From the Archives, 1983: Soviet violinist defects to Australia

First published in The Age on March 3, 1983

Violinist defects to Australia

Nelli Shkolnikova, said to be the best woman violinist in the Soviet Union, has defected to Australia. She will work at the Victorian Arts Centre as its first artist-in-residence.

Shkolnikova teaches Cath Presa and Hai Won in Melbourne in 1984.Credit:The Age Archives

Mrs Shkolnikova, 54, arrived in Melbourne last week, bringing winter clothes to the heatwave. She also brought her favourite violin, a Joseph Guarnerius, which dates from 1730.

This violin was already 58 years old when Captain Phillip landed at Port Jackson. Its tone is incredibly beautiful. Mrs Shkolnikova played it for me yesterday, and she created one of those rare moments in a listener’s life when nothing else in the world seems to matter.

Mrs Shkolnikova has received a contract giving her a two-year tenure at the arts centre. The position allows her time to pass on knowledge and experience to students at the neighbouring Victorian College for the Arts, in St Kilda Road.

Mrs Shkolnikova’s arrival is notable not only for this, but for the fact that she is the first Soviet performer Australians have seen in a long time. The Federal Government has banned cultural exchanges between the two countries since the Russians invaded Afghanistan In 1979.

The Immigration Department has given her a visa of indefinite duration, obviously on the ground that she has turned her back on Soviet authority and is not acting on the Soviet Union’s behalf.

Mrs Shkolnikova has been renowned as a concert violinist in the Soviet Union, Europe, America and Asia for 30 years. Her father was a violinist, and she began learning at the age of five.

Nelli Shkolnikova soon after defecting to Australia. Credit:The Age Archives

With the help of an interpreter, she said yesterday that her decision to defect had been made over a long period. She finally decided, in West Germany last November, not to go back to the Soviet Union, then stayed very quiet because she knew that Soviet authorities were looking for her.

Meanwhile, in Melbourne, her friend of 20 years, John Hopkins, heard of her decision. Mr Hopkins is dean of music at the Victorian College for the Arts, and he had made previous attempts to get Mrs Shkolnikova to come to Australia as an artist-in-residence.

He consulted Mr George Fairfax, general manager of the arts centre, and cabled an immediate offer to Mrs Shkolnikova. She says she thought about it for only one day, then cabled her answer: yes.

Mr Fairfax formalised the offer by letter, and both parties began the process of getting a visa, which took about two months.

Mrs Shkolnikova said yesterday she defected because “I was not master of the situation. It is the State which decides all foreign trips by Soviet artists. I had no professional freedom”.

She gave several examples of this. One concerned the time a friend phoned her from Switzerland and said: “I am very happy you are coming to play here. Your poster is on the walls.” Mrs Shkolnikova said it was the first she had heard about it.

In many cases, she said, foreign countries would invite performers, but the State bureaucracy would not pass on the invitation. The bureaucracy would give a vague reply about the performer being busy.

Something like this happened to John Hopkins. “Four years ago we wrote to the Soviet authorities requesting that Nelli come here as an artist-in-residence,” he said yesterday. “The authorities replied that this was not possible for technical reasons. What does technical reasons mean?”

Mr Hopkins and Mrs Shkolnikova first met when she toured Australia In 1963. She was soloist, he was conductor. They met again on her second Australian tour, in 1970, and he performed with her in the Soviet Union in 1964 and 1966.

Yesterday Mr Hopkins gave the impression of being elated about the impact Mrs Shkolnikova’s presence would have on his college, “Nelli is regarded in the Soviet Union as one of the great teachers and we don’t have a violinist with this sort of background, training and international experience,” he said. “The presence of such a person invariably inspires the teachers, the staff, the students, and it reaches far beyond that, deep into the musical community.”

Mr Hopkins thinks Mrs Shkolnikova chose to come to Australia because she remembered it affectionately from her two tours. “And there are hundreds of thousands of Australians from those tours who remember her affectionately in return,” he said.

Mrs Shkolnikova will give a series of master classes to the college’s 25 senior violin students, as well as to those in the junior school. She will also perform with the college orchestra. Beyond that, she does not know yet; she would first like to hear all of the students individually, but at the stage I left her yesterday she had not yet met them.

Her first public appearance in Melbourne will be at a Sunday afternoon concert in the Melbourne Concert Hall on 27 March. She will play one of her favourite compositions, the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

George Fairfax, the arts centre’s general manager, says: “We see Mrs Shkolnikova as the first of a series of distinguished artists that the centre will bring to Victoria.”

This had been made possible, he said, by a generous endowment, the details of which could not be announced yet.

Explaining the role of an artist-in-residence, Mr Fairfax said: “If the Arts Centre is to do part of its job, It must encourage international artists of a high calibre who will have a profound effect on the whole community.”

Mrs Shkolnikova’s two-year tenure, he said, would give a lot of stability to the position.

Mrs Shkolnikova says she will love living in Australia. Among other things, she likes the language. And today she is setting off on an excursion that would quicken anyone’s heart — finding a new home. She has been staying at a hotel where the owner, an expatriate Russian, refuses to take money from her.

Most Viewed in National

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article