sevilla. It has the rhythm of a pasodoble (literally, a ‘double-step’, a traditional Spanish couple’s dance.) You need more than 10 fingers for this music!
There will be a reception following the concert in the Caswell library of Deerfield Academy.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.