Before the Berlin Wall came down, three years into the Gorbachev era my very young self spent a surreal, eye-opening, sometimes heartbreaking, occasionally hilarious year in the Soviet Union, at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory residence known as the “Obsh,” on Malaya Gruzinskaya Street in the center of Moscow. Although I have myriad unbelievable stories from that time, there was one moment, musically, that had a profound effect on the direction of my life.

It was in mid–February, when the sun shone for only a few bleak hours a day and we could no longer remember anything but winter. We were generally to be found huddling around piles of candles (and whatever libation one of us had bartered for) in an attempt to evoke some sort of cheer. No one had seen fresh fruit for months (not, at any rate, since my fabulous thirty-four kilos of bananas back in December — another story).

The Obsh was like a little city — five floors, about a half mile long, and we thought of the long hallways as streets. As the youngest person there and the only Canadian, I was something of a curiosity and had lots of friends. People would smile and say, “Ah! Eez Kanadye! Glyenn Gould!” I heard the story of Gould’s 1957 Moscow concert dozens of times — how there was practically no one in the hall for the first half, and then after intermission, people were hanging from the rafters, rioting, et cetera. Accompanying this legend was a far-flung rumor of a bootleg recording of that concert.

One cold February night a friend of my roommate’s burst in all wild-eyed, waving a cassette tape over her head. I don’t know how many bottles of vodka it cost her, but it was the Gould bootleg, the real thing. It was cued up to where the Bach began, and we sat in a circle staring at each other in crazy anticipation. He began with Contrapunctus I of the Art of the Fugue. The first subject took him a full fifteen seconds to play. Someone whispered, “He can’t keep this up! He can’t!” and the rest of us shushed her frantically.

Every voice Gould played, even in that unfathomably slow tempo, was audible as its own line of beauty, and from that moment on I knew what it was to hear, and play, horizontally. The intensity generated and sustained in those five minutes had such a profound impact that all of us had tears rolling down our cheeks. Near the end, he played the last diminished chord in pianissimo, forever sealing in my mind that a whisper can be stronger than a scream.

Someone turned off the tape player. We all just stared at one another dumbfounded for a moment, and then started laughing and hugging each other; somehow we had just experienced a miracle.

Thirty-two years after the original concert, in a tiny room just a few miles away, Glenn Gould won a small victory for Russian–Canadian friendship, and for Johann Seabstian Bach.  

Lara St. John is a Canadian-born violinist.


This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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