Her name is Camilla Tsiperovich. But, growing up in Azerbaijan, there were times she wasn't allowed to use it. As a 9-year-old violinist performing for world-renowned cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, she was told to call herself Camilla Gadjieva. Her headmaster at the Azerbaijan Conservatory considered this a more suitable name, one that reflected the Muslim heritage of her country. While representing Azerbaijan in international music competitions and spending her first year of high school at the famed Moscow Conservatory, she always understood that "there was something wrong because you were Jewish."
Tsiperovich no longer needs to hide who she is. A year ago, her talent was noticed by Anita Hirsh, whose work with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has given her a deep commitment to the Jews of the former Soviet Union. Hirsh, the widow of The Jewish Journal's late publisher, Stanley Hirsh, sponsored Tsiperovich's entrance into the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Now, at age 17, Tsiperovich is flourishing as a full-time student who divides her days between academic subjects and an intense focus on her chosen instrument.
Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding school nestled in the mountains above Palm Springs, is home to 270 high school students who are preparing for careers as artists, dancers, actors, filmmakers and musicians. The atmosphere is international, with about one-third of the student body hailing from Europe, Asia and Latin America. As an entering student with shaky English skills, Tsiperovich is enrolled in a basic course in English as a Second Language. She introduced herself to her classmates by saying, "I'm from Azerbaijan. None of you know where that is."
The course has required her to write and speak often about the homeland she's left behind. Todd Bucklin, the school's ESL teacher, commends her for being frank and responsive: "It's great having her strong presence in the class."
He also admires her social progress. In her dormitory she's been spotted watching Korean-language movies with her new Asian pals, reading the subtitles to understand what's going on.
At Idyllwild, all academic classes are held in the morning, to leave afternoons free for lessons, rehearsals and practice sessions. Life is so busy that Tsiperovich finds time to practice her violin only five or six hours a day. Back home, her passion for the instrument led her to practice 12 hours daily. Such devotion had its downside: she was prone to developing injuries in her hands, wrists and feet.
Her family, though always supportive, is not especially musical. In fact, a career in music was completely Tsiperovich's idea. She was only 3 when she saw a televised concert of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G and became obsessed with learning the violin. She began lessons before she turned 4, and it wasn't long before she was winning competitions and presenting public recitals. She is also a gifted visual artist, who received her current instrument from an American oil company after it used one of her paintings in an advertising campaign.
Tsiperovich admits that in Azerbaijan it's almost impossible to follow the rules of religious Judaism (her family's tiny synagogue is now defunct). Nonetheless, she learned from an early age to respect Jewish tradition. She was active in her local chapter of the World Jewish Agency, also known as Sochnut, an organization that encourages Diaspora Jews to feel connected with the State of Israel. It was Sochnut that paved the way for her to participate in an Israeli music festival, where her violin performance won first prize. Because her stay in Israel coincided with her 13th birthday, she was able to celebrate an impromptu bat mitzvah in a local synagogue. Though her parents were far away, she was by no means lonely.
In Israel, Tsiperovich says in her careful, accented English, "I felt like I am at home. I felt so warm. People were so close to me."
Now she's learning to feel at home in the United States. She says Hirsh often acts as "my parent in America" and sees her during holidays. Hirsh took Tsiperovich to Utah over winter break for her first attempt at skiing. Still, it's hard for her not to miss all that she has left behind. When her school took its spring break in late March, she flew to her home city of Baku, on the Caspian Sea, to reunite with her family for the first time in five months. As luck would have it, she was able to share in the festivities of her favorite holiday, Azerbaijan New Year.
Tsiperovich is determined to follow high school with four years at a major American music conservatory. Because her long-range goal is to forge a career as a soloist, it's likely she won't be spending many more New Years in her native land. The life of a professional musician can be heartbreakingly tough, but it offers one great reward.
"When you play music," Tsiperovich says, "you feel really free."