Provocateur Pianist Journeys From Ukraine to Brooklyn and Back

Vadim Neselovskyi Poised on Brink of Jazz Stardom

Piano Man: Vadim Neselovskyi recently returned from a tour of Russia.
Wolfgang Kleber
Piano Man: Vadim Neselovskyi recently returned from a tour of Russia.

By Phillip Lutz

Published December 19, 2013, issue of December 20, 2013.
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“He’s not trying to impress,” she said. “He just hears complexity. He’s searching all the time.”

Neselovskyi acknowledged that his search has, at times, received a mixed reaction, even at venues known for adventurous music. But he said he took listeners’ reservations as a positive sign that he was presenting something fresh.

“I sensed shock in the audience,” he said, “not to the point of scandal, but there was some shock. I think this is a compliment to the music. It needs to be provocative.”

Neselovskyi’s urge to provoke is reflected in what is arguably his most sensitive project to date, one spurred by the recollections of an Upper West Side survivor of the Treblinka concentration camp. The project, still in the talking stage, will draw on the survivor’s memories of being rescued by the Red Army and nursed back to health in Germany by a Jewish doctor whose family she has tried to find. It will also address her life before she was taken to the camp, as a young girl protected from the events around her. Seated at a shaky metal table in his apartment, Neselovskyi related how the woman recalled the everyday manner in which her school cancelled classes on the day that would become that fateful night.

The music will draw power from the quotidian nature of her childhood even as the horrors were unfolding. It will substitute the day’s popular music, filtered through Neselovskyi’s sensibility, for the declamatory atonal approach favored by so many postwar composers. And it might incorporate his take on liturgical music, which Neselovskyi demonstrated at the piano in a set of jazz-inflected chorales commissioned by a cantor for use in his synagogue in Dortmund, Germany.

Whatever shape the project ultimately takes, Neselovksyi said, he will not be content simply to put the music out there passively. He will bring it to some of the provincial towns he visited on his recent trip to Eastern Europe.

“It’s easy to present it to the Jewish community center, to people who hear about the Holocaust all the time,” he said. “But to bring it to Belaya Tserkov, a little town near Kiev — I would even go for a little provocation.”

Phillip Lutz lives and writes in New York. His work has appeared in Newsday, DownBeat and The New York Times.


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