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The New Revolutionaries: Shaping the future with art, strings and passion

ELISSA YANCEY | TUESDAY, JUNE 26, 2012
Tatiana Berman
Photo by Scott Beseler
TATIANA BERMAN

Tatiana Berman just moved back into her Eden Park condo, but already, the sleek modern space is filled with personal touches. Pictures of her two young daughters dot tables and bookshelves. Artwork adorns every wall, from geometric-based prints that she bought from a local artist to bright splashes of acrylic on canvas she created herself.

She sits cross-legged on her white leather couch, an elegant pixie in jeans, far from the stages around the world where she performs as a violinist. She juggles phone calls that range from the professional (everyone wants to know more about the second year of the Constella Festival, which she founded) to the personal (her younger sister in St. Petersburg, Russia, just had a baby).

She points to a painting on the far side of the wall and notes its artist: her younger daughter, Ingrid, a ringer for Berman, painted it when she was just five years old.

It’s a single scene that encapsulates Berman’s many worlds. At 32, she is an internationally acclaimed violinist with a knack for spotting talent in others and then connecting them with opportunities. She is a cultural entrepreneur whose first-year festival attracted the likes of Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn and audience members from New York and Chicago.

She is the daughter of two musicians and grew up in Russia wanting to be a violinist, pianist, conductor, dancer and an artist. She is a proud parent who has operated mostly as a single mother since her divorce from former Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conductor Paavo Jarvi three years ago.

She is a tiny tour de force; and she is determined to put Cincinnati on the national and international cultural map in new, fresh ways.

That’s why she started Constella, which this fall features 22 events that start Sept. 30 and run through Nov. 2.

By all accounts, Berman, a concert violinist, has the pedigree for a life in concert halls. Two years after her mother died, she left Russia after earning a full scholarship to Menuhin School in Surrey, England. She was 14 and spoke only Russian.

“Few people realize how difficult her life has been,” says John Spencer, the vice chair of the Constella Festival board. He has known Berman since she put down more permanent roots in Cincinnati in the mid-2000s. “If a single quality characterizes Tatiana, it is courage.”

She showed early signs that she might not fit comfortably into the classical musician mold. At Menuhin, endless hours of violin practice didn’t satisfy her artistic impulses. She finished homework early so she could spend two nights a week in the art room, painting and making sculptures, jewelry, even candles.

“We could do anything we wanted there,” she says. She looked forward to those hours every week, and still keeps a reminder of them, in the form of a Dali replica she created when she was 15, hanging in her dining room.

When she met Jarvi, she was 21 and still a student. Her first trip to Cincinnati was in 2002, when they visited for two weeks. “I immediately felt very welcome,” she says. “People were very open. I was pleasantly surprised by the amazing level at which the orchestra played.”

Once Jarvi took the job with the CSO, Berman split her time between London and Cincinnati, studying, playing and, soon, being a mother. In 2006, after her second daughter was born, she decided to create a home base here.

Her choice to stay in Cincinnati, even after Jarvi’s departure, perplexed her friends in London and New York. She grew frustrated with their repeated questions. “Cincinnati? What are you doing there? What goes on in Cincinnati?”

The Cincinnati she knows—one of just 13 American cities with a symphony, opera, ballet and museums—impresses her with its artistic talent pool. She wondered why her view was so different from her peers’. “My impression was from the inside out,” she says.

With an insider’s access to the city’s musical traditions and artists, Berman saw how local arts organizations’ independence kept them from pooling their respective talents to make a bigger impact.

“There seemed to be a disconnection,” she says. Where others saw a random collection of organizational dots, Berman saw new and beautiful constellations. “For me there, was an opportunity to make something bigger.”

She envisioned a festival that would tap into existing arts resources. She envisioned a festival in which nationally known artists worked alongside local artists in a variety of existing venues. She envisioned a series of multi-layered events that included premieres of music, dance and visual art, combined in unexpected ways and performed in unexpected places.

“What I love about the festival is it’s not just one thing,” says Ted Nash, composer and Jazz at Lincoln Center saxophonist. Berman commissioned him to write Suite Ivette for the first Constella. He came to Cincinnati when it premiered last October at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club. “It includes different forms of art and different types of people.”

His piece mixed string and jazz quartets with vibes, allowing him a creative opportunity like he hadn’t had in a decade. He not only appreciated the process, he admired Berman’s tenacity. “When I arrived in Cincinnati, I had forgotten what a fireball she is,” he says. “It was wonderful being around her energy.”

Friends and collaborators—and more often than not, those categories blend—recognize the importance of Berman’s determination to strengthen arts by combining them.

Sandra Gross, artist and owner of Brazee Street Studios in Oakley, calls Berman’s efforts an example of “relational aesthetics,” an art world term for when artists create work in relationship to or in collaboration with others.

“It’s very current,” says the 43-year-old glass and bronze artist who will create work for Constella again this year. “I think crossing all those disciplines is amazing.”

Take just one example from this year’s festival, when American violinist Anne Akiko Meyers performs two Cincinnati premieres. “It’s a concert in a theater at the Freedom Center and an instrument exhibit from New York City,” Berman says.

When she talks about Constella, it’s hard for Berman to contain her excitement. Only in Cincinnati, she says, could she connect these cultural dots so effectively. “I feel there is a need for it,” she says. “I can do it. I can be useful here.”

“Useful” is a word Berman likes. And Spencer says that Constella’s use reaches beyond spreading good will about Cincinnati’s rich arts scene. There’s smart business involved, too.

“In her first ever effort at the business of music – and in just one year – it appears that Tatiana created Cincinnati’s fourth largest classical music entity,” he says. “Only the CSO, Cincinnati Opera and May Festival drew more people. It also operated in the black.”

As more local groups join the Constella ranks, Spencer sees the potential for the festival to become a serious economic player in the region, joining festivals like Spoleto USA, Santa Fe and Aspen.

This year, Constella tickets are already available and a schedule is posted online.

Berman, who left the city with her daughters for travel to family in St. Petersburg and Estonia and performances in England and Estonia this summer, says she’s happier and more confident than ever.