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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.

The final days of my cultural trip to Russia

Published on September 3, 2009
With Igor Rogaliov

With Igor Rogaliov

Monday the 31st of August was, finally, a quieter day, with but two formal meetings, the first with Boris Filanovsky, a mid-career composer and leader in Pro Arte; he is also the center of a group of composers who go by STRESS (Structural Resistance Group), whose mission is, as Boris put it, “to overcome stereotypes and work with problems of perception.” As well as his life as a composer, Boris is also a cultural journalist with regular columns in a print journal and a webzine.  It was interesting to meet with someone outside of the great conservatory tradition, although of course Boris was trained at the Conservatory. My sense is that he and his colleagues in STRESS represent the “downtown elite” and the new wave of post-Shostakovich era composers.

Later that afternoon there was an important meeting with all of the fellows at the Saint Petersburg City Committee for Culture.  I left on foot with fellow Cathleen Lewis, curator of Soviet and Russian components, Space History Division at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, whose is researching the films of Pavel Klushantev for a book on the cultural history of human spaceflight in the Soviet Union. Her work is so different from mine, and her Russian so much better (!), and we spent a nice hour talking as we walked along the broad and majestic Nevskiy Prospekt (avenue), one of the two main thoroughfares of the city with its many palaces, mansions, churches, cultural organizations, fashionable shops and restaurants.

Our meeting at the Committee for Culture was quite formal and was taped for radio broadcast; we each spoke about our projects as the Chief, Mr. Anton Gubankov, and his staff listened, quietly taking notes. His office was housed in what must have once been a large salon in a beautiful classical style building on Nevskiy Prospekt, with trompe l’oeil ceilings that were at least 16 feet high, and original moldings and parquet floors. There were trays of chocolates wrapped in shiny colored foil and plates of cookies, but we were all too nervous to help ourselves. We all knew that making a good impression here would help open doors for us in our respective areas so we were shy about eating. But those chocolates sure looked tempting!

The meeting began with the obligatory exchange of business cards, and then Mr. Gubankov and Mr. Lobak from the Likhachev Foundation gave their formal introductions, once again talking about the need for intellectual exchange between the U.S. and Russia, and how we, as “culture workers” were helping to achieve better understanding across our two cultures. We all spoke about our projects, and at the conclusion of our presentations, Mr. Lubankov conferred briefly with his staff members, then went around the room, and one-by-one, offered each fellow suggestions about how best to make contacts, find support, deepen our research.

At the end, he gave us a visual tour of his office, pointing out three huge canvasses, each one of which had been painted by a different family member, all of whom were prominent Saint Petersburg artists in their day. After he excused himself, we continued in discussion with his Deputy for quite some time, before leaving for the hotel. A few of us went out to the local restaurant and had a typical Russian meal together. As it was still early when we said good-night, I was able to spend a few hours in my room working on my new violin and piano duo, which I hope to finish before leaving the country.

On the bus, dressed up for school

On the bus, dressed up for school

The next day was September 1, which is an important day in Russia – it is the opening day of the school year, and there are some lovely traditions associated with it. Young girls festoon their hair with big white bows, boys wear suits and ties, and students all bring flowers to the teacher.  It was really something to see the streets thronged with young people, all dressed up, carrying back-packs and bouquets.

The day was spent with Amy Ballard, another fellow from the Smithsonian, with a title as long as Cathleen’s – Senior Historic Preservation Specialist at Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division. Amy’s project is to create a guide to musical life in Saint Petersburg for a web-site that will be useful to visitors to the city who know only about the great Mariinsky Theatre, but not about the many other venues were music is heard. Our guide and translator was a lovely young pianist named Tatyana Melikova, and the three of us had a fantastic day together.

Performance Hall at the Union of Composers

Performance Hall at the Union of Composers

First stop was the Union of Composers and Musicologists, where we were met by Iosif Raiskin, who is the “editor in chief” for the Mariinsky Theatre, and one of the leading experts worldwide on Shostakovich; I have read some of his articles in the past, and was delighted to make his acquaintance. As it turned out, he and I have several friends and colleagues in common, so it was a wonderful surprise to spend the morning with him.

The Union of Composers building has its own wood-paneled elegant recital hall, about the same size as our Thalia Theatre – flexible seating of about 150.  Mr. Raiskin told us that when Stravinsky made his historic trip back to Russia, there was a concert there to welcome him, and that the hall was filled to overflow, with people sitting on the windowsills and in the aisles, as well as filling the adjacent lobby area and hallway outside.

He explained the process whereby a composer would be admitted into the elite Union; there are only about 160 members (composers and musicologists both) and these are coveted positions among the musical community. I had a sense of the deep-seated politics behind who was in and who was not, but chose not to ask any questions that might offend.  Mr. Raiskin’s gentle demeanor and kind eyes were most disarming, and our morning sped by as Amy and I asked one question after another.

The Conservatory Music Library

The Conservatory Music Library

From there we went off in separate directions. I headed back to the Russian National Library where music librarian Natalya Petrovna Grishkun was to have prepared a more specific set of music for me to review. She had done an enormous amount of work gathering the music I wanted to see and there were stacks of scores waiting for me.  Because of the sheer volume of what I was reviewing, I had to meet first with the Library Director to be vetted, and then to gain permission to photocopy any of the rare manuscripts that I thought would be valuable for inclusion in the Wall to Wall.

A treasure trove awaited me…Natalya had understood my exact requests and had identified the best works in each category.  The music I was interested in included: music (mostly songs) composed in the gulags for the purpose of motivating the workers; propagandistic music in praise of Lenin and Stalin (one of the pieces she showed me was in Yiddish, with Russian and Hebrew texts included); music by Jewish composers or on Jewish themes; and, finally, Russian jazz combo music that would have been heard in cafes and on the radio.  I spent the rest of the day reviewing this huge stack of music, choosing the best samples from each category with the hope that I would be permitted to photocopy it.  As this music was old and in fragile condition, I didn’t know if this would be allowed, and, because there was so much that I wanted, I didn’t know if my request was too large.  After a complicated negotiation with the library director, it was agreed that all the music I had selected could be copied.  A price was determined and an appointment to return in two days to pick up the package was made.  I left the Library in a daze, not believing that I would be able to bring this music back to Symphony Space. This was a real coup!

Following this ecstatic experience, I walked to the Alexander Theatre where a new production of Uncle Vanya was in its dress rehearsal/preview stage, directed by Andrei Serban (from Columbia University). This preview performance was for an invited audience only, and our wonderful translator/guide Anna Shulgat, who is a theater critic and scholar, was able to obtain invitations for us.  The theater was beautiful, almost semi-circular in its construction, so one felt very close to the action on stage at all times. And, as is typical with Serban, the whole theater was used, so actors were behind us, above us, and among us in the staging of this classic.  The set was fantastic, as were the costumes (it was re-cast in more modern times), but, alas, my lack of Russian made it difficult to get all of the nuances in the production.  Nonetheless, it was a great experience to see Russian theater, and such a classic play, in this intimate and historic setting.

After an incredibly long and exciting day of discovery, I finally headed back to the hotel, where a late night yogurt in my room served as dinner; I was too over-stimulated to eat anything more substantial.  After taking notes on all of the events of the day, and answering email for about an hour and a half, I went to sleep.

September 2nd was another jackpot day.  At 10:30, Elena Vitenberg from the Likhachev Foundation, our group’s fearsome leader, escorted me to the Saint Petersburg Studio of Documentary Films, housed in what was once a palatial edifice but was now in a state of deep disrepair.  We were met by the Chief Archivist, Sergei Gelver, who, surrounded by chest-high piles of tin reels of old films, helped identify possible films about Soviet life, both everyday and in the world of culture, that might be able to be included in Wall to Wall Behind the Wall.  We sat and watched segments from the Leningrad Chronicles, which were short newsreels shown in movie theatres before the feature film; these were aired regularly until 1993. After much discussion, Sergei agreed to make me copies of several segments to show to my colleagues at Symphony Space so we can decide if we are able to include film.  The ideal would be to have a mini-marathon of films from the former Soviet Union screened the week before Wall to Wall.  We shall see….

Rehearsing with Sergei Slonimsky

Rehearsing with Sergei Slonimsky

Then, the much awaited visit to the Conservatory of Music where I met with Sergei Slonimsky (and, yes, to those of you who are wondering, he is related to Nicholas Slonimsky of Frank Zappa and “The Lexicon of Musical Invective” fame). Professor Slonimsky is one of the country’s senior composers who lived through all the major changes in Soviet/Russian society. His music is heard often and he is a powerful teacher and leader of the musical community.  Our visit was filmed for television, and after the crew finally arrived (they went to the wrong address initially), we were filmed exchanging scores and talking about music; there was a brief performance of two of his works, one, for solo piano, by a young girl who was totally composed and played with incredible intensity and self-assurance; and, the second, his Sonata for Violin and Piano, for which I was asked to turn pages without ever seeing the score, and live on TV to boot! Terror…but, thank goodness, no mistakes.  The TV episode ended with Amy and me giving little talks about our projects. Symphony Space is becoming a household name in Russia with all of this TV, radio and print media!

The day ended with a visit to the home of Igor Rogaliov, another senior composer and the director of a music festival in Saint Petersburg.  His wife had baked a delicious apple cake and so we sat and sipped tea and ate cake and talked about music.

Today, Thursday (can it really be Thursday already????) I went back to the National Music Library to collect the copies of the scores that I had decided would be most interesting to include in the Wall to Wall, then gave yet another radio interview, then did a few errands, met with the managing director of the Chamber Symphony I am hoping will be able to come to New York to perform in Wall to Wall and then spent the rest of the evening in my room working quietly.

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