St. Petersburg, Russia with the Educational Bridge Project

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Church of our Savior on the spilled blood

From May 21-26, I had the great honor of collaborating with local musicians and performing on three concerts in St. Petersburg, Russia, through the cultural exchange program: Educational Bridge Project.  Founded in 1990 by Boston University faculty Ludmilla Leibman, former St. Petersburg Conservatory faculty.  Ms. Leibman has facilitated the cultural exchange of American and Russian artists, musicians and scholars to Russia (Moscow and St. Petersburg) and to Boston, Massachusetts.  (click on the pictures to make them bigger)

What an amazing experience!

May 20:  After two days of very intense concerts with the Oratorio Chorale in Maine, performing Castelnuovo-Tedesco and premiering a new work by Vineet Shende, I’m on the plane!  IMG_2522
British Airways gets two thumbs up for treating me well.  Upon seeing my guitar case they let me board early, gave me more than ample space for my guitar and had a great collection of music and videos for the trip.   That said their English breakfast was most disgusting.  Bad English food:  surprise!

May 21: After a brief layover at Heathrow Airport in London with an overpriced but necessary cup of coffee and croissant, I’m back on the plane to St. Petersburg.  With 16hrs of travel behind me, I land and my guitar is intact.  Success!
I quickly realize that this will be like no other trip I have taken, for Russian or Cyrillic are not in my vocabulary.  I find the EBP’s driver and after a ride filled with many hand gestures towards certain building, that must have had some importance, I arrive at the hotel in the old city center.  I tune my guitar and prepare to take a shower…no hot water!  Aiieee!  (It was only two days of no hot water, and I’m told that is not so bad.)

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with Picasso at the Hermitage Museum

After a brief practice session, we are off.  Ms. Leibman and I are walking through the streets of St. Petersburg to the first salon on of my stay, where we will meet other participants and get some food, finally!  She is the consummate tour guide, pointing out where she grew up and hung out with friends, giving history on the area and making sure that I walk fast and keep up.  Crossing streets is a serious business, for Russians don’t stop easily.  I take in the culture as quickly as I can, noticing a plethora of sushi restaurants, my favorite being Dead Fish Sushi, beautiful architecture and women in very high heels.  Finally we get into the subway and my feet get a break.

After picking up some wine, we arrive at the art studio and people are milling about: kids, adults, artists and friends.  At some point Ludmilla begins with a grand introduction to start off the evening.  It is 8:30pm or so, but the sun is still high and my adrenaline is doing its job.  IMG_2616

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White Nights in St. Petersburg

They call it White Nights, when the sun doesn’t set until 11:30pm or not at all.  There is magic in the air as the sky stays a light bluish-white hue.  Young adults are out on the streets, restaurants and stores are open late, theaters and concerts are full and the energy of spring is palpable.  When summer is barely three months long and then sun disappears for another eternity, sleep becomes secondary.

Many of the participants had been in the exchange since it started in Moscow the week prior.  I could not join due to concert conflicts.  One fellow American was composer Tony Schemmer.  His songs were quite beautiful and the St. Petersburg Conservatory students who performed them did a nice job.  If only the piano was as good as the musicians.  It seemed that our imaginations had to work overtime to hear the beauty.

IMG_2630After about an hour of music, Ms. Leibman introduces me and explains that though I had been traveling since the day before, I would be happy to play a few pieces.  I smiled and tried to forget the cold shower and began to play.  It was wonderful!  People did more than listen, we were traveling together and sound was our train.  That said, I was so hungry, that I don’t recall what I played.  The smoked fish that followed was great!

May 22-23:  Walks through the beautiful city exploring the exquisite architecture and people watching galore.  It is called the city of gold and I admit not having ever been around so many building with gold on them.  Concert of the St. Petersburg Conservatory’s President, violinist Mikhail Gantvarg at the Mariinsky Concert Hal.  Introductions and stories colored with vodka and espresso.  I think I enjoyed Georgian food more than Russian, but other than blini and some stuffed cabbage I don’t recall eating anything too wonderful.  I’ll have to search better next time. DSCN0040

IMG_2562May 24: Concert!  On a mixed concert of solos and chamber music featuring new works by Tony Schemmer and students from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, I gave the Russian premiere of Kevin Siegfried’s ‘Tracing a wheel on water’, alongside Elliott Carter’s ‘Shard’, Esteban Sanlucar’s ‘Panaderos Flamencos’ and Una Limosna by Agustín Barrios.

IMG_2613What an experience!  I have never felt an audience so with me in a concert; it was electric.  The super-scooters w/out mufflers were silent, the sounds of the world disappeared; it was just music.  Barrios’ tremolo masterpiece reached a new height for me.  With every turn I took I could feel the audience was with me, holding on to each finger as the notes disappeared into music.  Kids, adults, music students and retirees were a joyous part of each note.  I would say Duende but it was not black, nor flamenco for that matter, but though it was not Indian, I can say Rasa for without the audience I was nothing, and without me they were lost, but together Bliss.

May 25:  Concert at the Composers Association

In the beautiful recital space at the Composers’ Association, the Educational Bridge Project’s final concert took place with a work for violin and piano by Tony Schemmer and my performance.  I played:

Albéniz – Granada
Bach – Suite in Mi-minor, BWV 996
Marquina – España Cañi (Paso Doble)
Dyens – Tango en Skaï (quintet)

Though my teacher, Dmirty Goryachev is from St. Petersburg and gave me some hints to the Russian audience, I was surprised how much they enjoyed Spanish music.  The Albéniz and my arrangement Marquina were hits.  It was also obvious that classical music was not just for old people.  No, kids and teenagers sat silently and listened to the concert intent on experiencing something.  What, I can only guess at, but they sat and listened to the whole concert.  As I signed autographs afterwards many told me they were touched by my Bach performance.

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Dyens rehearsal

The Dynes was a surprise encore.  Ms. Leibman saw my performance of the piece with a string quartet at The Boston Conservatory a few months earlier and asked if we could do it again.  With a brief rehearsal before the concert, students from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and I worked on this tango parody.  We jumped into discussions on tempi, accents, bowings and even improvising, which was pretty amazing as I don’t speak Russian and they did not have much English!

The audience loved it!  Standing ovations all around and many requests for me to return next year.  After a brief post-concert drink and dessert I was back to the hotel.  I had to pack and get ready to catch my plane to Rome, Italy for part two of my summer adventure.

I look forward to future participation in the Educational Bridge Project, though I will make sure to include Moscow.  The people I met, musicians I collaborated with and the culture I experienced, though brief, has changed me, and changed me for the better.

A big congratulations to Ludmilla Leibman for a wonderful exchange!  I look forward to the end of October and welcoming our Russian musicians and artists to the wonders of Boston.

Special thanks to the Mu Phi Epsilon Foundation for their Grant-in-Aid and The Boston Conservatory Professional Development Grant for their financial support.

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Mariinsky Concert Hall

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Ludmilla Leibman and Tony Schemmer

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