THE women of the Moscow String Quartet are learning English as fast as they can. These musicians left their country last summer to become artists-in-residence at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver.
The persuasive beauty of the Rocky Mountains delights them, but their opportunities to enjoy the mountains or pursue American culture have been limited by their demanding teaching and touring schedule. Already this school year they have traveled back to Moscow for their concert season and again to Europe. Even so, they still make time for English classes at the university.
Acclaimed throughout Europe, the quartet has yet to find a manager in the United States. Though their concerts here have been few so far, they have been well received. Says music critic Marc Shulgold of the Rocky Mountain News: "I was impressed by their seamless blend, their unanimity of sound. The Moscow String Quartet is a matched set - outstanding."
The quartet is perhaps best known for its expertise in 20th-century music, especially contemporary Russian music. Composer Alfred Schnittke wrote, "After the Borodin Quartet, the Moscow Quartet is the leading exponent of my music and of contemporary Soviet music in general.... This extraordinary ensemble distinguishes itself with refined musical style, an unusually beautiful sound and palette of colors...."
The most distinguished contemporary Soviet composers have collaborated with the quartet. Besides Schnittke, they include Edison Denisov and Sofia Gubaidulina.
"Very often we have proposals from composers, and we can choose what we like," says second violinist Valentina Alykova. "Some modern composers write music without imagination - like mathematics. Only tricks. It's not good. When we look for music, we look for feeling," she says, touching her heart and her head.
Despite help from faculty, friends of the arts, and neighbors in furnishing their small apartments, the standard of living the musicians enjoy in the US is less refined than the celebrity life they were accustomed to in the former USSR.
They seem untroubled by the disparity, however. "It is only the beginning," they all say. Their real difficulty here is, having uprooted their families, they have landed their husbands in limbo. None of the men has the appropriate visa with which to seek full-time employment here.
Cellist Olga Ogranovich is married to cellist Mikhail Ogranovich. Their young daughter, Maya, is enrolled in elementary school and is learning English faster than any of the adults. "She speaks very fast and very much!" says Ms. Ogranovich, laughing.
Ms. Alykova's husband, Vladimir Binevitch, is a computer programmer. Violist Tatyana Kokhanovskaya's clarinetist husband, Alexander Ivanov, sometimes accompanies the quartet, but not often. Only first violinist Eugenia Alikhanova's husband, a doctor, has found work, as a researcher.
But the women agree their adjustment to American life has gone more smoothly than anticipated.
"It's strange for me," says Ms. Kokhanovskaya. "I thought I would have very big homesick, but I have not." Returning to Moscow over Christmas break to play concerts and visit with friends helped immensely, she adds.
Each member feels keenly the terrific fluctuations going on now in Moscow. "We live another life here. But for our friends who stayed in Moscow, it's more difficult," says Alykova.
"Life is very difficult in our country," agrees Ms. Alikhanova. "I think that our government has made many mistakes. The situation is very sad, because people want to build new lives, but they have great obstructions and difficulties.
"Former communists don't want to make room for a new way of life," she continues. "They want to influence and struggle. I know there are a lot of people who want the change. There isn't stability in life ... and economical and political stability is what is needed."
"I feel very sorry for these people and was very angry to see there was not enough to eat," says Alykova, referring to the group's trip. "Even I wanted to return to a time when they could eat. But the situation now is the fee for the 70 years of agreement with communism. Now they pay for belief and trust in communism."
Despite economic and political upheaval, the Moscow String Quartet found concert life in Moscow this year very satisfying.
Alykova explains, "The concert season is very rich because people want to go listen to music, and many musicians from other countries have come to play. Isaac Stern came to play many concerts and gave master classes. Wonderful."
Musicians are greeted with exceptional ardor now because art seems to help comfort the suffering populace, the women say. People are willing to use their scanty resources for a few hours of uplifting music. Available in the US is the Moscow String Quartet's compact disc recording of Tchaikovsky String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, from Art and Electronics, distributed by MCA Records.