Entertainment » Vol. 3

Pianist Sima Kustanovich

By Cherie Ronayne

Sima Kustanovich

The Worcester cultural community collectively cringes when some neophyte makes the statement, “There’s nothing going on in Worcester.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Case in point, the recent performance of Con Brio piano duo, unadvertised but well-attended. Enter Sima Kustanovich, Russian-born concert pianist ~ regal, a diminutive powerhouse, and one of Worcester’s “secret” but most valuable treasures. Even as she walks to take her place at the piano in Razzo Hall at Clark University’s Traina Center for the Arts she exudes an air of artistry.

On this cold February night following a snowstorm, the crowd was not thinking about the never-ending winter; all focus was on Sima’s dazzling performance with partner Olga Rogach.
Sima (actually short for Serafima) is not difficult to find in Worcester; in fact, she is well-known to the music and education community and has had a hand in developing both for years. Her artistry and musical prowess, along with her non-stop, Mighty Mouse-like energy and commanding presence (yes, intimidating at first, but balanced by a heart of gold), are the threads that bind the musical quilt of Worcester together.
Indeed she is everywhere and is many things to many organizations: Co-Founder/Administrator of the Commonwealth Competition for Young Pianists, Music Director of Brown Bags for Kids at Mechanics Hall, Founder/Director of the Neighborhood Music Program sponsored by Clark University as well as a faculty member at Clark University and the Walnut Hill School for Performing Arts. She is also the accompanist for the Clark University Concert Choir and Chamber Chorus (due to leave on a three country tour at the end of February.) She has won awards and played all over the globe. (Incidentally, having played in great venues the world over, she says that Mechanics Hall is her absolute favorite place to perform for it famous acoustics.)
She has also accompanied legends – most notably dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova ~ while at a highly coveted appointment to the famed Leningrad Opera and Ballet Theatre. And speaking of dancers, she was an integral part of the [now defunct] Performing Arts School of Worcester’s Dance Department. During its heyday, PASOW had a ballet program ~ from classes to a teacher training program to performing groups ~ that rivaled those of the finest dance companies in New York City, and part of that excellence was due to Sima’s presence: Where else in this corner of the world could a dancer take a class and be treated to accompaniment by a world-class, classically trained Russian pianist who had played for ballet’s greatest performers? Sima also toured with PASOW’s Worcester Concert Dance Ensemble, lending her talents to the company’s live performances, and later became a member of PASOW’s faculty, where she taught, with an iron fist, students of all ages. Sima was known as the instructor for students who were serious about their piano studies; in fact, many of her students went on to be award-winning pianists themselves.
Born into a musical family in St. Petersburg, Sima’s concert pianist mother gave her a choice of activities as a child (this is a far more charming story when told by Ms. Kustanovich herself in her gorgeous accent!). She says that when she was 5 fi, she was placed on a low stool and asked if she would prefer to learn foreign languages, piano or figure skating. She told her mother that she would like to learn to skate. The next day, her first piano teacher was engaged (mothers do know best, after all, in any culture)! She continued her music education right through studies at the famed St. Petersburg Conservatory where she earned a Masters in Music and was soon after employed as faculty.
She is the crown jewel of Worcester’s classical music legacy ~ our city is truly fortunate to have Ms. Kustanovich call it home since it wasn’t an easy undertaking to leave Russia during the Cold War years. In the early 70s, with the “grain exchange,” the door opened slightly and that was all the impetus it took for her leave with her husband, young son (Dmitri, who himself became a brilliant violinist) and $90 in her pocket ~ nothing else. Even though the USSR penalized defectors by imposing extravagant fees, stringent regulations (no property could be brought over, no possibility of return, etc.,) and ridiculous punishments, people were still leaving. She remembers her husband Len coming home one day and saying that it was time to go. In those days, no one could be certain when ~ if ever ~ Russia would allow her people out again, so they jumped. The rest is history ~ a sparkling one that has illuminated countless concert halls and brought extraordinary musical training, performance, and appreciation to so many. About her love for and dedication to what she does, Sima says, “I’ll quit only when I die!”

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