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Russian pianist brings music to Columbia neighborhood

Thursday, May 1, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:26 a.m. CDT, Thursday, May 1, 2014
Olga Koldobskiy is a Saint Petersburg State Conservatory-educated pianist who gives concerts and teaches piano lessons in Columbia. She and her husband, Aleksandr, moved to the United States from Russia in 1992 as refugees. They had been after being targeted as ethnic secular Jews.

COLUMBIA — Before Tamara Oberbeck met her neighbor, she would often pause in front of her southwest Columbia home — sometimes for half an hour — to listen to Olga Koldobskiy play the piano.

Oberbeck decided to approach Koldobskiy when she saw her hanging laundry in her backyard.

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"We were instant friends," Oberbeck said. "Olga is a wonderful neighbor. She even taught me how to make borscht."

Koldobskiy is a Saint Petersburg State Conservatory-educated pianist who gives concerts and teaches piano lessons in Columbia. She often practices on her Steinway piano, near a window in her basement.

Oberbeck said she was, and continues to be, impressed by Koldobskiy's playing.

"It just seemed flawless," Oberbeck said. "I felt like I was in a concert hall."

Koldobskiy and her husband, Aleksandr Koldobskiy, moved to the United States from Russia in 1992 as refugees after being targeted as ethnic secular Jews. They applied to be refugees in America so their children would not face the same kind of discrimination, Olga Koldobskiy said.

At the time they had two — Yelena was 12, and Michael was 10. Julia, their third child, was born after they moved to the United States.

The couple first moved to New York, then lived temporarily in Columbia for a year. They relocated to St. Antonio for seven years but finally settled in Columbia when MU offered Aleksandr Koldobskiy a mathematics job.

At Olga Koldobskiy's April 6 concert at Rock Bridge Christian Church, she played a program that featured the works of Dmitri Shostakovich, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Frederic Chopin, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff. She sat at a Kawai piano wearing a long skirt, a silver necklace with blue crystals and bold red lipstick — the vision of concentration.

Friends and students showed up to support her, and her youngest daughter, now 12-year-old Julia, decorated and handed out programs with drawings of Russian onion domes, birds and other characters on them.

When the church's sound board malfunctioned in the middle of her concert, making the sound of a basketball bouncing up and down on a court, the pianist didn't even flinch.

Olga Koldobskiy grew up in a small town near Tula and began playing piano at age 7. Like many Russian children at the time, she went to a special music school where her teachers recognized her natural talent.

At 14 she was accepted into a competitive local music college where she studied until she was 18.  She spent five years at the Saint Petersburg State Conservatory (formerly known as the Leningrad Conservatory), where she became certified to teach college-level piano. 

"This was the best time of my life," Koldobskiy said. "My professors were great, and I loved the city." 

Her happiness was cut short when she was denied the opportunity to earn a doctorate degree at the conservatory because of her Jewish heritage. Her husband was also denied opportunities to further his mathematics career in Russia because of his heritage.

Koldobskiy describes the feeling of being discriminated against as "very strange."

"I heard people saying, 'You are the best, but we can't take you because of your last name,'" she said. 

She worked at two ballet companies in St. Petersburg as an accompanist before applying for refugee status.

Although the Koldobskiys don't return to Russia to visit family, Olga Koldobskiy's sister   occasionally makes a trip to Columbia.

"We feel great here and we are very happy," Olga Koldobskiy said.

Their daughter Yelena has a doctorate in chemistry and lives in California. Their son, Michael, has a doctorate in biochemistry and lives in Baltimore. Both are working to become physicians.

"They are doing very well," their mother said. "We are proud of them."

Her goal is to introduce children in Columbia to classical music and hopes to arrange concerts just for children on Sundays in the future.

She says she plays because it's "extremely beautiful and makes people happy."

"It's the natural thing for me to do,"  she said.

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.


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