Wow! It’s been an insanely busy week. Between full days of travel, rehearsals and concerts, and occasionally questionable hotel internet, it’s been hard to get a blog written and posted. At the moment, NYO is in St. Petersburg, where we arrived the night before last. The city is in the middle of the White Nights, which is the time in the summer where the sun rises at about 5am and sets at about 11:30pm. It’s definitely something extraordinary to behold, though it does mess with your sense of time a little bit at first. St. Petersburg has been wonderful so far — but I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a lot to say about Washington and Moscow, first.
When I last posted a week ago, my sextet had just finished our performance at the Russian Embassy. The past seven days have gone by in something of a blur. Last Saturday was our sightseeing day in Washington, followed by our concert at the Kennedy Center. I went briefly to the National Museum of Natural History, and then walked over to the National Gallery of Art. After going to the Met while we were in New York City, the National Gallery seemed much more manageable (in terms of size). I was thrilled to see a painting there by Leonardo da Vinci — the only painting by that artist in the United States. (I ended up seeing two more da Vinci paintings at the Hermitage here in St. Petersburg, but that’s a story for later!) Washington is very hot in the summer, but I found it very pleasant to walk around the Mall and see the beautiful trees and flowers in full bloom.
I’ve always put the Kennedy Center, along with Carnegie Hall, on a pedestal as a high point in a musician’s life (rightfully so, I suppose). It was incredibly exciting, for me, to step onto the stage for our dress rehearsal there. One thing we’ve learned as an orchestra throughout this past week of dress rehearsals and concerts in unfamiliar halls, is how hard it is to adjust to a new space in a relatively brief amount of time. That has probably been one of our larger challenges to overcome this week, in the three halls we’ve played in — especially since we were so used to the Performing Arts Center at Purchase, after two weeks of rehearsals there.
It’s hard to know what to say about any concert — as I mentioned following our Purchase performance — but what I can say about the Washington concert was that there was an incredible electricity and energy there that was definitely more apparent than in our Purchase concert. I think it had to do with the feeling that we had worked out some of the small kinks by having the debut performance at Purchase — this allowed us to be more confident (not that we weren’t confident at Purchase) and play at an even higher level. It also helped that the audience (we played for a sold-out hall) was extremely supportive. Many parents and families came to hear us in Washington (including my own — certainly much easier to come to Washington than to Russia or London!) and that definitely added to the energy in the room. I think the concert left most of us feeling very satisfied. It was also nice to see my parents and other extended family who came!
Sunday was another moment of high excitement — we would officially be leaving the States for the overseas part of our tour. Of course, as often seems to be the case with large-group travel, plane delays caused logistical problems, high stress, and general fatigue among the musicians and the rest of the tour party. To make a long and not very interesting story short, my small group ended up waiting at the airport for several hours, before finally leaving on our flight to London, where our transfer to Moscow was held for us. For the way things were looking at the outset, everything turned out wonderfully. Fast forward about 20-something hours (not counting time changes), we landed at Moscow’s Domodoveo Airport — on my birthday — and stepped into Russia for the first time. A huge public thanks (from myself and all the NYO musicians) to Carnegie Hall, for making travel logistics, including Russian visas and pages of customs paperwork, go remarkably smoothly.
We arrived at our hotel in Moscow’s city center, a 10-minute walk from the Red Square, at around 10:30 that evening, where we were served a late dinner (perhaps not so late going by European eating times). I told a friend, “These two days have been the longest day ever” — and to extend the “day” even longer, we were given the option to walk into the Red Square after dinner that evening to get our first real look at Russia. Partly because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see the famous sights of the Red Square, and partly because I wanted to do something other than travel in a plane on my birthday, I decided to go.
It was raining lightly, the sun was still setting, and as we approached the entrance to the Red Square and I saw the famous domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in the distance, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in some surreal dream that had absolutely no grounds in reality. I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around the fact that I was in Russia, looking at these iconic onion-domes in person — images I had seen for years growing up, in books, movies, and on television — in this foreign place I would have had so little opportunity to travel to if it wasn’t for NYO. Even now, in St. Petersburg, something is still not totally sinking in, and it may take a while for whatever it is to really hit me.
The following day, it was already time for our concert in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. First, in the morning, when the weather was sunny and pleasantly warm, a few of us went back to the Red Square, to walk around a bit more and see St. Basil’s Cathedral close-up. I also stood in line to see Lenin’s Mausoleum, where the Russian leader’s embalmed body is on display. It was remarkable to think of all the history in this square-milage of Moscow, to remind myself of everything that had occurred there.
It was equally astonishing to walk into the Moscow Conservatory and remember all the famous Russian musicians who have studied, taught, and performed there. In the Great Hall, where we gave our concert, the walls are lined with oil portraits of famous composers, including Bach, Mozart, and obviously Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky, appropriately for NYO’s program, was positioned directly above stage right, overlooking the orchestra. This was an important moment for us — the first time we would play our Russian and Russian-inspired program in Russia. Both Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich obviously have huge connections to Moscow (and St. Petersburg, of course) and the feeling of performing this music there was akin to performing our Gershwin encore in Washington, or, perhaps more generally, like reading a foreign-language book untranslated.
It was also very interesting to see for the first time how Russian audiences compared to the US audiences we are all used to. Before the concert, I was entirely unsure what to expect. Would they be as warm as the audiences we had received in the US? Would they have different ways of showing equivalent support? As it turned out, they were extremely enthusiastic. After Joshua Bell finished the Tchaikovsky Concerto, there were many shouts of “bravo” instead of wordless hooting and cheering, and rather than giving a standing ovation, they did a maneuver where they all began to clap in sync with one another (some people did stand up). In fact, they were so enthusiastic about Bell’s performance that, for the first time during our tour, he performed two encores instead of one! After the Shostakovich, they were equally enthused, and seemed to enjoy our Gershwin encore very much.
Before taking a train to St. Petersburg, we spent our final morning in Moscow taking a tour of the Kremlin. Going in, I actually hadn’t realized that it still houses Russian government offices, so when I heard that “the President usually arrives around noon,” I was surprised. The Kremlin’s rich history was incredible to learn about — and see — from the golden-domed cathedrals to the tales of tsars and rulers of many centuries ago.
It’s amazing to be in Russia. The biggest barrier is obviously the language, and the different characters of the Cyrillic alphabet. But as a cultural experience it has been incredible, and I feel so grateful to have this opportunity.
To be continued: St. Petersburg!