The party's over, but not for Tamara


Helen Womack
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:10

RUSSIANS ENGAGED in the grim business of celebrating the anniversary of the October Revolution again last weekend. It is a habit they just cannot seem to give up.

For the few thousand die-hards who marched under the red banner the 7 November holiday, renamed the "Day of Accord and Reconciliation", remains sacred. To the majority, who stayed in to watch an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin make the equivalent of the Queen's Christmas speech, it was just an excuse to crack open the vodka. By evening, the sounds of drunken arguments were coming through the walls from right and left, above and below.

I was lucky. I had an alternative way of spending the holiday. I had an invitation to one of Tamara Lavrentieva's delightful musical salons.

Tamara begins to hold these little private parties around the piano when winter sets in. Professional Russian musicians have an expression to dismiss this kind of amateur event: they call it "Aunt Sonya at a Namesday Party". But Tamara, who has that wonderful Russian ability to be serious without embarrassment, is striving for the atmosphere of the aristocratic salons held on the Arbat in Pushkin's day. She offers only light snacks because she wants the guests to concentrate on the music.

Not a musician herself but a social worker and ceramic artist, she attracts good performers. Then the audience joins in. The children, especially, love to do their party pieces. Everyone leaves feeling inspired and hoping for another invitation.

When I came to Russia in 1985, Tamara's home on Podkolokolny (Under the Bells) Lane was like a lamp glowing in what seemed a grey, bewildering and hostile world.

The star of those early salons was a pianist from the Tallinn conservatoire, Irina Borisenko. Because she was as thin as a rake, everyone jokingly called her "Pufik" (Little Cushion), which she hated. Penniless and for a while homeless, Pufik lived at Tamara's, playing for her supper and giving music lessons to Tamara's daughter Dasha, then just a little girl.

The salons gave Pufik a stage, on which she played Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, and Dasha an opportunity to show her progress. Sometimes friends would sing. Often Tamara's husband, Anton, would perform his own ballads to the guitar.

Eventually, Pufik left for Paris. She hoped that nobody would know her nickname there. But word leaked out on the Russian emigre grapevine and she is still "Little Cushion" although a big star in France now.

The salons were not the same after Pufik departed. Other factors came close to defeating Tamara. Her husband took to Russian Orthodoxy and went through a phase when he believed singing for pleasure was a sin. Market reforms began and other friends were too busy trying to make their fortunes to care about music.

But Tamara's salons have been enjoying a revival. On Sunday night, she gathered an audience to explore the historical roots of pop music. A musicologist explained that music had always served two purposes: to lift the spirit and to make the feet tap. While Dasha, now an art student, floated about in a beaded dress from the 1920s, Tamara played old records of the first Soviet jazzman, Utyosov, as well as some LPs brought home from Germany by a soldier at the end of the war. Anton was back strumming and singing without any conflict in his soul.

Then, as it was half-term, the kids were allowed to have a disco with Prodigy, which was pronounced by the musicologist to be a perfectly acceptable continuation of the great foot-tapping tradition.

"How do you find the energy to organise all this in the middle of an economic crisis?" I asked Tamara as the guests were leaving.

"When you have children, you are obliged to be an optimist," she said.

In Russia now, there is a mood of resignation, as people see that Yeltsin's revolution has failed "The party's over," said one American businessman, packing to leave.

But at Tamara's, the party goes on. Perhaps because she has never placed too much faith in politicians. Because she has known the only difference she can make is in her own life and that of her immediate circle.

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