For many violinists, their instrument is a prized possession. But for Gregory Teperman, 64, it was something he sacrificed in exchange for a better life.
In the 1980s he got the chance to leave the USSR for the United States. Now, decades later, his Meiravi Quartet will perform locally this weekend.
Before that he was a member of the Moldova Philharmonic Orchestra. Teperman grew up in Moldova, which was then a part of the Soviet Union. Life behind the Iron Curtain was difficult.
“It was not easy to live in the Soviet Union as a Jewish person because they always had a quota,” Teperman said, explaining that educational institutions had limits on the number of Jewish students they’d accept. “Basically, we were raised with the understanding that we had to be very good at what we do, and then we might be considered to go to college.”
And what Teperman did well was play the violin. His hard work paid off, and he was accepted into a four-year college program. He went on to perform with his country’s symphony, although there were some stipulations.
Jewish people were typically left behind on international tours due to fears they would seek political asylum. They were more likely allowed to go if they had a family. But as a single person? No chance.
Teperman performed with the Moldova Philharmonic for seven years until opportunity came knocking. His sister had immigrated to Philadelphia and sponsored his immigration. The process, however, was not without difficulty.
In exchange for his immigration paperwork, the government asked him to resign from the symphony. With no income, Teperman performed odd jobs to support his family until the application was completed and approved a year later. In 1982, he moved with his wife, 2-year-old daughter, mother and in-laws to Northeast Philadelphia.
Each family was only allowed to bring $400, but for Teperman there was another stipulation: He was not allowed to bring his violin.
So he sold it and bought another from a violin maker in Moscow. Out of fear it would be confiscated at the border, the maker sold it without his label and offered to mail it once Teperman had settled.
It was a bit difficult adjusting to his new life, but Teperman said he received support from HIAS-PA and what was then Jewish Family Service, which helped with medical appointments and enrollment in English classes.
“These two agencies really made a difference,” Teperman said.
Teperman said he didn’t have much free time between working odd jobs, such as delivering bread and phone books, and practicing daily to prepare for auditions.
His big break was winning an audition with Concerto Soloists, today called The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. He got to play alongside world-renowned dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.
Around that time, he met another violinist and immigrant, Igor Szwec, now 72. In 1950 at the age of 3, Szwec and his parents immigrated to Philadelphia from Austria.
Today, the two friends live a few blocks from each other in the Somerton neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia. In 2011, they teamed up with another friend, Peter Nocella, to form the Meiravi Quartet.
The group also includes cellist Vivian Barton Dozer and will perform for the first time in two years at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 21 at Wayne Presbyterian Church. The free concert setlist includes an arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and a song from an opera Nocella is composing called Grynszpan, which retells the story of Kristallnacht.
“This overture, really to me, is amazing because it somehow conjures up all these images of these terrible fascist Nazi soldiers marching,” Szwec said. “Sort of the doom and gloom coming your way. It’s powerful.”
Teperman has been a U.S. citizen since 1988 and is happy for his life in his adoptive country.
“It was like night and day coming from the Soviet Union,” he said. “I am eternally grateful to be in this country. My life turned totally around.”
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