From busker to Sibelius Violin Competition winner
Alina Pogostkin was a homeless street musician as a child
By Vesa Sirén
She is now celebrating her recent victory in the 9th International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition. But in 1992, Alina Pogostkin, 22, was a homeless eight-year-old street musician busking in Heidelberg in Germany.
A day after her win in Helsinki, she sits in the artists' lounge at Finlandia Hall and tells her story.
"My father Aleksandr Pogostkin was a violin professor in Russia, and my mother a Siberian orchestral musician. I wanted to play the violin because both of my parents played. My father taught me."
Alina lived with her family in St. Petersburg, and was soon recognised as a child prodigy on the instrument.
"I performed in concert already at the age of five. Not long after that I was playing on TV, too, which is something that a lot of people in Petersburg still seem to remember and tell me about."
By 1992 the old Soviet Union had collapsed, however, and violin teachers went unpaid for months. Many left to earn a living as street musicians: some came to Helsinki, and the Pogostkin family chose to head for Germany.
"We left Russia with three violins and two suitcases when I was eight."
The family travelled to the university city of Heidelberg and became street musicians.
"We didn't know anybody and we didn't have a penny to our name."
But there were friendly and charitable people there.
"Many came up and asked why a little girl was busking in the streets. We explained that we had just arrived and that we did not know where to go. We never needed to sleep out on the streets, though, as people were very kind. There was always someone offering to put us up in their home for the night."
The money the family got from playing was enough to keep them in food.
"And often I would get a new toy after playing. But sometimes the weather was bad or I was tired. I wouldn't want to go back to playing in the streets", sighs Alina.
All the same, there was a bright side to their life.
"As a child it was nice to play with my mother and father like that. And often when we visited the homes of families who took us in, there were dogs and cats to pet."
Word began to spread of the prodigiously talented child busker. Before very long, Alina was also playing in Heidelberg churches and at the birthday parties of acquaintances.
Her parents, too, made inroads into German society and began to get private students. After a few months, there was enough money to rent an apartment.
"From then on, my competition career got into gear. I won the 1st Louis Spohr Competition [in 1995, for young violinists at the Franz Liszt University of Music in Weimar]. In the biggest of the international competitions that I entered I was 6th, 4th, 6th, and 4th. Now at last I've won a victory. I can still hardly believe it!"
Already Alina's 4th-place showing in 2001 at the world's largest violin event, the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, brought her some very useful concert engagements.
"I played with the Belgian National Orchestra under Mikko Franck and with Christoph Eschenbach at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. But even though one Munich agent has inivited me every year to play at the Philharmonie Hall, getting concert bookings was a constant struggle. I just had to keep on entering competitions."
But not any longer.
"This was my last competition. I really appreciate the win, because I know what it is to play on the streets, and I also know what it is to come last in the final of a major competition."
Professor Pogostkin taught his daughter right up to 2003. Alina's mother and father are still in Heidelberg as private music tutors.
"They work very hard, and they would not have had the money to fly up here to Helsinki for the competition. But one of these days I'll bring them here."
For the past two and a half years, Alina Pogostkin has been the pupil of Antje Weithaas in Berlin. The celebrated pedagogue had a second Sibelius Competition finalist this year in Jermolaj Albiker.
"Antje has helped to open up for me quite new perspectives on even some older works. So far it has only been Tchaikovsky or Brahms or Bruch that people have wanted from me."
At competitions, for years Pogostkin would perform Pyotr Tchaikovsky's D major Concerto, but this time around in Helsinki she selected Sergei Prokofiev's Concerto No. 2 in G minor.
"I played the Tchaikovsky too much, and that work will have to take a rest for now. But the Sibelius is not a composition you can get tired of. It's also my mother's favourite violin concerto, and I loved it even as a child."
Her performance of the Sibelius D minor Concerto was instrumental in helping Pogostkin to win the event. She played with a strong sense of musicality and was not obliged to slow things up even in the most difficult passages of the work.
"I got feedback from some of the jury members that they hoped I would henceforth get the chance to get a better violin", reports Pogostkin.
"I do love the violin that was made for me by Falke Peters in Aachen, but the two-year-old instrument is a little restricted in the middle register. My dream would be to play a Guarneri del Gesù" [by Giuseppe Guarneri, 1698-1744, one of the famous Cremona violin-making family of the 17th and 18th centuries].
There was a moment when this dream looked to be becoming a reality. An anonymous millionaire wished to donate a Guarneri to Alina, because he loved her playing.
"The foundation that represented him brought the instrument to me. It is a fantastic violin, and I played it that same evening in concert."
However... the very next morning the foundation announced that the millionaire had instead resolved to buy his wife an expensive work of art for her birthday.
"They came and took the Guarneri away, and it was sold to Japan."
Victory in the Sibelius Violin Competition has opened the doors to an international career for all the winners, ever since Oleg Kagan took the honours in 1965. So, has Alina's phone been ringing off the hook?
"One Finnish concert agency has offered cooperation, which is very nice. But I am going to make any decisions only after I have had some time to draw breath. I'm heading home to Berlin for a few days, and then I will be back here to play Sibelius with the Radio Symphony Orchestra on Friday 9th."
And then what?
"Next up is a rest and a vacation - finally!"
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 4.12.2005
Previously in HS International Edition:
Alina Pogostkin wins Jean Sibelius Violin Competition (5.12.2005)
The 9th International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition
VESA SIRÉN / Helsingin Sanomat