Days of American Culture in Russia Festival 2014

From May 13th through May 26th I had the great honor of attending the Days of American Culture in Russia Festival 2014 organized by the Educational Bridge Project. This was my second festival, though the first in which I participated in events in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Being the first guitarist accepted into the program in 2013, I found some hesitation in what I, or my instrument could do, but that disappeared after my performances and the directors made my acquaintance, enough so that I received an invitation to return in 2014.

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St. Petersburg (click to enlarge)

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Kremlin Red Square, Moscow

The 2014 edition was packed tight. I arrived in Moscow on the morning of Tuesday May 13th. After checking into my quaint hotel close to the Bolshoi, I met with the EBP director Dr. Ludmilla Leibman and board member Barbara Turnow. We started visiting the Kremlin and Red Square, and to get my strength back from travel ate some tasty Georgian food. I tuned and practiced a bit before going to bed to sleep.

Show time! The next evening I played a two-hour solo recital with two encores in Oval Hall at the State Foreign Library. An extremely hospitable support with cultural curiosity and a vast knowledge of the reserves in the Library, my liaison, Nina Borisova Chief Methodologist, Department of Cultural Programs, treated me royally. The Oval Room is medium sized with high ceilings, and though without a stage, still perfect for a solo recital. A concert grand piano sat back to my left and chairs had been set out on the wood inlaid floor. Besides a couple of large windows on the far sides, the walls were lined with books behind locked glass doors. On closer inspection, the books, mainly in German and quite old, made me wondering why they were locked up and in German. I learned that they came to

Director Ludmilla Leibman, Director Elena Barash and EBP Board Member Barbara Turnow

Director Ludmilla Leibman, Director Nina Borisova and EBP Board Member Barbara Tornow

Russia after the surrender of WWII. At that moment, being an artistic bridge via music took on a different meaning. This was real, the books, the space all represented different cultures and though it is nice to think how they can bring people together, the trophies came at a cost. To find myself in such a culturally historic setting, already full of love and loss, which does not include written adventures found in the books made the moment of Art that much more important. If the books could speak…

Oval Hall, Moscow

Oval Hall was full with over 100 attendees of all ages, including many teenagers, and from many social levels and with only some being musicians. Though the program included three Russian premieres written for me by US composers Ken Ueno, Francine Trester and Kevin Siegfried, and a contemporary Japanese work Keigo Fuji, the audience did not have an issue taking in this modern music; rather I received quite a bit of very positive feedback. Though the musical languages were not standard, minimalist and a quartertone piece, dances and lullabies do not intimidate. I introduced each of the compositions, with translation provided by Dr. Leibman, and enjoyed even a little banter with the audience before the encores. The diverse and colorful program featured music from 19th century to today and from seven countries. Still the audience was impressive in their listening and sitting skills. After the concert I spoke with new fansany timbres of the guitar and explored the sounds of my Sicilian beauty alongside the Russian language.

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Aaron, Georges Devdariani, Ivan Eubanks and Yulia Tskhvediani

Another full house! The director of the festival, Dr. Leibman opened the event with a brief history of the Educational Bridge Project and a taste of her piano prowess with a Chopin Mazurka. The opportunity to collaborate with writers and actors in a performance was extremely special and satisfying. Though a lot of work and a bit nerve racking, I found it rewarding and I hope to be able to do it again both in Russia and closer to home. A very colorful reception followed the concert and then the three Americans took a quick taxi to the train station where we boarded the Red Arrow, an overnight train to St. Petersburg and formerly part of the Orient Express. The rocking of the train did not lull me to sleep as it did my cabin mates; rather I felt the side-to-side rocking well into the next day, but enjoying stories in the dining car, wondering who was around each corner felt exciting and a bit mysterious. My time in the historic city was done. She welcomed me warmly, listened to my music with great passion, and treated me well. I did not get into the politics nor did I worry for my

Savoy Hotel Capuccino

Savoy Hotel Cappuccino

safety. I also did not look for either. I can say: watch out for the $10 cappuccino! …that hurt.

Prior to Friday’s concert I traveled to northern Moscow where I taught a master class at the State University of Arts and Culture, organized by Zinaida Kartasheva. For the master class two young guitarists performed a duet by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Displaying their fine technique, their spirited performance and openness to new ideas of phrasing and musical

Masterclass Sergei Mikhail

Masterclass with host Sergei Matokhin

goals made for a very pleasant time. I also noticed that the master class was attended by instrumentalists of all stripes, not just guitarists, which impressed me. I’m also grateful for translators and the wonderful job in conveying my guitar lingo to the non-guitarist. A wonderful host, guitar professor Sergei Matokhin gave me a tour of the grounds and made sure all was well. Even the traffic back to the subway wasn’t so bad.

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St. Petersburg Sun

We disembarked from the Red Arrow in St. Petersburg early on Saturday morning. The morning light on this already beautiful city stole my heart. With six days to explore and work, I spent much time walking along the many rivers that moved quietly next to the refurbished palaces, ducking in and out of cafés, hearing music in the Grand Philharmonic, visiting museums, and laying in the parks that spot the city as oasis’ in the desert, watching people especially the many that love the late spring sun. A beautiful cultural center with more performance venues than I ever imagined, I walked and walked. Not quite White Nights, one could already feel the excitement of the longer days. With light after midnight and the magic of summer on the tip of the tongue, many couples walked hand in hand watching many bridges being raised at 1am along the Neva, attending concerts, creating sweet nothings on park benches and in café booths.

My performances in St. Petersburg were shared with other EBP participants from Boston, Cambridge, New York and local Russians. My main performance included the Moscow repertoire of the new contemporary works by Ken Ueno and Francine Trester, some Spanish pieces, a tango and the world premiere of Concert Champêtre by Thomas L. Read for cello and guitar. Written in 2013, the cello-guitar duo represents his third composition to feature guitar in the last 5 years. The others are a new lullaby for guitar solo and a quintet for stings and guitar titled Capricci released on Navona Records in 2013.

Anton Andreev and Aaron at the St. Petersburg Conservatory

Anton Andreev and Aaron at the St. Petersburg Conservatory

Concert Champêtre is a 9-minute single movement work full of rhythmic vitality and melodic beauty. The cello has a lead role singing in the upper register throughout, while the guitar is both accompanist and brief soloist with a great tremolo section and hearty scales. With its rhythmic complexities, the dueling percussion section rocks, and nuance the work requires both players to be tip top. Thankfully I had the great honor of working alongside Anton Andreev, cellist with the Rimsky-Korsakov String Quartet. We rehearsed for three days at Fontanka 41, a music association in St. Petersburg, and the premiere took place at the Rimsky-Korsakov St. Petersburg Conservatory as part of a contemporary music concert. *The Concert Champêtre score is to be published very soon by the American Composers Association (ACA) with the guitar part edited by me. More performances of this important addition to the repertoire will take place in the upcoming season both in the US and abroad.

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Aaron, Luba and her Creation

A spontaneous collaboration with Russian painter Luba Kostenko stirred many of youthful and idealistic emotions about Art, one of the high-points of the festival. I played at her studio for a salon concert during my first visit to Russia in 2013, and returned this year for a smaller more intimate event. After the performance and while we ate, sipped vodka she told me that when younger she would often go to the Marinksy Theater during rehearsals and paint the musicians, a rare honor. She found the sounds of the music and the structure of the rehearsals to be  complimentary to her work. So yes, I returned the next day and for 45 minutes I played while she drew and drew. Though she was my only audience I was also hers and we fed each other as Artists do. While she filled her sketchbook and then larger paper on her easel, the afternoon light colored the walls of her studio and I filled the room with Bach, Mertz, Spanish dances, Gershwin and contemporary works. The timbres danced with the rhythm of her chalk strokes and my heart raced to capture the moment. Not enough time for a full painting, inspired she still created. Over tea and cake with homemade jam from her dacha we discussed the arts and the world, the arts in the world and the arts as the world. Such an artistic experience I always dreamed about and yearned for in my life as artist. Being a direct part of creation in such a manner, both fleeting (me) and permanent (her), moved me and opened my heart to the roles we can play in society; they are both objective and subjective, and the need for each, organized and spontaneously, throughout our lives facilitates greater life and understanding of self and culture. This brief but intense artistic adventure embodies my creative life for which I am grateful.

The colors of St. Petersburg

The colors of St. Petersburg

Some other EBP festival events include a daylong cross-cultural collaboration at Baltic State University with performances by Americans and Russians, which featured wonderful essays and history lessons of the surrounding area given by our young hosts. A concert at the Izmailovsky Library, where our youngest participant (16 years-old) performed his own composition for trumpet and piano, and where I found a thirsty guitar audience with many autograph requests, not an everyday occurrence especially from 15-22 year-olds.  I also met the young American musicians: conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and pianist Han Nah Son.  Both are very talented and I look forward to hearing more of their work.

On the last day of the festival Mikhail Bondarev first violin of the Rimsky-Korsakov String Quartet, treated me for a day at Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin just south of St. Petersburg. For the first time in 12 days, or five months if one wants to be picky, I did not have my guitar on my back. I traveled as a tourist and had to decline the requests for me to play with each of the introductions Mikhail made. I found myself in awe of the beauty and history of the grand historic residence. Destroyed by

With the Queen and her Escort

With the Queen and Her Escort

the Germans in WWII, the palace has been completely rebuilt based on pictures, drawings and paintings done before the war. Returned to its former grandeur with exuberant colors, maintained gardens, and exquisite architectural details, it happened to be the perfect way to close such a glorious musical adventure.

A great depth of gratitude goes to the founder and director of the festival Ludmilla Leibman. She organizes the concerts, raises the funds, and makes sure we try Russian foods. Barbara Tornow also deserves a big thank you for her hosting skills, making herself available at any time to assist in making the festival a positive experience for all participants. Many more people in the US and Russia makes sure the festival continues its high standards and stays true to its mission to be an Educational Bridge between cultures using the arts.

The Educational Bridge Project and the Eleanor Hale Wilson Summer Scholarship presented by the Mu Phi Epsilon Foundation provided me with the financial support to attend. To both of these organizations I say спасибо!

 

 

 

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