Artyom Zhizhkin, musician

Artyom Zhizhkin, 16, was accepted at Musical School #1841 (named for Galina Vishnevskaya) on one condition: he had to take up the oboe, and only the oboe. It seems that Zhizhkin’s first teacher, Yevgeny Komarov, tested Zhizhkin’s breathing and labial skills and realized he was ideally suited for this melancholy-sounding instrument.

Komarov’s clairvoyance paid off. After two years at School #1841, Zhizhkin was already touring Russia, performing concerts with the school orchestra. The oboe is not usually an instrument known for its solo performances, but Zhizhkin notes that “all the great composers wrote something for the oboe, including Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Hayden.”

But the endless touring wore Zhizhkin down, which he confessed to Russia’s eldest master of oboe reeds, Alexander Ananyin, 88. The sympathetic Ananyin called his “younger” friend, the 84-year-old Ivan Pushechnikov, who strongly encouraged Zhizhkin to enter the Moscow prestigious music college named for composer Alfred Shnitke, at which Pushechnikov taught. Zhizhkin followed their advice and his success soon followed.

In 1999 Artyom won his first important contest in Moscow: 1st place at the competition, Young Talents of Moscow. In April 2001 he made the first important step in what promises to be a brilliant international musical career: he won 2nd place at the Fifth International Contest of Performers of Brass and Percussion Instruments in Togliatti. The international jury singled out Zhizhkin’s interpretation of Alessandro Marcello’s “Concert for Oboe with String Orchestra in D Minor” as the best performance of the contest. After just two years of work under Pushechnikov, Zhizhkin is now preparing nine new compositions to perform at the upcoming New Names Contest next spring.

Interestingly, nothing augured a musical talent in this rather boisterous, if not rambunctious boy, Zhizhkin’s mother Natasha recalled. “Today, he is ready to play the oboe 24 hours a day,” she said. “But when he was 12, Artyom was supposed to simply accompany his younger sisters Tanya and Lena during some musical tests.” The sisters have since given up music for dance, but now the whole family is marshalling their resources to further Artyom’s career.

“The prize money he received in Togliatti—R2,500 (less than $100) was not even enough to cover his transportation costs,” his mother confessed. His father Vladimir is a former engineer-turned trader who now earns $650-700 a month. Much better than the average engineer’s salary in Russia, but hardly enough to fully “sponsor” a future musical star.

Artyom dreams of a new oboe. An ebony oboe made in France can cost at least $5,000. But it was all the family could do to scrape together savings and borrowings to buy the young prodigy a Swiss oboe for $2,600. This one needed expensive repairs before the Togliatti event and even now its reeds cost R100 ($3) apiece.

Zhizhkin does his best to keep his expenses as a student low, but his mother worries he may go too far: “We tell him to please eat well at school and not economize on his lunches,” she said. His father said his only worry is “that his talent not be lost. The oboe is a rather rare instrument. Plus, who knows whether he will be sought after in this country of ours. And I don’t want to see him play in underpasses like one of the many street musicians we are seeing now.”

But Pushechnikov suggests there is nothing to worry about on this front. “Artyom is talented in whatever he does and finds time for everything,” Pushechnikov said. “He is good at the piano, at composition ... And when I come to class and see an even row of chairs or neatly bound shades, I know it is Artyom who did it ... As an oboist, he has a great memory and a unique ear. He will grow into a musician who will embellish any world-class orchestra, be it the Bolshoi or the Vladimir Spivakov’s [Russian National] Orchestra.”

“All in all,” Zhizhkin said, “there are usually three oboists in an orchestra: the first and second oboist, and a third, who plays no solos.” The ambitious Artyom obviously has his sights set on the first chair, hoping to someday make a name for himself and follow in the footsteps of the famous Russian oboist, Alexei Utkin. While he admires foreign masters of this unique instrument, Zhizhkin opined that “the Russian school of oboe is more emotionally rich, more soulful,” than other national traditions. It is hard for Westerners who play on an “even level,” he said, “to perform with a huge amplitude of dynamics.”

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