Александр  Рис

About the Past and Present

Maya Pritsker
Music critic, head of the arts section
of the newspaper Novoye Russkoye Slovo, New York

When God does give, he gives a lot. Genuine artistic gifts can’t wait to show themselves off in various fields. It’s clear why: an artist is, above all, somebody who is especially impressionable and is able to see and comprehend more, to sense things more keenly; this heightened receptivity, as a rule, feels cramped in one form of art, in one genre. Alexander Rees and the book you are opening are confirmation of that.

I have remembered his name since my student years. One of the former Soviet Union’s best violists, he taught at the Gnesin Institute, where I was a student in the historical-theoretical composer’s division, and he performed in concerts: as a violist with his constant partner, the pianist Alexander Sats, and in ensembles with other well-known musicians, as a performer on viola d’amore with the legendary Madrigal ensemble, as an artistic director and conductor of the Moscow State University Chamber Orchestra, as concertmaster of a group of violas with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. His name has appeared not only on posters but also on record covers and in the headings of scholarly anthologies. We weren’t acquainted, although we walked the same corridors of the Gnesin house on the former Vorovsky Street, now Povarskaya Street again, and along the same Arbat alleyways. It was as a listener that I came to know him – to know him as a deep, erudite, and versatile musician.

Years later we again found ourselves in the same city, albeit in another hemisphere. He didn’t give himself a long respite to get accustomed and adjusted to a new complicated environment and its unwritten laws and especially to the complaints that are frequent among emigrants, namely that “they” don’t understand, “they” don’t appreciate and in general everything “with them” is wrong. Putting aside memories of his past accomplishments (which he didn’t even find necessary to mention in this book); Rees began, like a novice, to go to auditions for orchestras, to give lessons, and to perform in all sorts of chamber ensembles. His consummate professionalism and versatility filled the bill perfectly in American reality and were recognized. Now he is in great demand, both as an educator and as a performer. He plays with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and as principal of the viola section in other orchestras. In addition, he has dozens of students and performs as a soloist, including on his beloved viola d’amore, which he mastered so brilliantly during the Madrigal years. Recently Alexander Rees was elected a member of the International Academy of Sciences, Education and Arts (U.S. branch), which includes such performers as Yehudi Menuhin and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Is there time here for anything else? At first there really wasn’t. But then an old passion awoke…for painting.

Alexander writes in his book about how this passion manifested itself in his youth, how it died away for a while and came back. He also writes about the Moscow of his adolescence, about the Soviet 1950’s, and about his parents. He writes superbly, giving persuasive evidence that, besides his gifts for music and painting, he has literary talent as well. But the text – succinct, precise, to be read in one go – no matter how good it is, is still not the main thing here. It is an essential and poetic commentary on the urban landscapes reproduced here of the two principal cities in Alexander Rees’ life: Moscow and New York, landscapes that Rees spent many years working on.

Nobody should think that the range of painting themes for this artist is confined to Moscow and New York. A great many of his works, for example, are devoted to the Baltic, but what we are looking at here is not a complete catalogue of his works, rather a small, carefully selected and elegantly arranged part of it, that is, specifically a book.

I like it very much. Even in reproduction these paintings, executed with such ethereal lightness, arouse a strong emotional reaction. Snow-covered Moscow streets, courtyards, roofs, chimneys, smoke, Nikitskaya Street glistening after the rain, and then suddenly the bright gold of autumn, behind which a snow-white church is shining with its green cupolas…Each image seems to pull you out of today and carry you, gently but authoritatively, into its own world, one that no longer exists…except that it does exist on this canvas, and in your own imagination, in your memory. Maybe that happens because I once walked along all these streets and alleyways? Or because in Rees’ Moscow landscapes there is so much snow, which you start to miss in New York?

No, it’s not that. It’s the fact that the artist has succeeded in re-creating more than just what is visible. His nearly always deserted – and seldom sunny – urban landscapes project a state that he himself once experienced: at the hour of this early, light-blue twilight or bluish-lilac Moscow evening or a dark courtyard surrounded by walls and glowing windows…”The Fragrance of Color.” And as you gaze upon his work, you feel the same thing, and you begin to remember…

The Moscow landscapes are dominated by snow, the New York scenes by rain. And believe it or not, the latter have more space, sky, and light. If I ever find myself far from New York for a long time, I will probably view these landscapes by Alexander Rees with the same nagging sense of recognition and slight sadness. Then again, even now they stir something like nostalgia in me, because you can’t bring back an instant that is recorded on canvas.

And at the end of the book there is a little more of Moscow. Moscow from New York. This short last chapter was born on the basis of old Moscow sketches, when Rees tried to return to painting in New York…by way of Moscow.

Alexander Rees’ three talents have something in common: an absolutely organic quality, a sense of moderation, and refined emotions and style. He has a keen ear – not only for music but also for words. He has a keen eye that notices the intangible elements that have always existed in the diocese of music. And a hand that with equal sensitivity gives birth to a stroke – either in music or in painting.