Nina Beilina, who emigrated from the Soviet Union in midlife when she was one of that country’s premier violinists and built a whole new following in the United States, playing top halls and founding her own ensemble, died on Nov. 25 in Manhattan. She was 81.
Her family said the cause was complications of a stroke, compounded by congestive heart failure.
Beilina had won prestigious competitions when she lived in the Soviet Union, but she was largely unknown to American audiences when she arrived in New York in 1977; under the authoritarian Soviet system, she had performed primarily in the Soviet bloc and South America. Her formal debut, in January 1978 at the 92nd Street Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association (now known at the 92nd Street Y) in New York City, brought her quick acclaim.
“Miss Beilina did not make a false move anywhere,” Harold Schonberg wrote in his review in The New York Times. “She is an important instrumentalist, and a first-class musician to boot. Whatever she touched came out with incredible polish, assurance and, when needed, brilliance.”
He added, presciently, “A violinist of Miss Beilina’s formidable powers will not be an unknown for long.”
Beilina (pronounced bay-LEE-nah), who taught for many years at the Mannes College of Music in Manhattan, went on to play at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall and other New York venues and with the Miami Chamber Symphony, the Arlington Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and numerous others.
In 1988 she founded the Bachanalia Festival, at which Beilina, the artistic director, and an ever-changing group of musicians played music by Bach and other composers. It has been held in New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Merkin Concert Hall and elsewhere, and the festival orchestra has played concerts at venues like Alice Tully Hall and Weill Recital Hall.
Beilina also performed internationally, in Italy, Germany and other countries. In 1990, after Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, had thawed the Cold War, she was among the first expatriate musicians to return to her home country, performing for a Moscow audience that demanded three encores.
“I have no words to describe my feelings,” she told the crowd, which showered her with more than 50 bouquets.
Nina Mikhailovna Beilina was born on March 4, 1937, in Moscow. Her father, Mordechai, was an engineer, and her mother, Dvosya (Shklovskaya) Beilina, was a piano teacher.
She showed musical promise from a young age and was educated at Moscow’s Central Music School before enrolling in the Moscow Conservatory. In 1961 she won the George Enescu competition in Bucharest, Romania, and the next year she was one of the Soviet representatives in the second International Tchaikovsky Competition.
“The competition is political,” she recalled in a 1978 interview with The Times, “so they spent a lot of money for us. We were trained like Olympic sportsmen.”
She won a bronze medal, and her career flourished for a time. But by the late 1960s she and her second husband, conductor Israel Chudnovsky, who were both Jewish, were talking about leaving the country, which was becoming increasingly inhospitable to Jews. Before they could act, Chudnovsky died of cancer in 1971. It was several years before Beilina thought again about emigrating with their young son, Emil Chudnovsky (whom she called Mickey).
“My career was less and less,” she said in the 1978 interview, her English still imperfect, “because they started to push Russians, not Jews.” And, she said, she was worried that her son would face discrimination.
“I had opportunities because it was a good time – they needed Jews – but Mickey’s situation would be worse than mine,” she said.
She and Emil left the Soviet Union in 1976, spending some months in Italy before arriving in New York in 1977, supported by aid groups and at first staying in temporary housing. Chudnovsky, who himself became an accomplished violinist, was a young child then but remembered that his mother became ill soon after their arrival, so much so that someone called emergency personnel, whose uniforms and side arms frightened the newcomers. They wanted to take her to a hospital.
“She didn’t go with them,” Chudnovsky said by e-mail, “and instead signed a waiver saying she wouldn’t hold them responsible were she to die, to just make them go away and stop scaring her son.”
Chudnovsky said Avery Fisher himself had helped them secure an apartment in the newly constructed Manhattan Plaza, the midtown complex for artists.
Despite the rave reviews Beilina received for her debut, her career in the United States did not soar. Like other Soviet musicians who emigrated, she had trouble adjusting to a system where the government was not overseeing every aspect of her career.
“I’m not so used to making decisions,” she acknowledged in 1978. As a 1984 article about her in The Times put it, “She never seemed to learn how to manipulate the U.S. system any better than the one she left at home.”
But Vladislav Davidzon, European culture critic for Tablet magazine and a former aide to Beilina, said she eventually grew better at adapting, including to musical developments.
“She and the Bachanalia played Astor Piazzolla before doing so was fashionable,” he said by e-mail, referring to the now-popular Argentine composer, who died in 1992.
Beilina’s first marriage, to Yuri Lurie, ended in divorce. In 1993 she married Vladimir Olegovich Tripolsky, who died last year. She is survived by her son and four grandchildren.
The Bachanalia has been on hiatus during her illness.
“Nina considered it her legacy to Emil,” Chudnovsky’s wife, Robin, said by e-mail, “and once things have resumed a little normalcy for us, he hopes to get it started again.”