Haverford >> Nelly Berman’s life was inspirational and her legacy continues to inspire young musicians through the Nelly Berman School of Music. On June 18, the Young Classical Virtuosos of Tomorrow performances will be held at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, a competition to be held in Berman’s memory.
Nelly Berman, who died at age 77 in 2015, emigrated from Soviet Union in the 1970s, with her two children, $17 and suitcases of piano music, said her daughter, Elena Berman-Gantard, who is now director of the Haverford-based music school and carries on her mother’s tradition.
“[Russian leader Leonid] Brezhnev and [President Jimmy] Carter made a deal and millions of Russian Jews were able to escape,” said Berman-Gantard. “Jewish Communities helped them…If not for American Jews, Russian Jews couldn’t survive.”
The Bermans first came to New Orleans, but then moved to Philadelphia in 1978 after famous pianist Susan Starr heard Berman-Gantard play and offered to teach the 14-year-old for free if they would move to Philadelphia.
“My mother was in a doctoral program and had to choose between her career and me,” she said. Berman chose her daughter’s future. “We lived in Center City [at first] and slept in one bed.”
“My mother was an incredibly gifted piano teacher. In my mother’s case there was no possibility for her to do anything else,” said Berman-Gantard, of Bryn Mawr. Her mother had “very high standards.” Students at the school are expected to practice for hours each day, memorize pieces of music and also perform.
“She would practice with me three or four hours a day,” said Berman-Gantard. “I truly believe music can benefit anyone. A handful of people make their living in music. She wanted music to be for everybody.”
At the concert, Nelly Berman’s granddaughter, Emma Gantard, will perform a monologue that she wrote about her grandmother, accompanied by young pianist, Isabella Florendo, 9, of Philadelphia, who had taken a lesson from Berman the day before she died. Emma’s monologue tells of when her grandmother lived in Odessa and taught in a government-run music school. One of Berman’s students, Inna Shafir, a 9-year-old girl, won a competition. But when the administrators found out the young girl was Jewish, “they pulled away her prize,” said Berman-Gantard. “They said my mother gave her a piece too difficult and not up to the standards of Soviet education that was very rigid.” Her mother was subjected to a “witch trial” where all the other teachers at the school had to denounce her. “Every other teacher had to stand up and say what was wrong with my mother,” said Berman-Gantard. “At that moment it was the last straw and this was one of the important reasons why she could not live in the Soviet Union. When my mother died I inherited a trunk of pictures and the picture of this little girl.”
Berman-Gantard said that she was “incredibly traumatized” by the death of her mother.
“We were very close,” Berman-Gantard said. She was “truly passionate” about teaching music. “She was a very unique person. She was legendary in Philadelphia. She taught until the moment she died.”
The Nelly Berman School of Music, a nonprofit, offers scholarships to talented to students. Scholarship students have won top prizes in local and national competitions, performed as soloists with numerous orchestras including the Philadelphia Orchestra and appeared in music festivals in USA, Italy, France, Monaco, Israel, Russia, Germany, including at Tanglewood, and the Van Cliburn Institute. They have performed at Carnegie Hall and The Kimmel Center, as well as on National Public Radio.
The platinum and gold winners of the Young Classical Virtuosos of Tomorrow — which drew 250 competitors from 12 states and Italy, Russia, Peru, Canada, England and Germany — will perform at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on June 18. Students ages 7 to 25 competed in piano, strings, winds, brass, voice, and chamber music.
The competition was held two rounds. The first set of judges chose 90 competitors out of 250 to continue to the finals, and the second set of judges narrowed it down even further to 60 platinum and gold winners to perform at two concerts at the Kimmel Center they will be awarded $12,500 in prizes.
For more information or tickets to the June 8 event: www.nbsmusic.com or (610) 896-5105