Champion pianist Oksana Yablonskaya, 76, recently fulfilled a life’s dream by moving to Israel. Having taught at prestigious institutions such as Juilliard in New York, the energetic musician hopes to continue working here.
“I always wanted to be in Israel,” says world-class pianist Oksana Yablonskaya, who officially became an Israeli citizen in November 2014, just before her 76th birthday. She looks forward to performing and teaching here, as she did for many years in her native Moscow and then in New York City.
She and her husband, piano-maker Alexander Volchonok, along with her son, famed cellist and Grammy-nominated conductor Dmitry Yablonsky, and his family are relocating to Israel after many years of dreaming about it.
Yablonskaya has been teaching, playing and recording piano music since the age of 17 and earned an international reputation for “her powerhouse virtuosity, exquisite sensitivity, and deep emotional drive,” as the Yamaha Artists website describes her.
She applied for permission to leave what was then the Soviet Union in 1975, resulting in being dismissed as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. After two difficult years during which she was blacklisted from all concert venues in the USSR, a visa to emigrate was granted through the intervention of 45 American celebrities and politicians, including conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and actress Katharine Hepburn.
By that time, she had made the decision to follow her sister to New York. Her first American appearances were at Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie Hall, and she has since performed in about 40 countries to great acclaim.
“It has really been like 40 years,” Yablonskaya says with wonder. “We got permission to emigrate in 1977. I taught at Juilliard [School of Music in New York] for 25 years, and I have been busy giving master classes and concerts across the world. I visited Israel every year to participate in music festivals in Tel Hai, Eilat, Ra’anana and other places. But now, with anti-Semitism reaching a level I have never seen before in my life, we decided we want to do everything we can for Israel.”
‘All Jews Belong in Israel’
Yablonskaya recalls crying tears of joy when she saw the “Welcome Home” sign at Ben-Gurion International Airport as she and Volchonok arrived on November 9, 2014. Her son Dimitry, whose father is Yablonskaya’s first husband, Russian oboist Albert Zaionz, made aliyah eight months earlier. “I think all Jews belong to Israel,” she says. “I am very proud and happy to be a citizen.”
She was speaking from her temporary lodging in Spain near the French border. The family was still in the process of scouting out just the right location to start their lives over in Israel while juggling a full calendar of concerts, teaching and judging across the world. Yablonsky, in addition to his other responsibilities, organizes the annual Gabala International Music Festival and the Wandering Stars Festival that travels from country to country.
Yablonskaya explains that part of the reason for the delayed move is logistical: “We have many pianos and four dogs, and I have to find the right place in Israel — probably in the North. My son and husband and I all want very much to be active in Israel.”
She had just returned to Spain from participating in juried piano competitions in Rio de Janeiro and Norway, with a stop in Israel in-between. Next up was a music festival in Spain, and then on to South Africa and Israel, where she was eagerly anticipating performing with her daughter-in-law, violinist Janna Gandelman, under the baton of her son at the helm of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. A juried competition in China was to follow.
Her ambition is to give master classes in her new homeland. “I give them all over the world anyway, so now I want to do it in Israel,” she says. “I feel it is my duty.”
Yablonskaya relates that she first visited Israel in 1979. “My aunt helped build Kibbutz Afikim near the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] and she lived there all her life, so the first time I came to Israel she met me and we drove there. I didn’t go to any of the famous places. I played concerts on the kibbutz. Back then, there was maybe one orange tree, and now there is a forest full of flowers and trees and bushes. It’s really incredible — like a big garden.”
Over the years, Yablonskaya and Volchonok have purchased many trees to plant in Israel through Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, in memory of loved ones. “Now I hope to buy 100 trees to celebrate that we are Israeli,” she says.
The grandmother of two and great-grandmother of two says she is “full of energy” as she begins this new chapter of her life, and has only one unfulfilled wish: “I hope there will be peace.”
By: Avigayil Kadesh, Courtesy Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs