Interview with Dmitri Atapine, current cellist with the Argenta Trio

Conducted by Forrest Hartman


Name: Dmitri Atapine

Age: 32

City of Residence: Reno, NV

Years with Argenta: 2009 to present



Forrest: Take me way back to where you grew up.


Dmitri: Where to start… I was born in the Soviet Union in St. Petersburg, or Leningrad at the time, and my father is a professional cellist who used to play with the Leningrad Philharmonic. My mother is a fantastic pianist, a former professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. They met in school as partners in a piano-cello duo, and they had a piano trio with a violinist friend. I actually grew up listening to them rehearse their duos and their trios. I had never played trio as part of an established group before Argenta, but I lived through all these rehearsals, and I know a lot of repertoire by ear. When I was four and a half, I started playing cello and piano. My mother started me on the piano. Eventually, I started playing cello, and I enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory Special Preparatory School at the age of 6. So, I started my cello education within the so-called “Russian school,” which is often perceived as severely strict.


Forrest: Talk a little bit about that. Is it far different than the American system?


Dmitri: Partially because my parents were already professional musicians and had already gone through a similar process and partially because the school I went to was one of the top two schools in the country, the mindset was very serious. The mindset was not, “My kid likes to play cello, he needs to get some lessons,” but rather, “The kid shows some promise. We must attempt to turn him into a first-rate player.” 


Forrest: This is true even at 5 and 6 years old?


Dmitri: Yes, because they believe that, like in sports, there is a great benefit to starting at an early age. If you do it later, it is not impossible, but progressively harder. I don’t feel like my parents wanted to make a musician out of me for sure, but I think they knew that the earlier I started, the easier it would be for me in the future. And they believed that if you aimed for the highest possible standard, you’d end up somewhere in between. If you don’t aim up there, who knows where you’re going to end up? That was the system. The system was that I was supposed to practice five, five and a half, six hours a day from age 5. Sure, there were tears and complaints, but I don’t have them now. I am glad they gave me the tools, and I don’t feel like it traumatized me. Maybe I was the lucky one who survived through that kind of trial, but I see the reasons behind it. Also, I feel like I had the great fortune to work with teachers who were strict and demanding, but always in a very constructive way, who had the quality that I call nowadays “righteous ire.” They could be extremely intimidating and sometimes they would even elevate their voice. But, deep inside, I always knew who the guilty party was. It was not that I practiced seven hours and somebody went, “Not enough!” That was never the case. What would always be the case was that I didn’t do what I was supposed to do and hence my long hours were unproductive. Their expectations were high but never unreasonable. I was lucky, I think, to be studying with people who really knew how to drive a student in a very efficient way. When I played performances, when I would go on stage and perform in front of an audience, it would be so rewarding to do a great job. I didn’t need any accolades. I would know as a kid that I did a good job. To accomplish something that you never imagined that you could accomplish is such a great reward as opposed to someone saying, “You kind of played it OK.” … I see that in my students. I’m not mean to them, but I try to demand more than they think they can accomplish and when they accomplish it, they feel like they’re the kings of the world. I’m not the one who did it. They did it. They realize their own potential. I think that’s what the good Russian school should be remembered as. It’s when teachers push students in the right way that makes them discover who they are. And if you’re not good enough for that, you drop out and you become somebody else. 


Forrest: Is there a reason you focused on cello instead of piano?


Dmitri: I’m sure it’s something to do with my dad, but I don’t know. I don’t remember the decision. I remember I watched a TV show where Natalia Gutman, the great cellist, played solo with orchestra, and I remember being very impressed by it. I went to my father and asked him to teach me, and he waited three days to make sure it wasn’t a fad. The moment I said yes three times, the door was closed until I was 18. He basically said, “OK, now we’re going to do the whole marathon. We can’t stop. We can’t try for five months and then maybe not.” Obviously, he would have stopped it if I did not show some promise, but he never gave me the option to quit, no matter how hard things would get. So, he was my first teacher, but he always believed that I should have a formal professional teacher who I would look up to and respect, and that’s what I got when I went to school. At the age of 11, the Soviet Union fell apart and my family decided to move to Spain, partially because there was a new orchestra being formed and they held auditions in St. Petersburg. Luckily, a Russian chamber orchestra, Moscow Virtuosi, also moved into the area at the time, and they brought with them several Russian professors who would be part of a new music school. Among them was my dear professor Alexander Fedortchenko, who was already famed in Russia for his skills in setting up kids when teaching at the Gnesin School and even at the Moscow Conservatory. So, ironically, even though I moved to Spain, my schooling continued to be of the Russian flavor. I think very fondly of him to this day. He freed me of so many problems and complexes, and he really knew how to mold students. I was 12 or 13 at the time, so I actually remember things he would do with me, which now is of great benefit when I teach. I remember how he was molding me, and it helps me to mold my students.


Forrest: How long did you live in Spain?


Dmitri: I lived in Spain full time until age 17. Then I came to the United States to start my undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Professor Fedortchenko had sadly passed away and my father knew I desperately needed someone to continue to guide me.  He got in touch with somebody he met a few times in Russia on the competition circuit, a younger cellist named Suren Bagratuni, who had just joined the University of Illinois and was building a studio. Professor Bagratuni was the one that took me under his wing, and he is the reason I live today in the United States. I studied with Suren Bagratuni for five years. I did two years of undergrad at Illinois, and then he got a new job at Michigan State University. I moved, following him. I transferred to Michigan State, completed my bachelor’s degree there and got a master’s from Michigan State. After this, another milestone in my education occurred when I was accepted into Yale University School of Music to study with the legendary cellist and professor Aldo Parisot. In my opinion, he is one of the pillars of the American school of cello playing, a person of endless experience and vision. He has taught at Yale since the 1950s, achieving great fame as a performer and as a teacher. I was very fortunate to get into his studio, since it is extremely competitive. There, I completed a Master of Musical Arts degree, and an Artist Diploma.


Forrest: Are all your degrees in cello performance?


Dmitri: Yes. All my degrees are in cello performance, including the Doctorate degree from Yale, which I received in 2010


Forrest: You’ve lived in a lot of countries. How many languages do you speak?


Dmitri: I speak Russian, Spanish and English fluently, I can understand some Slavic languages partially, as well as a limited amount of romance languages.


Forrest: You speak perfect English. Were you speaking English before you moved to the U.S.?


Dmitri: I did have an English class in Russia, but I don’t remember any of it. In Spain, it was terrible. I took one semester in school, and it was ridiculously bad. When I decided to come to the States, I had to pass the so-called TOEFL Exam, which is a test of English as a foreign language. Universities in this country require a certain minimum standard… I prepared for six months, and I got really lucky because there was a guy from Britain who was in my hometown in Spain. He was at the American institute where he was hired as a teacher, and he didn’t speak a word of Spanish. He couldn’t speak Spanish, and I couldn’t speak English, so it was one of the best experiences. It was total immersion in the perfect sense. He would just constantly speak to me and explain things. He would just talk and talk and talk in English. I couldn’t speak English very well when I got to the States, but I understood pretty well, and that was enough to pass the exam. Once I arrived, writing papers was the biggest hurdle, but I had gracious friends who would revise my chicken scratch. By now, people tell me that I have good syntax, but I still don’t believe them.


Forrest: You have better grammar than a lot of native speakers.


Dmitri: I actually find that knowing Spanish helps me with the really complicated words like “sonority” or “profundity.” They are very normal in Spanish, but they sound really knowledgeable in English, very learned. I can say vaticinate instead of predict or things like that where most people don’t even know what it means. It makes me sound like I know what I’m talking about, but it’s just that I’m stealing from Spanish. 


Forrest: Did your musician’s ear help with learning so many languages?


Dmitri: I don’t know. I never thought of that. Maybe the musician’s ear helps, but not in the sense that I hear better. Maybe there are some benefits to knowing music, because one is trying to interpret signs that one doesn’t understand, putting them together and trying to make sense of them. That might be a similar process to reading the musical language.


Forrest: Can you talk about some of your cello activity outside of Argenta?


Dmitri: I frequent different festivals around the country and in Europe and Asia. I also started to do a lot of teaching. In the past, I’ve won several competitions as a performer. One is the Carlos Prieto International Cello Competition in Mexico, which is a solo prize in cello. I have a couple other international competitions. I’ve won top prizes at three international chamber music competitions. The biggest one was second prize at the Vittorio Gui Competition in Italy as a duo with pianist Hyeyeon Park. I also record. Last year saw the release of the first Argenta CD, while this year saw the release of two CDs. One of them was a world-premiere recording of Complete Works for Cello and Piano by the distinguished American composer Lowell Liebermann, and it received very positive reviews in leading magazines, like The Strad and Gramophone. I’m trying to be quite active as a soloist and a chamber musician, and I don’t shy away from occasional orchestral playing.


Forrest: It sounds like your father would have been supportive if you eventually decided to do something else. Did you ever seriously think about going into another field?


Dmitri: I was too busy in music to ever seriously think about becoming somebody else. I was always very curious about other subjects, but I had to do too many music-related things to continue to excel. And I felt like music was my life, so it was pretty much a no-brainer for me to commit to it. I always think that people love doing what they are good at. For me it was a feedback loop: every time I would learn a new skill, a new way of playing, it would make me enjoy playing that much more.  As in everything, in music it’s the start point that is always hard. Once you clear that hurdle, it sweeps you up and up. It’s not that I was doing fantastically great, but I was playing concerts, I was enjoying performing, I was teaching, I was succeeding in my classes, getting good grades. I was never unhappy with music, so I didn’t try to explore anything else. It really fulfills my life. Yesterday, I was teaching one of my students, and we just sat and listened to this excerpt from Brahms’ Piano Concerto, and I said, “Don’t you get goose bumps from this?” That feeling is what keeps all musicians in our craft, I think. It’s like magic.


Forrest: You came to UNR while you were still finishing college, right?


Dmitri: Yes. I was in the process of building my portfolio for my Doctorate at Yale. So, after I received the Master of Musical Arts degree, Yale sent me out, and I had to prove to them that I was worthy by excelling in all areas related to cello and music performance. I was fortunate enough to get this job and that helped immensely when time came for my Yale professors to review my doctoral portfolio. In 2010, I had to come back for three days to give one last recital and a massive final exam the next morning. I guess I survived and then, thankfully, champagne followed.


Forrest: Now that you’ve been in Reno awhile, how do you like it?


Dmitri: I’m enjoying Reno very much. My first year in Reno, people would ask me, “Why Reno?” and I would say, “It’s a job.” My second year in Reno, I started saying, “Why not?” I have great colleagues, and not just the Argenta members, who are amazing musicians. All of us, we feel like a family, and we do our job and we try to support each other. The only drawback to Reno that I can think of is the low humidity for my instrument, my cello. But if I take good care or it, it should be just fine. Overall, I feel very lucky to be part of this community, and now that my wife has also moved to Reno and is a piano professor at UNR, the world could not be more perfect!