Friday, November 28, 2008

A Russian Requiem

"Verdi Requiem in Moscow September 2008"

The words sprang at me last year from the newsletter of the World Festival Choir. St Petersburg! Moscow! Verdi! I could piggyback all this on a visit to UK grandchildren! All I had to do was find a few hundred euros over the next year! I sent the deposit to headquarters in Norway and blew the dust off my practice tapes.

A year later singers from around the world emerged into a grey St Petersburg. Most were from Scandinavia, many from Europe and the USA; sixty-three from Australia, thirteen from New Zealand.

At breakfast we slid filled rolls into handbags for lunch. Water had to be bought, for drinking and teeth-cleaning.

With a free day, we stoked up on roubles - 17 to the NZ dollar - and headed for the splendour of The Hermitage - the first of our two visits. Back at the hotel we had no sooner kicked off our shoes than it was time to put them on again for the first of four rehearsals - up to five hours duration, the last on the afternoon of the concert.

The 80-strong Academic Symphony Orchestra of St Petersburg Philharmonic was in full swing as we shuffled upstairs to wait. The Shostakovic Hall was white, pillared, with a thousand elegant red chairs and eight huge chandeliers. The orchestra took up the whole stage except for five narrow planks at the back. Surely not! Oh yes! Two hundred and thirty bodies were to squeeze onto these! Not a hope of sitting down in the long solo bits. Grace, from rural NSW, and I nabbed a spot on the floor in front where we wouldn't wobble, although Grace did have a tuba in her left ear!

Two young women took our warm-ups. Then we met Maestro Alexander Dimitri. A quietly-spoken, patient man, he took us over and over the beginning, the Libera Me, the Sanctus. Four hours later we staggered back to the hotel for panadeine and port!

Organised sightseeing was fitted around rehearsals. St Petersburg is 10% water - river and canals everywhere. We admired the golden domes of the churches, the grace and symmetry of the old buildings; not the tangle of wires overhead or the interminable roadworks.

A roaming phone proved invaluable and birthday calls came clearly to the back of the bus from Auckland and London. We descended into the earth to the Metro - from a platform flanked by many pairs of black doors. No tracks, no train. A roar, doors open, you cram into the space. We had been warned to beware of thieves so clung tightly to our bags.

Language was a barrier at times. We climbed on a city bus for what should have been a simple journey but ended with us walking the length of Nevski Prospect - the longest street on the planet!

Our first concert received prolonged applause. The Russian soloists were exquisite, but after our long afternoon rehearsal we were united in agony!

Back at the hotel somehow we found energy to join the post-concert frivolity - with items performed by various nationalities.

Next day it was good to be on an eight-hour train ride to Moscow. The amazingly green countryside slid by with glimpses of villages, rivers, dachas, vegie gardens, woodpiles. We'd brought our own food, supplemented by Russian tea from an ancient samovar. The restaurant car with its pretty blue and white curtains served Borsch, coffee, vodka and meals.

At 9pm Moscow's floodlit towers greeted us. Another trek to the bus; another hour to the hotel; registration for over 200 people a nightmare.

Our hotels were comfortable and boasted many restaurants, but we found the service variable. Few staff, long waits; sometimes the restaurant would close mid-course! However, we joined the ten million on the underground and discovered wonderful stations and a large attractive eatery serving cheap Russian food.

Inevitably with such a large group, we were always waiting - for the buses, for food, for a seat, for a loo and a few succumbed to illness and coughs.

Rehearsals and sightseeing meant long days, but the sights were worth it. We marvelled at the churches and paved streets inside the Kremlin walls. Red Square in bright sunshine was so different from the usual gloomy portrayal. Our hotel overlooked a vast motorway lined with lush parkland. Despite an exellent public transport system, cars crawled incessantly towards the distant crop of "highscrapers". Streets, surprisingly, were very clean.

The Tchaikovski Concert Hall was a steeply-raked semi-circle of navy and cream. The huge advertisements made us feel excited and privileged. No more space - this time we peered between double basses of the Moscow Academic Orchestra – but the performance seemed better. Our soloists were stunning and it was a thrill to be with singers from all over the world.

Flying out from Domodedevo airport next day I felt a surge of relief and satisfaction. Back at home the latest newsletter from the World Festival Choir sits on my desk. "Vilnius, European Capital of Culture, Lithuania 2009"! Agony fades, but ecstasy lives on!

Soloists: Veronika Djioeva, soprano, Elena Maksimova, mezzo, Ahmed Agadi, tenor, Nicolai Didenko, bass

Contact may be made to
World Festival Choir, PO Box 2018 N-3202, Sandefjord, Norway
or Lynda Hunter,26 Orr Cres, Lower Hutt

by Diane Wales (Alto)

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