To do what had never been done before: Roberta Gordon’s story
As the Cold War thawed, this Arts Camp alumna helped Americans study music at world-famous schools in the heart of post-communist Russia. Now, her gift is enabling the next generation of Interlochen students to explore their talents by studying abroad in Costa Rica.
“When we got off the bus, the American singers were standing on one side of the driveway to the conservatory and the Russian singers were standing on the other side. And I thought to myself, ‘“Oh, gosh, this isn't good.’”
It was the early 1990s, just after the Cold War’s end. The Soviet Union had collapsed, but in the world of choral music, tensions still ran high between Americans and Russians.
Interlochen alumna Roberta Gordon was well aware that the two schools took completely different approaches to vocal technique. In spite of that, she had just taken a leap of faith and brought a group of American student singers to Moscow. She envisioned Americans and Russians learning from each other, sharing their knowledge and even performing together. She knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“There was a big question mark in the Americans’ minds and in the Russians’ minds as to whether the two groups could meld and be successful in performance, because of the different ways they produced sound,” she says.
As Gordon followed the young singers into the conservatory, she wondered how her daring experiment would turn out. She didn’t know that her peers in the education community were placing bets on whether or not she’d succeed.
Interlochen taught me at an early age to dream big. Creative thought and the desire to do what had never been done before both intrigued and challenged me.
“To do what had never been done before”
What Roberta Gordon did in 1991 undoubtedly took some bravery, but then again, she’d developed a taste for adventure from an early age. Gordon’s story begins almost forty years before at Interlochen Arts Camp, where she studied piano and choir. Surrounded by students who shared her passion for music, her creativity flourished—and so did her courage.
“Interlochen taught me at an early age to dream big. Creative thought and the desire to do what had never been done before both intrigued and challenged me.”
Her experiences at Arts Camp were “invigorating” and “stimulating,” showing her the vital importance of being in a welcoming artistic community.
“I was in an environment where I wasn’t an oddity,” says Gordon. “I think that Interlochen is many kids’ salvation, because in their own particular environments, there aren't a lot of them.”
Chasing the dream
Not long after Interlochen, Gordon realized that she had a passion for sharing her love of music with others. In college, she majored in piano performance and elementary education, and soon emerged as a teacher. In her work with underprivileged students in the Milwaukee Public Schools, Gordon garnered recognition for creatively integrating music into all of the subjects she taught.
In the summer of 1990, she was invited to adjudicate for the Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Moscow. There, she had a conversation that changed the course of her life.
“During the competition, one of the Russian teachers kept telling me, ‘Roberta, now’—and she kept emphasizing the word now—‘is the time to bring American students to Russia to study in the Russian school of pianism.’ And it stuck in my head.”
Gordon returned to the U.S. full of excitement for her new endeavor. She called up all of the piano instructors she knew and told them it was time to take their students to Russia, where they’d receive outstanding technical training. The interest she received was overwhelming.
“In a one-week period, I had 120 students signed up to go to Moscow to study at Gnessin,” she says. The students ranged from age 6 through high school.
The piano program’s first trip to Russia went smoothly, and Gordon found that teachers and students alike brought a sense of openness and curiosity to their work.
“The Russians were very anxious to learn about the American culture and way of life. The same was true of the Americans, and many close relationships were developed,” Gordon recalls. Several Russian teachers even expressed interest in having their own students taught by American music educators.
It was time to take the next step and open this newfound opportunity to even more students. With the support of her friends in the music world, Gordon founded the International Fine Arts Institute—the mission of which was to provide American music students with unique learning and performance opportunities all over the world. Students would have the chance to practice their musical talents in the morning at the best schools. In the afternoons, they could take advantage of a full cultural program, visiting sites like the Kremlin and the famed World War II museum at Poklonnaya Gora.
So far, Gordon’s endeavor had gone well. Her piano program had been received warmly by Russians and Americans alike. But choral music? That was an unexplored frontier. The two countries had completely different approaches to teaching choirs, and any possibility of international collaboration seemed very slim indeed.
“On both sides, there was fear of the unknown: the unknown artistic abilities of each group, and the unknown training of each group,” Gordon remembers.
This was how she found herself entering the Moscow Conservatory on a warm summer day in 1991, praying her experiment would work.
From the time I heard the first warm-up scales with both choirs, tears ran down my face because it was just exquisite.
A series of small miracles
The tension in the room was palpable as the two choirs lined up on their risers. Then Boris Tevlin, head of the Moscow Conservatory’s choral department, raised his hands into the air.
All at once the air was filled with music as Russian and American singers blended their voices as one. The symbolism of the moment wasn’t lost on Gordon. Struck by its beauty, she broke down. “From the time I heard the first warm-up scales with both choirs, tears ran down my face because it was just exquisite.”
This moment was just the beginning of a series of small miracles in Russia. The night of the final performance, the conservatory’s performance hall was completely filled. People climbed into the recessed window seats so they could get a better view of this incredible spectacle of Russian and American vocalists performing together. During the intermission, Gordon was startled by a nudge from her interpreter.
“My interpreter said to me, ‘Do you know who's sitting next to you, Roberta?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ She said, ‘It’s the head of the Russian Ministry of Culture. And he'd like to talk to you in the hallway.’”
Feeling somewhat alarmed, Gordon went out into the hallway to meet with him. Alexander Demchenko had just one thing to say to her: “I'd like to see you in my office at nine o'clock tomorrow morning.”
“I didn't sleep all night,” Gordon remembers. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I do wrong?’”
In the morning, she reported to an austere office with a long conference table in the center. After a few minutes, the door opened and Demchenko came in. He seated himself and then invited Gordon and her interpreter to join him in drinking celebratory shots of vodka.
“He said, ‘I'd like to congratulate you, and I'd like to be a part of anything that you do in my country,’” Roberta remembers. “‘Anything I can do to help you, I'm available.’”
Starting from the day of that meeting and lasting for nearly twenty years, Gordon held a special agreement with Demchenko which allowed the International Fine Arts Institute to bring in many more American groups to perform at major Russian festivals and venues. The Institute would later grow to host additional programs in Spain and China. Gordon’s experiment was a resounding success.
Students need to have a wide background of experience if they're going to be able to tap into all of the marvelous abilities that are within them.
Sharing her love of travel with Interlochen students
Throughout all her experiences teaching and traveling around the world, Gordon never forgot the place that shaped her most.
“Everything I did centered back to Interlochen. If I hadn't had those experiences, I don't think I would have ever been able to dream as big as I did,” she said.
Roberta’s support of Interlochen includes the Annual Fund each year and, most recently, providing funding for members of the piano studio to travel to the prestigious Gilmore Festival in Kalamazoo.
Right now, she’s working with Interlochen’s Philanthropy department to set up an innovative new program for Arts Academy students. This off-campus study opportunity will allow Academy students to travel with faculty to Tirimbina, a sprawling biological reserve and rainforest lodge in Costa Rica. Gordon plans to fund the program with an endowment gift. She is looking forward to helping the next generation experience the eye-opening power of travel.
“The study abroad program for Interlochen is important because students need to have a wide background of experience if they're going to be able to tap into all of the marvelous abilities that are within them,” she says. “Broadening their experiences will enable that creative process to take place.”
From Russian conservatories to the rainforests of Tirimbina, Roberta Gordon has been blazing trails ever since she was a young student at Interlochen Arts Camp. She’s not planning on stopping anytime soon.