By Donald Rosenberg
Plain Dealer Music Critic
Every piece of music is a journey of some kind.
Dennis Eberhard's "Shadow of the Swan" travels well beyond mere tonal regions to pay tribute to real-life expeditions that ended in tragedy. The Cleveland composer created his three-movement work for piano and orchestra in response to the 1986 Challenger space-shuttle disaster and the 2000 Kursk catastrophe. The Kursk was the Russian nuclear submarine that sank in the Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle, killing hundreds of men.
"Shadow of the Swan" also has turned out to be an exhilarating personal odyssey for Eberhard. What began, not so simply, as an extended piece for a gifted pia- ﾍnist turned into an experience that is providing the composer with fulfillment on more levels than he could have anticipated.
Eberhard, who was stricken with polio as a child, recently made the arduous trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, with his soloist, Russian-born Cleveland pianist Halida Dinova, for the piece's recording and premiere performances. They were accompanied by Cleveland filmmaker Laura Paglin, who is making a documentary about Eberhard's struggle - and triumph - in a country still largely inaccessible to the disabled.
The composer traveled to Russia with no guarantee that the recording of "Shadow of the Swan" ever would see the light of day. But several weeks ago, while searching the Internet, he made contact with officials at Naxos, a spunky, Hong Kong-based firm that has become the world's largest classical-music recording company.
After learning that such major ensembles as the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cincinnati Symphony had played Eberhard's music, Naxos President Klaus Heymann listened to the new piece and agreed to release the recording, at a date yet to be determined.
Eberhard and Dinova talk about the recording, documentary and Russian trip with the wonder of kids given a handful of precious gifts.
In St. Petersburg, where few old buildings have elevators, the composer was treated as a special guest. His wheelchair couldn't negotiate stairs at the Naval Academy across from the Winter Palace (Hermitage), where rehearsals were held, or at the Maly Glinka Hall, where his piece was recorded and performed. In those instances, naval cadets carried Eberhard "like Julius Caesar," says Dinova.
The audiences at the two performances of "Shadow of the Swan" included parents of men who died in the Kursk disaster.
"They came up to me after the concert and hugged me and cried and thanked me," Eberhard says. "It breaks your heart. It was so powerful."
Dinova, who has lived in Cleveland since she took part in the 1993 Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition and subsequently married local jeweler Paul Christopher, met Eberhard in the mid-1990s. When the pianist was making her first recording, a recital of Scriabin pieces, the composer helped her choose the order of works.
It was after Eberhard received an Ohio Arts Council grant in 1999 for a project of his choice that he decided to write a piano concerto for Dinova in memory of the Kursk victims.
He found a way to connect Russian and American cultures when he came upon Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Requiem for Challenger." In the poem, Yevtushenko refers to the Challenger explosion as a great white swan "made from the last breath of seven evaporated souls."
Eberhard wrote "Shadow of the Swan" on speculation, without knowing when, or if, it would be performed, much less recorded. Happily, Dinova's Russian concert agency, Intrada, showed interest and sent the piece to Alexander Tchernoushkenko, conductor of the St. Petersburg State Capella Symphony Orchestra. Although musicians in St. Petersburg are skeptical of American composers, says Eberhard, they were impressed with the piece and its subject matter, which no Russian composer had yet explored.
ﾍThe project came to fruition in November, when Eberhard traveled to St. Petersburg with Dinova and Paglin. Because of scheduling, the pianist and her Russian colleagues recorded "Shadow of the Swan" before, not after, the world-premiere performances. Tchernoushkenko and his orchestra also recorded Eberhard's symphonic poem, "Prometheus West," which will round out the Naxos release.
Paglin's half-hour film, "Flight of the Swan," which is being co-sponsored by Creative Filmmakers (her company) and LEAP (Linking Employment Abilities and Potential), is an account of Eberhard's Russian adventures.
"The film is basically about disability awareness, using me as a role model for kids," he says. It shows "what you can do in life despite the disability."
Eberhard hopes the documentary will have premiere screenings in October, which is National Disability Awareness Month, at Cleveland State University and the Abilities Center of Greater Toledo.
Not surprisingly, the ebullient Dinova is the greatest fan of Eberhard's 41-minute score, whose movements are marked "The Fall," "Requiem" and "Quickening."
"In the cadenza in the first movement, you can hear the sailors knocking on the wall [of the submarine]," she says. "There are lots of pauses. Those moments of silence say a lot. Dennis is expressing the drama. Maybe it also shows how he has experienced so much drama in his life and is overcoming so much."