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Thalia Book Club Camp offers up-close interaction with renowned children's book authors and illustrators, book discussions, and book-related field trips around the city. This blog follows the camp's activities.

I Played Rimsky Korsakoff’s Piano!

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Published on August 31, 2009
Petrodvorets in the rain

Petrodvorets in the rain

The time here is flying by as every day is full of activities, people, and sights. A group of the fellows went to the Theater and Music Museums with Anna Shulgat serving as our excellent guide. A native of St. Petersburg, she recently completed a graduate degree at SUNY Stony Brook in dramatic arts, and so is both fluent in English and incredibly knowledgeable.

Once again, the architecture here surprises me – so many of the yellow and green pastel buildings are in the neo-classical style and one can really imagine oneself to be in Italy. Then, again, there is a feeling of Amsterdam to the city, yet in certain areas, the blocks of Stalinist era flats prevail, creating an altogether different sensibility.

Across from the Theatre Museum is the Alexandriinskiy Theatre where Gogol’s “Inspector General” received its premiere in 1836, and Chekhov’s masterpiece “The Seagull” was first seen in 1901. The museum of theatre history was filled with costumes, sets, scores, and photographs. A bust of Fokine done in classical style by none other than Noguchi was a surprise.

The music instrument collection at the Sheremetov Palace was of some interest, but it was sad to see how poorly conserved the instruments are, with lack of climate control and minimal display areas. Nonetheless, it was incredible to see the pianos of Shostakovich and Glinka, among others, and to be in a room that reconstructed the great singer Chaliapin’s living room. The palace itself was incredible; the Sheremetov’s were the Medicis of Russia and their collections of art from Russia and all of Europe was vast. The family had 200,000 serfs, and kept in their employ an orchestra and a theatre company. From 1933-41, the poet Anna Akhmatova lived in a service block of the palace.

After a lunch of “pies” (some were fruit, some were cabbage or meat), I left the group and went to the Peter and Paul Fortress where I met with the program director of the Pro Arte Foundation, the city’s premiere multi-arts organization that deals with the presentation of contemporary arts (visual, film, literary, and music). Katya Puzankova was most welcoming and we spent several hours talking about some of the current trends in Russian music, and who was making what kinds of work. The historic links to the great composers and teachers of the past are strong here and the connections of contemporary composers to Shostakovich, and, reaching further back to Rimsky-Korsakoff, are known by all.

From Pro Arte, Katya and I left by taxi for a reception hosted at the U.S. Consul General with the U.S. Ambassador, who came from Moscow for the occasion. It was a grand affair, with the head of our foundation, cultural leaders of the city, U.S. diplomats, and the press, both TV and radio in great abundance. The Ambassador was most charming, and was pleased to learn about the Symphony Space project as he is a lover of music; I suggested that he come to New York on May 15th! He was pleased, too, to know that many years ago I had hosted an evening with his mentor, then U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Arthur Hartman, who spoke before a concert of Shostakovich quartets that I had presented at Town Hall.

At 9:30 pm, after a very long day, we had one final meeting with Alexander Drozdov, Executive Director of the Yeltsin Foundation, a co-sponsor of our fellowship program, about the need for cultural exchange, and for continuity between U.S. and Russian artists and intellectuals as they develop relationships and projects that spread the wealth of our respective cultures. Mr. Drozdov listened as we each spoke about our projects and its short and long-term goals. Again, there was a most positive response to Wall to Wall Behind the Wall. Ultimately, Mr. Drozdov would like to see an exchange that would bring Russians to the U.S. in a reciprocal arrangement to the current program.

The next day, Friday, consisted of pilgrimages to the house museums of Rimsky Korsakoff and Shostakovich. A distinguishing factor of St. Petersburg is the house museum, where apartments that had been occupied by artists and political and cultural leaders have been preserved and made into intimate museums. Seeing Rimsky Korsakoff’s desk with his own writing implements, family photographs and other bric-a-brac give the legendary composer a human-scale identity.

Playing Rimsky Korsakoff's piano

Playing Rimsky Korsakoff's piano

The grand moment for me was when the guide instructed me to sit down in his salon and perform on his piano, an instrument that had been played by Glazunov, Liadov, Rachmaninoff, Skriabin, and Stravinsky, among other musicians who gathered twice monthly for music salons in the Rimsky-Korsakoff home. I made my way, shaking the whole time, through the Grieg “Nocturne,” just about the only piece in the repertoire that I still remember from my childhood piano lessons.

We went by foot to the Shostakovich Museum, housed in his fifth floor walk-up apartment, but were unable to enter as we learned that just the day before it had been closed to the public by the government; all we were able to do was climb the dusty staircase and stand in front of his door.

From there, a special trip to the Russian National Library to see the collection of musical scores and recordings in the hope of finding music for Wall to Wall. Aside from the many original scores in composers’ own hands, I came upon a trove of Soviet music that was written in the gulags to keep the workers “happy,” and music that offered homages to Lenin and Stalin. I asked the specialists there to make a collection for me of some of the best of these and will be returning again to review the manuscripts in depth. I also am having them locate a selection of music by Jewish composers, and, if they can identify it, music inspired by American jazz. I am eager to return and see what they have been able to pull out of the archives. My hope is that there will be music there that I will be allowed to copy and bring back for Wall to Wall, music that has not been heard in the U.S.

Catharine Palace

Catharine Palace

Saturday and Sunday were all about Imperial palaces. We went as a group by bus to see the palaces of the Imperial family on the outskirts of the city…Catherine the Great’s palace, and Alexander’s palace on Saturday, and Peterhof Palace (Peter the Great) on Sunday. Leaving the city boundaries, we saw many Stalinist buildings of the 1920s and 30s, as well as the graceful classical buildings that define the city. We learned that St. Petersburg is a city of bridges – there are 350 bridges within the city limits, and over 530 including the outlying suburban areas. We learned, too, that 5% of the population still lives in communal flats and that many of the new apartment blocks built over the past 30 years are shoddily made (sounds like American construction over the past 30 years!).

From the fountains looking to Gulf of Finland

From the fountains looking to Gulf of Finland

The restoration work done on all of the Palaces is extensive, as they were badly damaged during the second World War. The Nazis had used some of the facilities as their own headquarters. What was most hard to grasp was that the Russians had but one week to strip the buildings of their precious art and domestic valuables and get them into hiding in the storage rooms of the Hermitage before the Nazis arrived. Seeing all the Meissen and Sevres and Russian Imperial porcelain and glassware, as well as the crystal chandeliers and the untold number of huge paintings that are now on display in the palaces, it is hard to imagine how this endeavor was undertaken. Not much of the original furniture remains, as those objects were too bulky and heavy to move, so the beautifully appointed rooms are mostly filled with excellent reproductions. The Sunday excursion to Peterhof, the grandest palace of all, was undertaken in heavy rain, and, as we were up against the Gulf of Finland, it was misty and magical and dreary all at once. Nonetheless, we walked through the gardens and the complex network of fountains, all gleaming in gilt splendor.

After returning to St. Petersburg soaking wet from our wanderings in the rain, I spent an hour swimming and then warming up in the sauna before a late evening meeting with a composer from Teheran who is based in St. Petersburg, Mehdi Hosseini; our hour together was most informative and the weekend ended on a pleasant cross-cultural note.

Chapel at Petrodvorets

Chapel at Petrodvorets

Palace Musician

Palace Musician

Russian church in St. Petersburg

Russian church in St. Petersburg

Traditional Music Ensemble

Traditional Music Ensemble


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