Q: As a cultural and musical historian, you're an expert at weaving together the art, music, culture, and history of Europe. What first sparked your interest in music and in European history?
A : The world came to me through books when I was a child. Growing up in the mountains of Virginia, I had no opportunity to travel or attend concerts. But my mother passionately valued education, despite her own impoverished upbringing in an immigrant ghetto in Brooklyn. From her I learned that education, history, and the arts mattered.
Then, at age 14, I fell in love with Russia, but for a different reason. An older cousin was studying Russian at college. When he came home for Christmas, he showed me the Cyrillic alphabet. It seemed so glamorous to me. Amused by my enthusiasm, he began to send me books, including my first Russian novels.
At the same time, my piano teacher began feeding me Russian repertoire, particularly pieces by Prokofiev and Kabalevsky. I fell deeply in love with Russian culture and vowed I would go some day. Of course, back then, one couldn't just "go" independently to Russia, so travel had to wait until 1981 when I received a grant to write my dissertation in Leningrad.
Q: As part of its cultural mission, Smithsonian has a strong focus on music. In fact, 2019 has been declared the Smithsonian Year of Music. As a music historian, tell us your thoughts on music as a reflection of culture.
A : Music bears the glorious label of “the international language”—a medium of communication that binds people even where ethnic, political, or religious identities would otherwise divide. Music allows us to absorb a new geographic region more readily. It helps us better understand the flow of a region’s history since music, both in content and style, reflects historical events. Through music we enter more quickly into another culture’s language and societal values.
Q: How does this play into the many tours and cruises that you lead for Smithsonian Journeys?
A : The music we hear while traveling etches lasting memories: long after we forget other details, we tend to remember a concert we attended, an organ playing in a cathedral we visited, or a trio of jazz musicians we stumbled upon in a café. Smithsonian travelers often have a lively interest in the arts. The agendas of some tours are rich in musical events. But even if not, itineraries on Smithsonian Journeys offer many blocks of open time when travelers can pursue individual interests. In my formal lectures, I weave in quite a bit of musical history. This happens easily since music is so integrated into our human experience. Occasionally we have travelers who are attending their first opera, ballet, or formal concert. In these cases, I’m able to offer preparatory information to help the occasion be a joyful one.
Q: What other topics do you like to include in your presentations?
A : I craft each presentation to include a variety of aspects. Political and military history, language, topography, religious history, and the fi ne arts—these converge to make up a region’s culture. Sometimes, of course, a talk focuses on specific persons or events, such as the monumental writers Pushkin or Goethe, or political events like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of the Romanov Tsars. I seek to paint a colorful canvas for every talk.