Russian Native Puts Down Roots in Vestavia Hills
By Shannon Thomason
No one was more surprised than Yakov Kasman when he realized Alabama had become home.
Originally from Orel, a city near Moscow, Russia, the professor of piano and artist-in-residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham came to the state by way of Huntsville. He and his wife, Tatiana, and their then-3-year-old daughter, Aleksandra, thought the city would be their first stop, and then they would make their way somewhere else.
“But we happened to get our roots in Alabama, and our second child was born in Huntsville,” Yakov said. “When the position was opened here at UAB, I applied for it and was hired, and this is my 13th year.”
The family lives in Vestavia Hills.
Tatiana Kasman has been teaching in the UAB Department of Music as an adjunct instructor for more than 12 years. Aleksandra, known to friends and family as Sasha, is a sophomore in the Honors Program at UAB. Younger daughter Dina is a freshman at Vestavia High School. Both daughters are also burgeoning pianists.
After living in Russia and France and traveling the world extensively as a 1997 Van Cliburn Silver Medal-winning pianist,Yakov said that although he still loves Russia and visits with his family at least twice a year, living here in the Over the Mountain area is better than anywhere else he has lived.
“Honestly, my favorite part is it is unpretentious, it is sincere, it is in my opinion extremely well-organized, it is kind, it is polite,” he said. “Unfortunately, many of these qualities are terribly missed in many other places where I have been or used to live, so I really appreciate this Southern hospitality that I hope I am now a part of. I am trying to be like the people around me, in a good way.
“I have visited so many places, really a lot of places, so this modest but real quality of life and people around here is something that became very dear to me.”
Kasman was honored with the UAB Ireland Prize for Scholarly Distinction in 2012. He has been invited to perform at some of the most important venues in the world and has won prizes in piano competitions from Tel Aviv to Rome and St. Petersburg to London. His students are winners of regional, national and international competitions.
Kasman also coordinates the UAB Piano Series and said artists “are always pleasantly surprised” when they visit UAB.
“They are pleasantly surprised when they come to this studio and see these two gorgeous instruments here,” he said, gesturing to the two Steinway pianos in his office in UAB’s Hulsey Center for the Arts. UAB is the first all-Steinway piano school in Alabama. “They are always pleasantly surprised when they see how our concert series are organized, our concert hall, and how our music critic treats them.”
The family can sometimes be spotted at favorite restaurants in town, including Sol Azteca in Vestavia Hills and Ginza on U.S. 280. The family has a passion for Korean food, as Kasman has traveled to Korea many times and some of his best students have been Korean, he said.
There aren’t any Russian restaurants in Birmingham, but the Kasmans can buy Russian ingredients in food markets around town. Plus, since they visit Russia often, they can satisfy their gastronomical needs there and “eat like Americans” when they are in Birmingham.
The only challenge Kasman said he can think of is Alabama’s often-oppressive heat and humidity in the summer. The family travels to Moscow for about two-thirds of the summer, which sometimes offers relief, but the weather there is not always cool.
They also go during winter break.
“We don’t miss a chance to celebrate the New Year’s holiday in Moscow,” Kasman said.
One special dish he looks forward to, which is served in Russia for New Year’s, is Olivier salad. A traditional salad dish in Russian cuisine, it’s a type of potato salad with peas, diced vegetables, a mayonnaise dressing and bologna sausage.
Moscow’s weather is “perfect” for the holiday celebration, “in the 20s and 30s with a little snow,” he said.
Because of their trips, Aleksandra and Dina speak both English and Russian fluently.
“We are proud that they are truly fluent, in speaking and writing. When they are in Russia, no one would ever guess that they did not grow up there, and here no one has any questions about an accent, unlike their parents,” he said with a smile.
And although UAB offers Kasman the chance to meet and work with people from all over the world, he finds he favors the folks who hail from Alabama.
“Here I am enjoying being with the people from here,” he said. ϖ