Looking back on St. Petersburg

So, this year’s NYO season officially ended when all of us musicians parted ways last Tuesday, and I’ve been back home for a few days now. I really had intended to keep the blog updated at each point in the tour, but unfortunately I eventually realized that that wouldn’t be possible. I mentioned this in my post on Moscow, but between traveling, rehearsing, sightseeing, performing, and running from one place to the next, it was next to impossible to find the time to write the kind of blog posts I wanted. So rather than posting brief, quick updates when I had time, I kept notes on paper and decided that I would complete the blogging when the tour was over. Because of this, I have a few more posts in the works, and these will show up over the next couple of days.

From Moscow, we took a high-speed train to St. Petersburg on Wednesday afternoon (the 17th). Let me say that the whole “white nights” business (see previous post) had me pretty confused when we arrived in the evening. It looked and felt like mid-afternoon when we arrived at the hotel at 10pm, and the sun was barely beginning to set at 11:15, when I took a walk around the neighborhood we were staying in. It was breathtaking, however, and I think part of the reason it is so breathtaking it because it’s so disorienting. There was something simply awe-inspiring about seeing the sun out yet knowing internally that it’s midnight.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a “white night” without the sun rising at 4am! The next morning, I got a relatively early start. It was the day of our concert at the new Mariinsky II, which opened this past May. Maestro Gergiev is the general and artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre, where he is also the director of the annual Stars of the White Nights festival consisting of orchestral concerts and opera and ballet performances during the season of the “white nights.” Our performance was part of this festival, and, excitingly, we would also be the first American orchestra to perform at the Mariinsky II. During our time in St. Petersburg, we got the impression that Maestro Gergiev is something of a celebrity in St. Petersburg (though he was born in Moscow, he now lives in St. Petersburg).

Below: Advertisement for the Stars of the White Nights festival. (The green building is the original Mariinsky Theatre, and the edge of building visible on the left side of the photo is the Mariinsky II.)

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During our free time the day of our concert, a small group of us went to the Hermitage, which was a 45-minute walk from our hotel. (Walking there was a really good excuse to see a good part of St. Petersburg and get some sense of the city.) I had read about the museum extensively before coming to NYO, but didn’t think it was very likely that a visit would be in the cards, so I was pretty happy to have the opportunity to see it. It’s one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. It was founded by Catherine the Great, and its collection includes some three million works of art. Obviously not all of this is on display, but what is currently in the galleries is a huge collection nonetheless. It was a bit overwhelming when we first entered — just looking at the floor plan was overwhelming! The museum was packed with people (for good reason) and it was a bit hard to move around in some rooms, but we were able to see some famous and lesser-known paintings and a lot of really incredible Classical Greek and Roman sculpture. (Side note: I saw two more paintings by Leonardo da Vinci here, following the one I saw at the National Gallery of Art and bringing the grand total to three…which is exciting because art historians estimate that only about fifteen of da Vinci’s paintings have survived.)

Below: the Hermitage

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At our rehearsal that afternoon, Maestro Gergiev seemed excited to welcome us to his town, and especially to the Mariinsky II. There was definitely something exciting about playing in a hall so new that they’re still working on tweaking the acoustics to be just right. The music stands and chairs we used were also, perhaps appropriately, quite high-tech!

Below: interior of Mariinsky II (with NYO members onstage)

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Unfortunately, there were various illnesses going around after we had been on tour for a few days — not particularly surprising — and I came down with a cold the day of our concert. I felt lucky to be feeling a little bit better when it was time for the concert. They say that music is good medicine, and I definitely felt better after performing. Once again, the hall was acoustically incredibly different from the Kennedy Center and the Great Hall in Moscow. This time, the acoustics were much drier, which meant the sound didn’t resonate nearly as much, and the way each section sounded to the other sections was dramatically different from anything we had dealt with so far on the tour. I thought we made the most of it, though, and, for a fourth time, it was a total thrill to be on stage with such incredible colleagues in such an amazing place. Maestro Gergiev reminded us that we were in the “city of Tchaikovsky,” where the composer spent a lot of his time — plus, Shosty 10 was premiered by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra (now the St. Petersburg Symphony). Once again, the feeling of performing this music in a place where there was so much special significance to it — where it felt so “authentic” — was unbelievable. And again, the audience was extremely enthusiastic, leading Joshua Bell to have to play a second encore for the second time!

Performing the concert must have helped my cold, because the following day I was almost good-as-new, which was nice, since we had a day full of activity. In the morning we took the bus to Peter and Paul Fortress, which is “the original citadel of St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703,” according to Wikipedia. As we walked along the bank of the Neva (pictured below), I again found myself astonished by my surroundings. Once again, it felt unreal to be in Russia, amidst this incredible history and culture. The view of the Hermitage and the massive St. Isaac’s Cathedral from the opposite bank, where we were, was beautiful.

Below: the Hermitage and the dome of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

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Actually, the reason we were at the Fortress was for an exchange with a Russian youth ensemble, the Capella Taurida, led by the conductor Mikhail Golikov. Members of the orchestra sat alongside members of NYO-USA, and we did a read-through of Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” overture, which we had worked on a bit during the residency, on the side of our primary repertoire. We were encouraged to interact with the members of the Russian orchestra, and though I didn’t get to have any real conversations with any of the musicians, it was enjoyable to play alongside them and share in the common language of music.

For our last night in St. Petersburg, we went back to Mariinsky II — this time as audience members — for a performance of Puccini’s Tosca with several Russian singers and the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Maestro Gergiev. Although I have to admit to drifting in and out of sleep a couple of times (tour life is, not surprisingly, exhausting — more on that later), the performance was incredible. I’m still not entirely sure who played Tosca, but she had one of the most amazing operatic voices I’ve ever heard, full of dark beauty and power. The sets were also visually stunning and incredibly impressive. The stage slanted downwards from the back to the front, and the colors of the lighting set the mood perfectly.

Below: the set for Act III of Tosca

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To complete an already amazing day and evening, Maestro Gergiev had the Mariinsky II’s rooftop terrace opened specially for us after the concert, so we could see an incredible view of St. Petersburg. As the sun began to set over the city, Maestro Gergiev came to greet us, talk with us, and stand for photos. Over and over again throughout the tour, he went way above and beyond what was required, to make our experience that much more rewarding and memorable. In addition to being one of the most thoughtful and caring musicians I’ve worked with, he was one of the kindest and most respectable people I’ve ever met.

Compared to Moscow, St. Petersburg felt much more European. Though both were incredible, I think I preferred my experience in St. Petersburg, though that may have been because we had more time there to get settled. In both places, however, the cultural experience was significant: from experiencing new audiences to observing all kinds of people on the street to tasting interesting foods and hearing a different language, I’m grateful for every moment of it.

The next day, I meant to wake up early to walk around our neighborhood in search of souvenirs of some kind, but I overslept so long that I woke up thirty minutes before our early afternoon bus call to the airport. I was definitely sad to be leaving such an amazing and unique place, but I’ll admit I was looking forward to being able to read street signs.

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