Anya Grokhovski is the CEO and Artistic Director of Musical Bridges Around the World a 501(c)(3) dedicated to sharing music through education and performances in and around San Antonio. She is a classically trained and educated musician herself. She is funny, charming and well worth your time.
Justin: Hello and Bienvenidos, San Antonio. Welcome to the Alamo Hour, discussing the people, places, and passion that make our city. My name is Justin Hill, a local attorney, a proud San Antonion, and keeper of chicken and bees. On the Alamo Hour, you'll get to hear from the people that make San Antonio great and unique and the best-kept secret in Texas. We're glad that you're here.
Welcome to the Alamo Hour, today's guest is Anya Grokhovski. She's the artistic director and CEO of Musical Bridges Around The World. She herself is a very accomplished pianist. I think you have a PhD in music or piano?
Anya Grokhovski: DMA, Doctor of Musical Arts.
Justin: Similar, I've got a doctorate in jurisprudence, but nobody calls me doctor. Anya started Musical Bridges Around The World, which really sounds like just your passion project and your attempt to share your love of music, and bring a really different style and quality of music to our city.
Anya: Yes. That is all.
Justin: Thank you for being here. I want to talk about Musical Bridges. I want to talk about your history as a musician and also in bringing this to our city and all of the events that you've put on. It's beautiful, what you're doing from children all the way through to older people. You've got a program for everybody and we're going to talk about that. I start this little getting to know you so we're going to go through our top 10 questions that I ask a bunch of people. They change a little bit but a lot of them are the same. You mentioned it already, what kind of pets do you have?
Anya: I have two large dogs.
Justin: How large? Great Dane large?
Anya: No, not quite as large but pretty large [chuckles]. I've got German Shepherd and I got a mutt, when we got him from the [unintelligible 00:01:58], we hoped that he will be a golden retriever, but he turned out to be made out of parts of different dogs and he's the sweetest thing you can imagine.
Justin: What are their names?
Anya: The mutt is Duke and the german shepherd is Lexi.
Justin: I grew up and I had a golden retriever named Duchess.
Anya: They're related [laughs].
Justin: Duchess had puppies with a dog named Duke at one point in life so it comes full circle. Now, with COVID, it's a little bit different but what are some of your favorite spots to eat at, and now it's almost what are your favorite spots to get takeout out at?
Anya: I'm really big fan of ethnic food. Every time I can get excuse to go to Indian restaurant, I will. I just recently ate again in Indian Palace. I love them. There is Afghani restaurants and there are all kinds of restaurants. There's no Russian restaurant, unfortunately, in San Antonio and it's crossed my mind maybe in my next life I would open one [laughs].
Justin: I don't want to be insensitive but are Russians known for their cuisine?
Anya: Yes, it's a very good cuisine. In general, Russian culture was very influenced by French culture. The Russian ethnic food is based on vegetables and famous borscht, I even made video of me making borscht because people been asking me for years, "Anya, how do you make that famous borscht," so I made a video of that.
Justin: I love borscht and I love beef.
Anya: I'll share it with you. I'll share the video.
Justin: Then, I think, caviar too for whatever reason when I think of the Russian cuisine.
Anya: Caviar is a good stuff too.
Justin: Indian Palace is your favorite Indian spot in town?
Anya: It is, yes and I am not getting paid for this promotion [laughs].
Justin: Neither of us are.
Justin: You've lived in San Antonio a while, how long?
Anya: Oh, I came here in '91.
Justin: What are some of your favorite hidden gems? When I have people come to town, the Alamo and those things are great but I tell them, the Botanical Gardens are-- If you live here, you probably go the further down Missions. I didn't go for 10 years to see the other Mission. What are some of your favorite hidden gems in the city?
Anya: When we bring guest artists from all over the world, we show them around and it helps for us. I've been here for a very long time. It helps me to look at San Antonio through their eyes which is very interesting. We always take people to McNay Art Museum. I think this is absolutely fabulous, fabulous place in San Antonio. We take, of course, Riverwalk and Pearl but where I would lately started to take people to, is wineries around Texas.
We get all these musicians from France and Italy and they're all cocky about their food and wine and all that. We'll say, "Wait a minute. Let's try some Texas wines." I think that's a hidden gem, still, actually the Texas Hill Country with [crosstalk]
Justin: Have they liked the Texas Hill Country wines?
Anya: They say they do. I don't think they have choice when we take them around [laughs] but I do. I think this is great wine and overall the situation is just [crosstalk]
Justin: The experience is fun.
Anya: The experience is fun, yes. Absolutely, and we're so close to this. It's fabulous.
Justin: I was just talking to my wife. It's going to be a good, get out of the house, pretty safe trip, and we're going to go up there and do that. I haven't done in years. It's different now than it used to be. I have a bunch of friends that worked in the restaurants in San Antonio, who are now up there working in wineries.
Anya: You'll be surprised, they're just growing. It used to be 48 wineries, I think they doubled right now.
Justin: Is that right. The state of Texas gives them a lot of support to open wineries, the Go Texan stuff. We have nine appellations in Texas. The state's done a really good job to encourage that kind of wine tourism. You're a musician, obviously, do you have any other hobbies?
Anya: Oh, I have too many hobbies, for normal human being [laughs].
Justin: Any odd hobbies?
Anya: I don't know how odd but I'm a good cook. I like to cook. I had different hobbies in different periods of my life. I used to sew, I even used to sew for living when I was in Russia, and then somehow that was over, then, I was doing ceramic for a while. My latest hobby is interior design. I just remodeled my house, I'm still recuperating. I'm going to survive the next five years. It's like PTSD after a while, but it's very rewarding, and it's a great opportunity to exercise the interior design aspirations.
Justin: What's your favorite type of cuisine to cook?
Anya: Probably Italian more than the French I would say. I like clean products. I don't like to overwork whatever I work with [laughs]. We have this series of home concerts and for many years, I used to cater, pretty much myself so [laughs] that was interesting experience as well.
Justin: I keep saying I'm going to learn how to cook ossobuco, I still have not learned. I feel like it can't be that difficult, but I still haven't tried to really do it.
Anya: I'm sure it's not. I've done it once or twice.
Justin: What's your favorite Fiesta event?
Anya: I'm embarrassed to say, but I'm not very much into Fiesta.
Justin: Okay, but you've been to some events if you've been here since '91?
Anya: Yes, I've been to some events. The biggest event I've been to was the flower parade. I believe it was nice and interesting but overall, I'm not the crowd kind of girl. I like to stay quiet [laughs] which is weird because I run performing arts organisation [laughs].
Justin: I'm not a big crowd person either. Have you been to the Arts fair at the Southwest School of Arts?
Anya: Yes, I have and I love that school.
Justin: If you get there early, the event's great. It's not packed, by four or five, it starts getting pretty packed but early on it's great. It's one of my, if not my favorite event. You're a classically-trained musician, you're obviously into classical music, but what do you listen to in your car? Do you have guilty music pleasure?
Anya: I do, my favorite actually is Bossa Nova. I think in my previous life maybe I was Brazilian [laughs] I don't know [crosstalk].
Justin: I didn't know, I thought you'd say rap or something.
Anya: No, I didn't go that far yet. Bossa Nova touches some strings in me I didn't know existed.
Justin: I think that's fair. We've touched on it but you're a classically-trained musician. You've toured all over the world is my understanding, talk to me about you come from a family of musicians. Give us a little background of how you got into music in such a sort of in-depth way?
Anya: I was born and raised in Soviet Union, for the starters. My father was the violinist in Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra all his life. My mother is a violinist as well and she was a renowned teacher in Russia, as well as she played in the musical theaters in the orchestras. As far as I remember myself, I was always backstage in an orchestra or in a symphony, so that was really not a matter of choice for me to become a musician.
We have this going joke in the family that two violinists needed [unintelligible 00:09:44] that's why they took me to a music school. I started my piano lessons when I was five. Nobody asked if I want to do it. Nobody asked if I have talent. Nobody asked this, whatever. It was what I was supposed to be doing and that's what I did.
Justin: You hear everything about how it was grown up over there, but was that your education was music, or did you go to school all day like you would in America, and then music after school?
Anya: Yes. I went to public school just normal school in the morning. Then I went to music school three times a week since it was socialism, things were costing next to nothing, practically free. I had my piano lessons twice a week. I also had [unintelligible 00:10:32] and choir and music theory and whatever. They really have that system there working well. That's why Russia is still producing enormous amount of fabulous musicians.
Justin: How long was your father with the Moscow Philharmonic?
Anya: For 45 years.
Justin: Wow. That's a pretty competitive thing, right, to become--
Anya: Oh yes. I think he got there. He played auditions for like 10 times to get in the orchestra. That was very competitive. That was a totally different life than what normal Soviet people would experience because he was traveling all the time with the orchestrate at a time when we lived in a closed country, nobody knew anything about the West. It was pre-internet time. You remember that time?
Anya: He had seen the entire world, really, where majority of Russians only saw what they've been shown on TV.
Justin: Did you live in Moscow?
Anya: Yes, we lived in Moscow.
Justin: Did you get to travel with him when you were a kid or did y'all have to stay put?
Anya: No, we had to stay put. I know for Americans it's really hard to understand, but it was impossible to travel or to leave the country or nothing because you needed exit visa. Now I think Russians only need entrance visa to the country they go to all the time. I have this funny story. I don't know how funny, it's funny now. When I was a teenager, my mother was going to go to Bulgaria for vacation. She wanted to take me with her and it was part of the group too. It was not like you're just going wild to the wild West and stuff.
In order for her to take me, I needed to get permission from the college I was in. The college called me to the meeting of a communist leadership, and I was not really into communist, more politics in general at the time. They asked me why I'm not member of the [unintelligible 00:12:31], which was the step on the way to. I said, "Well, I wasn't invited." They thought that it was politically not savvy answer and they did not sign my papers and I've never went to Bulgaria. The first country I came to actually was United States when I was 29, before that I never left Russia.
Justin: It's funny hearing you went to vacation in Bulgaria because it's not known as a grand vacation destination these days, but [unintelligible 00:13:00] limited right?
Anya: Bulgari actually has-- I've never been to Bulgaria to this day, but I've heard that they have beautiful beaches and the sea. For Soviets, that was the place to go at the time. I was not even able to do that because, at the time, I didn't know how to say right things in the right time. I made a lot of progress since then.
Justin: Even though it was within the iron curtain, as we called it, even though it was within that, you'll still had to get special permission to travel within?
Anya: Yes. [unintelligible 00:13:31]
Justin: I went to law school with a guy who's from Bulgaria and his parents hid under a raft and floated down a river to get out of Bulgaria and they're Americans now. It was a wild story he told me about his parents, different time. Were you there when the wall fell?
Anya: No. I was already in the United States. I came to US with my ex-husband and my son, in exchange program. That was the first time I left Russia and it was '89. The wall fell in '91. We were driving from Illinois in the car to San Antonio when we already were moving here and then the car we were listening, the reports from Moscow were like shooters were on the roofs, and gangs were coming down the streets. I remember there was absolutely surreal feeling.
Justin: Was it emotional for you?
Anya: Yes. Although by now I've spent most of my life here already, I'm more American than Russian. Still, I grew up in that country, I know the culture, I know the people, and every time something goes wrong, I do take it personally.
Justin: At the time when the wall fell, you hadn't been here all that long?
Anya: No, I just came. I was worried about people, tanks in Moscow, I've never seen-- I only seen tanks on TV in my life. The streets where I went to school there were tanks, they were showing and talking, CNN was on the roof somewhere. It was still pretty bad. Now looking back, I believe it was a good thing that it happened, but that was pretty scary.
Justin: Tons of uncertainty too at that point. You became an accomplished pianist while you were in Russia or the Soviet Union at the time. Talk to me, you went to school for piano, but then did you, at some point break from schooling and just take up piano, or was it all school, all piano until you were done?
Anya: The system there is like you go to public school and then you enter what's here would considered to be a magnet school or college from 15 to 19, so I did that. Then there's master degree, which is five years in Russia, so I did that. Then there's doctorate separately. I did everything up to my doctorate and then we immigrated to United States.
I did doctorate later, already after I'd been in the United States for a while. I did it in Russia mainly because I chickened out, I didn't think my English would be good enough to go through doctorate here at the time, so I went back and did doctorate there.
Justin: Some of the stuff provided by Rudy, who's a mutual friend of ours and a PR extraordinaire in this city who could be, he's just so calm about it. He's so good at what he does. Some of the stuff he told me was you did a lot of touring around the world yourself as a pianist. Was that in your Soviet time or was that once you were in the United States?
Anya: That was once I was already in the United States. In Soviet Union still, I lived at a time where things were not possible. The only way pianists could go to the West if they take part in a competition or something, that has to be sanctioned by the government as well.
Justin: Was there a real fear that if they let y'all go that y'all were just not coming back?
Anya: I think so, yes. My dad traveled with his orchestra and they always had couple of KGB guys with them.
Justin: Is that right?
Anya: Absolutely, yes. They knew they probably carried a little something in their pockets, but they were young KGB dudes, orchestra had 50 people, so maybe like five to seven KGB guys.
Justin: I assume there'll be in part of the Moscow Philharmonic meant that he was provided some creature comforts that normal citizens were not. I doubt he was having to stand in the bread line because that was a pride of the Soviet Union, wasn't it, so they were probably taken care of pretty good?
Anya: I think that the main difference was that they were able to travel and see the world. They also were able to bring things like where I was telling the story to my friends, they can believe it here. If you see the line, you'll go to the end of the line. When you get closer, you'll find that what is it they selling? Then whatever it is they selling and no matter what size it is, you just buy it.
He was traveling, he was bringing clothes and little souvenirs. I tried Coca-Cola for the first time when I was like 13. There was no Coca-Cola in Russia, you can imagine. There was some privileges in that. Also, it was a wonderful life. He loved his work. He loved music, he loved orchestra. I think he was a happy man. He just passed away two years ago.
Justin: The stories he has I'm sure were just incredible. You came over, how old were you when you came to the...