Interview: Violinist Yevgeny Kutik at the Kennedy Center

Many artists cite their family as one of their main sources of inspiration, but violinist Yevgeny Kutik can make a stronger claim than most. Even some of the repertoire he performs stems directly from a decision his mother made when Kutik was only five years old.

Yevgeny Kutik. Photo by Corey Hayes.

In 1990, Kutik and his family were forced to flee the deteriorating Soviet Union for the United States, with assistance from the Jewish Federations of America. Because their escape needed to happen quickly, the family had to leave almost all of their possessions behind and fit everything they needed into just two suitcases. But Kutik’s mother, Alla Zernitskaya, who was also Kutik’s first violin teacher, decided that their family’s collection of sheet music was a priceless treasure that couldn’t be lost, and she filled one whole suitcase with music to bring with them to their new lives.

Years later, Kutik began to explore the music from the suitcase and was enthralled with the pieces he discovered. In order to share his family history with a wider audience, Kutik used his family’s sheet music as the basis for a new project: his second album, Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures, released in 2014 to critical acclaim from NPR’s “All Things Considered” and The New York Times.

Kutik says of creating the project, “As I continued to explore this music, they began to organize themselves into a distinct array of moods and themes, suffused with the character of Russian folklore, fantasy, and poetry…The pieces on this album carry with them a simplicity and directness, and with this immediacy, a striking beauty…It reminds me of what we went through and how far we have come.”

For his Kennedy Center debut on April 23, presented by Washington Performing Arts, Kutik and pianist Anna Polonsky will perform Russian musical selections from the Music from the Suitcase project, including Stravinsky’s Divertimento from “A Fairy’s Kiss”; Prokofiev’s Waltz from “Cinderella” (arr. Fikhtengoltz); and Rubenstein’s Romance in E-flat Major, Op. 44, No. 1 (arr. Wieniawski); plus Schnittke’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 and Prokofiev’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2.

They will also play two brand new pieces from Kutik’s newest project, Meditations on Family, in which he continues to explore the importance of family, memory, and tradition, this time from the perspectives of composers living and working today. Kutik has asked eight composers so far to translate a personal family photo into a short musical miniature for violin and various ensemble.

Yevgeny Kutik. Photo by Corey Hayes.

“I had worked with a number of the composers before, and was very interested to see how they would respond to my idea of a 2-minute meditation,” says Kutik when asked how he selected the composers to write a piece for the project. “Some composers, like Gity Razaz, I hadn’t worked with before but definitely knew of their work, and wanted their ideas included.”

Kutik’s Kennedy Center recital will include the first-ever D.C. performances of Razaz’s Cadenza for the Once Young as well as Andreia Pinto Correia’s Litania, both commissioned by Washington Performing Arts.

For Kutik, music is ultimately a thread connecting the present and the past. “Music is like sense-memory. It can take you back to a specific time and place, or it can place you somewhere emotionally.”

Running Time:  One hour and forty-five minutes with intermission.

Violinist Yevgeny Kutik performs on April 23, 2019, at 7:30 pm, with pianist Anna Polonsky presented by Washington Performing Arts at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.