The first time Valery Kuleshov visited the United States, it was to meet the famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
Kuleshov, now artist-in-residence at the University of Central Oklahoma, was personally invited to Horowitz's New York home to demonstrate a series of the composer's unpublished work that Kuleshov had painstakingly transcribed from only a few recordings.
The two Russian natives formed a quick bond. Horowitz asked him to play one of the works he had transcribed.
“I was so happy to play for him,” Kuleshov said. “There was no time to be nervous.”
After performing a few pieces, he apologized for perhaps mistranslating a few notes, but Horowitz smiled and assured him, as Kuleshov recalled, that his transcription was “absolutely right.”
Kuleshov counts this meeting chief among a long list of career accomplishments. As a pianist, Kuleshov has studied in prestigious institutions, toured internationally and performed well in competitions reserved for the world's most elite pianists.
Still, Kuleshov says no one medal or single performance can alone tell the tale of his true passion — his personal development as an artist.
“Most important was, for me, the music,” he said.
Katye Kuleshova, Kuleshov's wife of 24 years, said, “Developing as a musician was always his goal. He never stops. I mean, this development is still going on, because he's working every single day.”
Making the move
Though they've now lived in Edmond for close to two decades, there was a time when the Kuleshovs were not convinced a move to the United States was right for them.
They first were courted to the States by Steve Blevins, Ph.D., a friend and classical music enthusiast they had met at a performance in Oklahoma.
Blevins would later visit the Kuleshovs at their home in Moscow. During his trip, he asked the couple if they were interested in finding jobs in the U.S. Though Kuleshova said she and her husband did not immediately commit to the idea, Blevins soon found Kuleshov a position at UCO.
“UCO actually opened up a position especially for Valery, because they didn't have an artist-in-residence position at that time,” she said.
Kuleshov was playing in Carnegie Hall when a group of representatives from the university came to see him perform. They met with the pianist after the show.
“They already had a contract ready for Valery,” Kuleshova said.
A teacher's touch
Though the couple were excited about Kuleshov's new position, they immediately began noticing strong cultural differences in their new home. The general rush of the American lifestyle was the most noticeable.
“When I studied at school, my teacher, she didn't watch the time,” Kuleshov said. “It didn't matter if the next student arrived for their lesson, she would say, ‘Maybe next afternoon.'”
“It's not that it's bad, don't take it wrong,” Kuleshova added. “It's just very different.”
Kuleshov said classes in Russia could go on for two, sometimes two-and-a-half hours, if they needed to.
Still, Kuleshov's transition to life as an instructor at UCO enhanced rather than stifled his passion for classical music. He doesn't keep his students for endless hours like his own teachers, but he challenges other conventions of learning piano.
“Now, younger musicians are involved in too many competitions,” he said. “Sometimes they'll play only one movement of a sonata or concerto, and they don't even know the second. How that's possible? I don't know.”
Above all, Kuleshov wants his students to be well-rounded. Mastery of the music is not just in the technical aspects, he explained, but in fully understanding the context that surrounds each piece.
“When I'm learning a new piece, for example Tchaikovsky, I'm not only practicing, but I'm also reading Tchaikovsky's letters and studying when he composed this and listening to other orchestral works of the same time,” he said. “It's interesting for me.”
Drawn to ‘Seasons'
As he's gotten older, Kuleshov has found himself especially drawn to composers from his homeland, such as Tchaikovsky. This nostalgia for Russia was responsible for his new project, “The Seasons.”
In an end-of-semester performance, 12 UCO students taught directly by Kuleshov will perform a scene from Tchaikovsky's “The Seasons,” a depiction of life in late 19th century Russia.
The performance is scheduled for April 26 and will be open to the public.
Each scene represents a month in the year. There is a poem before each scene that has been translated into English for his students to recite. Getting a good understanding of how the original composer heard and felt “The Seasons” took a lot of time and research, Kuleshov said.
Another instructor could assign a group of students to play a set of 12 pieces, but Dr. David Forbat, head of the piano division at UCO's school of music, said Kuleshov “is going to be able to convey a Russian perspective that someone who doesn't have that background would not be able to.”
Forbat said he has high hopes for this culturally and repertoire-specific performance. He said it is easy to tell Kuleshov is passionate about Russian classical music.
The Kuleshovs love of the Russian culture — of home — will never leave them. Their bookshelves are lined with Russian history. They said they don't often go to restaurants, preferring traditional Russian cooking.
But as long as they have the music, Kuleshova said, they'll always feel at home. They've even grown fond their new location.
“Oklahoma is our home now,” she said. “It's a wonderful state, and I really think that there's just some kind of atmosphere over here which is really nice.”