The prodigy; returns

Odessa steps: as one musician makes a historic return to the Ukraine, another is forced to leave in search of a working organ
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The Independent Online
"The first thing I want to do is walk down the famous Potemkin Steps - all 195 - and then see my old apartment, and then the opera house and then..." The time is early May; the place an Austrian Airlines passenger jet just landed at Odessa airport; and the voice that of the 86-year-old piano virtuoso Shura Cherkassky. "I am going to be the first to touch the ground. My right foot is my lucky foot," he confides. "Why?" I ask. "Because my left foot is unlucky."

Shura's 5ft 2in frame barges through the crowd and gingerly descends the steps. He steps down with his right foot and then proceeds to shake hands with all the other passengers, while screaming "Welcome to my birthplace." Then he kisses the ground. Shura Cherkassky has returned to the city he left as a child prodigy for the USA in 1922.

"The great Hobart Earle is meeting us," Cherkassky had shouted before touchdown. "Maybe the whole orchestra will come." Now, as we enter the terminal, a tall, good-looking young man greets him warmly. They converse rapidly in Russian, hugging and laughing. Finally we are introduced to Hobart - Hobey to his friends - the 33-year-old conductor of the Odessa Philharmonic. Since being appointed musical director in 1991 on a wage of $25 a month (the players get $1 a day), he has toured the orchestra to the USA, Germany, Australia and the UK. Last year they made their debut at the Barbican, where Cherkassky (who has lived for the past 20 years in a small flat near Regent's Park) heard them and was thrilled. Until then, he had no idea that the orchestra even existed any more. Now he is giving his first London recital of the season as a benefit concert in their aid.

Back in Odessa, we are being driven to our hotel in the orchestra's almost derelict cars. "Look, there's a double seven - my lucky number seven - on that car," cries Cherkassky, who was born on 7 October 1909 (though for most of his life he believed it was 1911, his father having adjusted his age by a couple of years to make him seem all the more of a prodigy to American audiences).

I am pleasantly surprised by the beauty of Odessa, with its tree-lined boulevards, parks and late 18th-century buildings. But count the number of Mercedes being driven by young men still in their twenties and you soon realise that something is amiss in this mafia-run city. "I'm surprised at how many cars there are now," Shura says, as we hit a traffic jam. Six years ago you could almost mark the petrol stations on a map of the Ukraine.

"Why did you come here?" I ask Hobey Earle. "It was love at first sight. I felt at home here," he laughs. Born in Venezuela to American parents, and educated at Gordonstoun, Princeton and Trinity College, London, Earle is a man of many homes. "Odessa, made famous by Eisenstein," he remarks, "has always been a great musical centre." The legendary violinists David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein and Mischa Elman came from Odessa, as did the pianists Emil Gilels and Benno Moiseiwitsch.

That night, as we eat caviar and Chicken Kiev in the grand Londonskaya Hotel, we listen to Shura's stories. "I used to come to balls here as a child... We were so poor we couldn't afford food... Bette Davis and I used to drive around Hollywood during the war... Did I tell you the joke - oh, it's a bit naughty - about the two women and the three bananas?"

A string quartet plays on stage and dozens of waiters rush back and forth, even though there are only a handful of guests. We finally retire to our enormous bedrooms, only to find that there is no hot water. Somehow it seems acceptable in the former USSR.

From here on, Shura keeps us rushing around day and night. Each day blurs into one long adventure. Although he was last here six years ago, one could easily believe he had not returned since he left as a child. Cherkassky can rekindle the enthusiasm of saying or doing anything as if for the first time, bringing the childlike spontaneity to his life that he brings to his playing.

We visit the conservatory where his mother taught and rush off to other buildings which he can no longer recognise or remember. The magnificent hall where he gave his first concert is being restored. The foreman leads us through concrete and rubble to a piano, standing alone against a wall. It prompts Shura to reminisce about his debut. "I was so nervous. And my mother said to me, 'Don't worry if you play wrong, but just play. For heaven's sake, just play!' "

Each night we are exhausted, but Shura wants more, still eager to go to a nightclub, a bar, a casino - "not to drink alcohol, I never touch it, but just to see". His zest for living perhaps reflects some sense that his life is unfulfilled - as if he has missed out on so much that he still has to rush to catch up.

We finally find the apartment where Shura lived as a child. Three families live there now. They have never heard of Shura but are fascinated by this aged, eccentric man with hairy hands walking about their home. He rushes from room to room, talking - in French, English, Russian - to everyone. "My father had his dentist chair here... No, this was the waiting-room... No..." He smiles.

"How do you feel?" asks Hobey. "Words cannot express the way I feel." "Well, play the piano then." But Shura refuses to play in Odessa - he feels too much emotion. Suddenly he recalls that he was nearly shot while watching the Bolsheviks fight the Mensheviks from the balcony: "A bullet flew past my left ear," he says, searching for a hole in the wall.

The sight of old Party members, their medals proudly displayed against their red uniforms, is fascinating. They are celebrating the victory of Communism over Fascism in the "Great Patriotic War". We go to a 50th-anniversary concert at Philharmonic Hall. Listening to music by Elgar, Shostakovich, Copland and Strauss - an Englishman, a Russian, an American, a German - Shura is so happy he cries. "Look what Hobey is doing for my city. I must do all I can for him."

n Cherkassky plays Debussy, Schumann and Liszt in aid of the Odessa Philharmonic: 4 Dec, 1pm St John's Smith Square, London (0171-222 1061). Hobart Earle conducts 'Music of Ukraine' on ASV CD DCA 963