Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
ANDA ANASTASESCU (# 28)
Born in Bucharest, Romania
Father & Mother both born in Romania
Ethnic heritage / Father & Mother: Romanian
Anda Anastasescu is a Romanian-born international concert pianist who has lived in London for over forty years. She is a founder member and Artistic Director of the London Schubert Players (LSP) chamber orchestra and of the Romanian Musical Adventure record label; she is also president of the Constantin Silvestri International Foundation.
Anda was born in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, to a well-respected, professional family of modest means, typical of the Romanian ‘middle class’ at that time. Her father was a prominent civil engineer who, together with his architect brother, constructed many notable buildings throughout Romania. Although Anda’s mother had graduated in Law, she was very musical and though she had studied piano, she gave this up to concentrate on raising their two young daughters.
In a recent interview, Anda reminisced about her early years in Bucharest: “Childhood in Romania was for us a period filled with optimism and promise. We were all members of the Pioneers and took part in most of the organised activities that were designed to encourage us to grow up as proud, active Romanian citizens. I must confess that we were largely unaware of the ‘bigger picture’, of the world that existed outside. To us, our Socialist allies were presented primarily as progressive, offering us all a bright future, in contrast to the West. We were, of course, totally unaware that under the rule of Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej so many of our fellow citizens had been eliminated.”
It should be remembered, however, that Gheorghiu-Dej also managed to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Romania in 1958 and he achieved a significant degree of independence from the all-powerful Soviet Union - not an easy task. Nicolae Ceausescu took over in 1965 and continued to pursue this independent policy with some vigour. At a later stage, he even managed to develop some solid economic and diplomatic links with the West, to Moscow’s great annoyance.
Anda continued: “We lived in a flat that would have been thought of as rather sumptuous for a professional family of four in Bucharest at that time but the piano was in my parents’ bedroom; this meant that my mother had difficulty in sleeping with the sounds of my very early morning scales after my father went to work. It wasn’t easy.”
“Romania, like other satellite states in Eastern Europe, modelled its schools on the Russian system so, in addition to attending my basic school, I also attended Music School. Such specialist schools were to nurture talent from a very young age, though I started to play the piano at eight years-old, really late by today’s standards. I loved poetry primarily and was good at reciting and performing the written word. Music was not my first passion, really, and I dreamt of one day becoming an actress. Then, by coincidence, both my sister and I were encouraged to apply to the newly opened Music School and that changed my life. My sister didn’t finish but followed the other family tradition, preferring to study architecture.
“From the very outset, there were high expectations of every child who attended one of these specialist schools; the pressure was on from day one and we were all expected to put in a great deal of time and copious effort in the prime endeavour to improve. As soon as we did, the goalposts were raised higher. From early on, we performed in proper concert halls and our music teachers, out of pure dedication, gave us dozens of free, additional lessons, sometimes in their own homes – paid private lessons were unheard of and no-one in Romania could have afforded them at that time anyway. While acting and performing continued to be my first love, music also came very easily to me. I seemed to be able to progress from one stage to another with great ease. I excelled and almost always passed the exams without much need for lengthy preparation. I was also blessed with a great deal of physical dexterity but only later on, when I was eighteen or so, did music become almost like a religion for me.”
Anda went on to describe her social life: “Although Bucharest was an exciting place for some teenagers, there were only a few bars and young people had no money to buy alcohol. We met for ice-creams and delicious cakes and mostly we socialised in one another’s homes. My sister and those who were not musically committed even managed to date boys, going out to dances and suchlike, but I was already fully engaged with my piano. We lived music; we met in each other’s houses to talk about music; and we were continuously under the influence of our teachers who inspired us and helped us to explore music further. In that respect, I think I had rather atypical teenage years.”
Asked how she perceived and experienced the cultural life of Bucharest, Anda explained: “I thought it was amazing. I grew up listening to some of the greatest Soviet artists who frequently visited and performed in Bucharest: Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich and many others. Of course, there were also many outstanding Romanian performers. And, in 1958, the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest attracted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, together with Yehudi Menuhin and other Western performers. At the same time, the Romanian theatre and opera were delivering consistently great productions and ballet performances. Of course, all this culture was state-sponsored but it must be said that it was consistently of the highest quality.”
Having completed her Baccalaureate, Anda continued to be torn by her two passions: music and the theatre. However, as fate ordained, circumstances made the choice for her: she passed the entry exam to the Bucharest Conservatoire with flying colours, which prompted her to withdraw from the forthcoming drama exam and stay with music. “Virtually from the beginning, we had valuable opportunities for performing solo and with the students’ orchestra, we took part in national competitions and we even played in Bucharest’s famous concert hall, The Athenaeum. At that stage, of course, the question of possible international performances or scholarships abroad came into sharper focus in all our minds, but foreign travel anywhere, including to the Warsaw Pact countries, was not easy. Contacts with any foreigners were carefully controlled by the state and it was quite clear to me by then that some privileges could only be enjoyed by those who were well connected and trusted by the Establishment - just being good was not good enough.”
By this time, Nicolae Ceausescu was already in power and the cult of personality was well established. It was at this time when Ceausescu and the Party followed the most rigid and rigorous policy of self-sufficiency, almost to the point of obsession. While two-thirds of the population still lived from agriculture, great emphasis was placed on industrialisation. For example, in 1962, with the help of the West, Romania built the largest steel mill in the world, followed by a number of other monumental industrial complexes. Ceausescu certainly thought big and acted big but his strategy for gargantuan industrial expansion later plunged Romania into terrible debt, with the country eventually sinking to the second lowest standard of living of all the Warsaw Pact countries.
Anda continued: “While industrial links with the West were becoming very important, in the cultural field only a very few performers were trusted to be sent abroad to take part in international competitions. As a performer in Romania, one could only be a soloist with a Romanian orchestra or a teacher. Because of the Iron Curtain that surrounded us, we could not even imagine a professional musical career and performing abroad - we didn’t really appreciate what a career in music might actually be like.”
When she was twenty and progressing well at the Conservatoire, Anda tried her luck at getting a scholarship abroad. This was no easy task but she was fortunate in receiving an offer from France. Such scholarships abroad had to be authorised on a number of levels by the authorities and, at the very last moment, her permission to travel was revoked. Anda later learned that not being a member of the Young Communists had been a decisive factor in her case - someone else, more trusted and better connected, was sent instead. Unwilling to give up, she tried her luck again in 1972 when she applied to compete in the world-renowned Leeds International Piano Competition. The Romanian Ministry of Culture agreed and Anda officially represented Romania. As it turned out, she faced extraordinarily strong competition for that was the year when Murray Perahia won first place. Anda recalled: “I did not win but my performance was perceived to be of a noteworthy standard and I was immediately offered a concert tour of British universities and, thanks to the celebrated Professor of Piano, Gordon Green, I was also offered a scholarship to pursue my studies with him at the Royal Academy of Music in London - what seemed to me an extraordinary privilege. Alas, I had a visa for only two weeks and I was expected to return home within that time limit.”
Having been honoured with the offer of such extraordinary opportunities to perform and to study in England, Anda dared to apply to the Romanian Embassy in London for an extension of her visa. Having received no response, it soon became clear to her that she was in difficulty with the Romanian authorities. “I might have been a promising and talented pianist but I was now labelled as someone who had betrayed her country’s trust and this filled me with deep sadness.”
Anda chose not to return. Largely on her own, and now in London, she was dependent on the generosity of a few friends and acquaintances. Alone, for the first time in a foreign metropolis, with no English and no income, Anda experienced what it was like to feel a complete outsider. “My parents, back home, came under intense pressure too: as a consequence of my action, my father was demoted from his senior post and, as a further punishment, my sister was thrown out of her architectural university. I wrote to the Romanian ambassador here in London and even to President Ceausescu himself, trying to reassure them of my loyal citizenship, explaining that I was simply attempting to take advantage of the unique musical opportunities that had been offered to me and that I had every intention of coming back home. I never received any answers. In Romania, I was sentenced in absentia to six years’ imprisonment for my ‘treason’. Only someone who has lived through such an experience can imagine how tough, how desperate and how dispiriting it all was. It was ironic that it should happen at that very point when I was starting to be recognised internationally. Because my official status remained in limbo for some years, study at the Royal Academy of Music was unfortunately out of the question, but Professor Green gave me many free lessons for which I will remain eternally grateful.”
Clearly moved, Anda recollected: “Life brings many surprises: thirty years later, almost to the day that the six-year prison sentence was passed on me, the President of Romania, Ion Iliescu, came to London and, in a ceremony at the Romanian Embassy, bestowed upon me the honour of Commander of the Order of Cultural Merit. At that moment, I was transformed from being an outcast to an honoured citizen of the country of my birth.” Some years later, during 2013, Anda received from the Romanian Ambassador in London a Diploma for her exceptional contribution in promoting Romanian culture in the UK, a notable honour indeed.
“Thinking back to those difficult times, once I was given British residency and felt free to travel again - within my limited means, of course - I started to enter music competitions once more. In 1974, I entered the Concours Debussy in Paris and won. This gave me my first opportunity to make radio recordings in France, and enhanced my musical profile as well as my potential for playing internationally. When I look at the current crop of talented individuals from Eastern Europe, competing and performing in the West, they are mostly supported by teams of professional promoters, foundations and facilitators. This kind of support did not exist before the revolutions of the eighties in the Eastern Bloc, and as I had no such support, the years that lay before me proved to be very tough indeed. It was not easy surviving on the fees for occasional concerts and recordings, especially in a very expensive and competitive city like London. The generosity of friends and supporters also has its limits. My second language was French and I had to struggle with the English language. Romania had few cultural links with this ‘foggy island’ called Britain and sometimes the cultural barriers felt insurmountable.”
“These were years when I often felt very depressed and very lonely, surrounded mainly by other foreigners who were equally struggling to survive. However much I tried to integrate into British society, there were times when I felt that this might never happen, though I felt strongly that, if I ever hoped to gain the trust of the British people, it was I who must embrace what was to me a whole new way of life. Of course, I can never be fully British, I will always be an outsider here, but I do feel that I understand the British spirit much better now.”
After what proved to be a serious and prolonged illness, causing a lacuna in her professional life, Anda started to rebuild her career: “I had to establish myself anew in the field of music; by this time I was in my thirties and it was never going to be easy having to audition again and to compete against much younger, highly talented newcomers. I was lucky to secure the position of a teacher of Piano at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and I was able to teach Piano privately too. Thankfully, my life seemed to have achieved a degree of welcome stability at last.”
Anda returned to the world of performing music in the late eighties and in 1989, she formed the 27-strong London Schubert Players chamber orchestra, of which she became artistic director. The LSP was almost an overnight success. “Initially, we travelled and performed in Spain and then we became the Orchestra-in-Residence at the French Cultural Institute here in London. At the end of that remarkable year, we all witnessed the dramatic fall of Ceausescu and the success of the Romanian Revolution which swept away the old political system and with it the almost impenetrable Iron Curtain. I felt as if I were experiencing the springtime of my life all over again.”
Eighteen years an exile and unable to play in her homeland, Anda organised a return in 1990, this time with the LSP, her very own English orchestra, and gave concerts in a number of leading musical venues. They also performed in several major centres for disadvantaged children and teenagers - a new educational experience for them and for us a deeply emotional one. “We brought gifts with us, donated in England for those we guessed seldom got any. They couldn’t believe their eyes and had to be persuaded that they really were for themselves. But, gifts aside, primarily, by performing in their gyms, we were able to bring the beauty of music into their institutionalised lives. We had no music stands with us, so the children held our scores while we were playing. For them, it was all a totally novel experience and watching their responses was something we shall all of us always remember. Some of the children continued to correspond with us for years after these events.” During their visit to Romania, the LSP also recorded an album, which was sold in order to raise funds in support of these centres for underprivileged youngsters.
“About the same time,” Anda continued, “I also happened to discover works composed by the legendary conductor, Constantin Silvestri, who had been principal conductor of the Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra, the Romanian National Opera and the National Radio Orchestra. Of Italian-Bohemian-Romanian stock, he had settled in Britain towards the end of his life, where he was Principal Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and became a British citizen. He had left Romania with a similar motivation to my own but he too became persona non grata.”
“Having discovered his music, I found it an absolute pleasure to present it to contemporary Romanian audiences who gave it rapturous applause. And this enthusiastic reception encouraged me to initiate the Constantin Silvestri International Festival, Concerto Competition and Summer Academy, to be held annually in the city of Târgu Mures, in the heart of Transylvania. In my own way, I had started to build creative bridges between Britain and Romania. The Constantin Silvestri International Foundation was also formed which, in association with a number of independent British schools (especially Pocklington School in Yorkshire and, in Edinburgh, the Stewart’s Melville College for boys and the Mary Erskine School for girls) offers Silvestri Scholarships to 16 year-old musical students from Romania. Such scholarships are life-transforming experiences for budding musicians and I am so proud to be the initiator of such real instruments of change.”
Anda now proudly holds dual citizenship: she is British but also Romanian. Thankfully, she never had to complete her prison sentence; instead, she has become a Romanian cultural representative here in Britain. As a Londoner, she promotes not only Romanian music but also, with her ensemble, champions English music worldwide.
Together with Bulgaria, its neighbour, Romania became a full member of the European Union in 2007 and both countries have been very much in the news of late. Romania ranks as the seventh most populous country in the EU. Though it gets scant positive publicity in this country, some of its writers, performers and artists have won such universal renown that Bucharest is no longer perceived here as a cultural backwater on Europe’s eastern boundaries. Romanian and Bulgarian citizens are now able to study, settle and open businesses anywhere within the EU.
Regrettably but predictably, the dark forces of nationalism in Germany, France, Holland and the UK have spread fears that ‘hoards of uncivilised immigrants’ from Europe’s backwaters will soon be swamping our lands, depriving us of our jobs, our housing and our health services, a drain on our social security systems. Similar reactions might have been observed when Portugal, Spain and Poland joined the European club. However, the vilification of Romania as a nation has been especially blatant, sometimes out of sheer ignorance, but often with malicious intent: Romanians are confused with Roma (Gypsies) who themselves rival the Jews as historically perhaps the most persecuted ethnic group in Europe, if not in the world. There are Roma people in Romania, of course, but they constitute just over 3% of the total population. Yet every Romanian living in London, or England for that matter, is currently tarred with this brush of anti-Roma prejudice and many come to feel that they are outsiders once again. While their fears are largely unjustified, the eradication of such propaganda is never easy or quick. Any foreigner faced with this sort of vilification will inevitably feel exceptionally uneasy.
With a note of hesitation in her voice, Anda shared some of these feelings: “There are indeed events in the recent past that have tainted the image of Romania in this country. The popular, tabloid newspapers simply loved the stories of roaming bands of Romanian Romas killing and eating the swans in Vienna’s parks. Then there were the shocking pictures and documentaries exposing the most terrible neglect and lack of compassion in the numerous orphanages inherited from Communist Romania, an impression that tarnished the whole nation. Such images stay in people’s minds for a very long time and hardly anything positive about Romanians features in the press. Of course, some of these detrimental stories were true, but it is also true that the impoverishment of children, the shocking neglect of the destitute, and the callous abandonment of the old are not exactly phenomena unknown here in Britain either ...”
She continued: “I am not surprised about the general ignorance of my country: Romania is geographically on the eastern fringe of Europe. While the Iron Curtain kept Romanians largely in ignorance of the West, it was equally effective in preventing other Europeans from learning about who we were, how we lived and the culture that we nurtured. Unfortunately, articles about Romania hardly ever seem to give a balanced view.”
Anda went on to say: “I am primarily a musician; I am not a politician and am therefore not qualified or able to talk in an informed way about the consequences of contemporary migration trends in Europe. I just know that, generally speaking, people prefer to stay and to live in their mother country, speaking their own mother tongue. Romanian schools are of a high standard and young people are well-educated and hard-working. If they do decide to emigrate, they are likely to contribute a great deal to any society in which they settle. The rumours of an impending invasion are pure fantasy. It is the case, though, that since the regime changed, foreign capital seems to have taken over most of Romania’s industries, privatised its public utilities, and availed itself of the rich mineral assets that the country has in great quantity. Romanian resources appear to have been ruthlessly exploited, with the country gaining little benefit and unemployment ever rising. There seems to be a general feeling that not just prices and wages but the whole economy is being managed from outside and this is generating an intense socio-economic malaise amongst the young who just cannot get jobs. Who can blame them if they decide to seek their livelihoods abroad? In the new socio-economic order, a search for survival elsewhere might be the only real, the only sensible choice our young people have.”
Asked what, if any, are the advantages of being an outsider, Anda replied without hesitation: “There are many advantages. For me personally, belonging to two different cultures has enriched me enormously and being able to see things from an outside perspective is almost always beneficial. I am married to an Englishman and became part of an English family; I now see my own country more objectively as I am an outsider there too. As a Romanian, I have had forty years to observe the English and I sometimes feel I understand them better than they understand themselves! Despite the discrimination against foreigners in Britain, particularly foreigners from certain countries, there is also an extraordinary degree of acceptance and tolerance here, much greater than back home. I feel I can bring back to Romania some of the best of what I have experienced and gained in Britain.”
Anda was asked how she would respond if given the option of not being an outsider. Would she want it? “The answer must be partially ‘yes’. The trauma of being excluded from my own country for over ten years has had a profound effect on all of my life - I would not wish to experience that pain ever again, that sense of not being able to see my family or to visit my beloved Romania, that was almost unbearable. For me, they were a lost ten years. I feel I shall never be able to make up that lost time. I seem now to be doing things I should have been doing during those ten years, so I aim to live to be at least one hundred and ten, so that I can make up for what I lost! I have so much to give, so much to share, still so much to do …”
Interview Date: 24th September 2013
Updated: 12th March 2015
To learn more about Anda Anastasescu and The London Schubert Players, follow the specific links below:
For Anda's Romanian Musical Adventure, use the following link:
Romanian-born, international concert pianist, Anda Anastasescu is a founder member and Artistic Director of the London Schubert Players; she is also president of the Constantin Silvestri International Foundation. Having lived in London for over forty years, with her English journalist husband, Anda has recently had to contend with the blatant vilification of her Romanian nationality. Prejudice against Romanians has now become endemic, sometimes spawned by ignorance, but often fomented with malicious intent. Romanians are (sometimes deliberately) confused with Roma (Gypsies) and the vilification of the Roma has very deep roots in Europe. So any Romanians living in the UK are now the potential targets of mindless anti-Roma prejudice and in consequence many come to feel themselves outsiders all over again.
Photography: London 24th September 2013