Faculty musicians enhance beauty within the Program
After going decades without playing the piano, tutor David Bolotin returned to the practice he began in childhood when, at 60, he decided he needed a hobby. And for six months, that’s all it was. But then he saw a student’s copy of Twenty-Four Italian Songs and Arias from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries on the seminar table. It reminded him of his youth so he asked her to get together to play. They did, and she requested that Bolotin accompany her in a recital. He protested. He hadn’t played in public since he was 16. The student insisted. Bolotin agreed but was so nervous that he decided to get some coaching.
Seven years later, Bolotin is retired from teaching and spends the bulk of his time practicing piano—though he sets aside one day a week to read classical philosophy with a friend from Los Alamos. He plays in public regularly, at lunch-time and Sunday evening concerts at St. John’s, with another tutor, Christine Chen. Bolotin and Chen also serve on the committee that selects the classical music ensembles for Friday Night Concerts. Chen has played violin since she was four years old and grew up in the world of classical and chamber music competitions. She studied violin at the University of Southern California while she was still in high school but in college chose to major in Russian literature and history. She taught at Cambridge University before coming to St. John’s in 2006.
“People had been telling me that there was a violinist coming to campus,” says Bolotin. The two met the day before he left to spend a year in Munich with his wife. “Christine had her violin with her, so we ran through part of Brahms’ first Violin Sonata, and it was fun. We agreed that we’d play again when I got back.”
Chen, who teaches full time, practices for an hour a day during the week and for longer on the weekends—and more if she has a concert coming up. She plays with a few local professional groups, including Santa Fe ProMusica, Canticum Novum, and the Albuquerque Philharmonic Orchestra.
In Munich, as his dedication to practicing piano intensified, Bolotin found himself in a culture in which classical musicians of all skill levels often play together and for each other. This was an inspiring counterpoint to the more American tradition of professionals playing formal concerts for audiences that may or may not contain musicians. When he returned to St. John’s and reunited with Chen, she suggested they perform together publicly. “I knew the Sonata better by then. She could always play it,” he says. “I didn’t think I was at her level, but she said I was.”
Bolotin is modest about his talent and skill-level, though Christine implies that he, too, grew up in musical competition. He maintains that the only time he played in public was at his high school graduation. He derives support and confidence from the St. John’s culture of encouraging its community members to embrace and pursue new creative and intellectual endeavors. He continues to take lessons.
“The college is small enough, and believes in the individual enough that it’s been very encouraging. If this were a music school, there’d be no place for me,” he said. “It’s not as if the college needed me to play concerts with Christine, but that’s the wonderful flexibility of St. John’s. It doesn’t really fit into the Program in any defined way, but it’s another form of the love of beauty that takes over some people here.”
Read more about Mr. Bolotin's life as a musician, and his misgivings, at St. John's 365.