Violinist/ Violin Teacher/ Artist/ Argentine Tango Dancer
I met Irina on multiple occasions. The first time, I met her as a conductor/concert mistress for a youth chamber orchestra with whom my daughter debuted as a soloist playing her J.S. Bach piano concerto earlier this year. Irina had her way with children. Her gentle yet methodical and authoritative style allowed her to effectively lead inexperienced orchestra members and soloist to a successful performance at a school fundraiser gala. At the event itself, she not only conducted and played her violin but showcased her Argentine tango dancing skills. She also generously donated her multiple artwork for auction. I since attended events where I had the honor of hearing her violin performance, seeing more art created by her and watching her tango. Her many talents and passions were awe-inspiring. I was thrilled when she agreed to be my subject.
It was a drizzling Halloween morning, when I arrived at the front door of Irina Schuck’s charming Victorian house in downtown Philadelphia. She greeted me warmly at the door and fixed me an aromatic, herbal tea. I took some time sipping the warm drink and studying all the art on the walls, many of which were Irina’s. I recognized her signature triangle motifs.
Hazel: Your place is so charming. Thanks for having me over. This is going to be an action-packed interview because I want to cover violin, art AND Argentine tango in your life. How shall we start?
Irina: Let’s go chronologically and see how it goes.
Hazel: Sounds like a plan! You are Russian, right? Did you spend most of your life in Russia?
Irina: I was born in Ukraine but I don’t really identify myself as a Ukrainian. I became a citizen of the world early in life as my father was in the army. Soon after my birth, we moved to Poland and then lived there for 7 years.
Hazel: That’s so cool. When did you start playing the violin?
Irina: I actually started with the piano when I was 6 because my mom was a pediatrician who also studied piano performance in college. Then when I was 9 or 10, I started to beg my parents to allow me to play the violin. They didn’t want me to at first so I had my friend who played the violin secretly teach me. I even made a violin out of a shoebox. When my parents finally allowed me to begin formal lessons, I was already 14. I practiced right away about 4 hours a day. I was MAD about the violin.
Hazel: Wow, that’s quite late when you started. But you were so passionate about it that you caught up. Did art and dance start when you were young?
Irina: No, I did not paint nor dance when I was growing up. I’ll get to that as I go through my life story.
When I was 21, I got married to a trumpet player whom I met while working at Samara Symphony Orchestra. That same year, we both joined the song and dance ensemble of the Russian Army in Germany and moved to Germany. The money was so good but they limited the contract to 5 years. During our post, we travelled all over Germany, I finished my music master’s degree from a Ukrainian conservatory remotely and gave birth to our daughter. After Germany, we moved to Latvia on the Baltic Sea for two years. Then, we returned to Germany and settled in a city called Stralsund where I got a job as an opera orchestra violin member. There are more countries like Sweden I’ve lived in but I don’t want to complicate my story too much so I am going to stop here.
Hazel: Irina, I’m dizzy trying to keep up with all the cities and countries you’ve mentioned so far. You really did have a rather nomadic lifestyle! I would imagine the exposure to all these different countries must have influenced your music.
Irina: Definitely. In Russia, they emphasized teaching Romantic Era and specifically Russian composers’ music. Even J.S. Bach’s music was interpreted romantically. When I arrived in Germany, I learned to play J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart the German way and started to use the metronome more.
Hazel: What happened next?
Irina: I got divorced and kept working and living in Stralsund. Then one day, I was in the orchestra pit during the dress rehearsal of Evita and was trying to look for my daughter who was playing the little Evita when my eyes met with the lead tenor’s. He was a beautiful and talented Korean man. It was a love at first sight and we started to date shortly after and got married eventually. It was truly a great love.
Hazel: You married a Korean??! I’m Korean, you know.
Irina: I’m more Korean than Ukrainian. I even know how to make kimchi.
Hazel: That’s so awesome. You have to come over to my house for some Korean BBQ one of these days.
Irina: I would love that. Anyway, he wanted to get a doctorate in vocal studies at Temple University, so we moved to Philadelphia. Even before we got married, my daughter moved in with her dad and stayed in Germany. She still lives there today.
Hazel: Wow. Yet another move. Tell me more about this man and your love.
Irina: From the beginning, there was this understanding between the two of us. We didn’t even need to talk. We would look at one another and knew what one another was thinking. We were connected at the core. I learned how to play the violin from him even though he was a singer. I was inspired by his musicality. Before him, I would make pretty music but didn’t open myself up to show my soul.
Hazel: You know that kind of love is so rare. I wonder how many people truly experience it and realize it. You are so lucky! How was moving to the U.S. like?
Irina: Yes, I’m very lucky to have experienced it. I liked Philadelphia as my first city of residence in the States. I cannot say the same for Texas, where I moved to after Philadelphia before returning. Tango dancing started in Philadelphia for me. I was 42 then. My Korean husband and I were at University Art League near University of Pennsylvania trying to sign up for a painting class but saw that there was an Argentine tango class we could register for. I used to play in an Argentine tango band. I saw a lot of tango performances as a result and always admired it. So we decided to try it out.
Hazel: I’m 42. It’s so cool that you were open to starting new things.
Irina: It’s never too late to start just about anything. My Korean husband and I stayed together for 16 years and when our relationship ended, I was completely devastated. I was broken for about 2 years.
Hazel: I’m sorry to hear!! How did you overcome your sadness?
Irina: It took me awhile, but I learned how to live by myself. Up to that point, I was always sheltered and surrounded by others. I learned to love to be completely free and on my own. Also, I started to seriously get into painting right around the time my relationship with my second husband was ending. During our breakup, I painted a cat in triangles. It reflected my life falling apart and breaking. I have been painting with triangle motifs ever since.
Hazel: That’s heartbreaking, Irina. But, even in the end, your relationship influenced your art.
Irina: I definitely changed for the better. In art, you have to show yourself. The true core of you comes out when you suffer. You cannot be deep when you are only joyful. You appreciate happiness much more when you experience sadness.
Irina is the first subject who made me cry during the interview and my eyes stayed wet even as I was driving away. She was absolutely right about how sadness and suffering can be a great source of inspiration. In addition, true love, even at its end, seems to shape us in ways that are beyond our comprehension and imagination. A soulmate connection can serve as the catalyst in a major shift in one’s artistic paradigm. This is perhaps why we treasure such relationship so dearly even if it is not meant to be forever and/or with a tragic ending.
Irina is a beautiful, insightful and deep soul whose music, art and dance are not only beautiful but also sincere and touching. I was lucky to have met her and would love to continue to get to know her and all the ways she expresses herself. Thank you, Irina for being so candid about your colorful, cosmopolitan life!