By any standard, Alice Burla is an accomplished musician. The pianist, a student at the Juilliard School of Music, has mastered difficult pieces by Beethoven and Chopin, won a national competition in Canada and performed at Carnegie Hall. But if such accomplishments would be a fitting reward for a decade or more of intensive study, they are for Burla a mere beginning. She is only seven years old.
Alice, the daughter of Soviet immigrants, was born in Canada, where her family landed after emigrating from Donetsk, Ukraine, in 1990. Her parents’ decision to leave Toronto, where they finally had acquired citizenship, in pursuit of Juilliard and the American Dream would seem quixotic if not for their daughter’s tremendous talent.
“I’m a crazy Jewish mom,” Alice’s mother, Nely, admitted in an interview with the Forward. “Everybody was telling me, ‘Don’t go; you’re crazy.’ But I said to my husband I want to give her opportunities, so we dropped everything and came.”
Their path has been littered with obstinate immigration officials, lawyers and scavenged furniture. After Alice was accepted to Juilliard in the spring of 2003, the family put all their belongings in storage and set out for the UnitedStates, only to have Alice’s father, Marat, stopped at the border for reasons that have still not been explained to them. She came alone with Alice and Alice’s 15-year-old brother, Konstantin, and the trio spent five nights on a neighbor’s floor last January after the pipes in their apartment burst.
But when Alice plays, those difficulties seem to melt away. Her current program, a full half-hour of fast and furious music committed to memory, has a level of difficulty appropriate for an accomplished adult. At a recent concert, held to raise money for next year’s Juilliard tuition, her small hands darted across the keyboard like spiders, and then hovered like butterflies pulsing their wings. The only signs of her tender age were a silver bow in her hair, a booster seat used to reach the keys, and a sheepish grin that crept across her face with each wave of applause.
“The fact that she’s at such a young age and can technically perform at this level is amazing, “ said Stan Zielinski, a representative from Yamaha. “She has a lot of natural musicality; the shaping of the melodies is very special. It’s all natural, it comes from her, her vision for the music.”
With such innate talent, it is not surprising that Alice comes from a family rich in musicians. Her grandfather played first violin for a Ukrainian symphony, Marat is a piano teacher and technician, Nely has a doctorate in performance piano and Konstantin is a budding composer.
“She has a free teacher, free accompanist and free technician — she has a free crew,” Nely said.
That crew — now reunited with Marat and living in Hastings, N.Y. — looks back with pride on Alice’s first year at Juilliard, even as they struggle to stay afloat. Since no one has been willing to sponsor Marat’s application for a work visa, their only income is from the piano lessons that Nely gives. And even though the bulk of their belongings remain in storage in Canada, the Burlas recently had a tag sale to raise money for daily living expenses.
The music community, in turn, has rallied around them. Melissa Manning, the director of the Manning School of Music in Nyack, N.Y. — who was admitted to Juilliard’s pre-college division at age 13 — held a benefit concert for Alice earlier in the summer. And Manning’s efforts attracted the attention of Yamaha’s outreach program, which donated the balance of Alice’s fall Juilliard tuition and helped organize last week’s fund raiser at Frank & Camille’s Fine Pianos on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
For now, at least, that bit of help is enough for the Burlas, who show no signs of weariness. Alice took part in a young artists’ showcase at Carnegie Hall earlier this summer and is now hard at work on new material.
“Sometimes after two-and-a-half, three hours of practice,” Nely explained, “She’ll say, ‘Mommy, we just started.’”