View from St. Petersburg: New American Music Goes To Russia



Lisa Bielawa

[Ed note: Lisa Bielawa's The Right Weather, for piano and chamber orchestra, was premiered by the American Composers Orchestra and pianist Andrew Armstrong at Carnegie's Zankel Hall on February 27, 2004. In January she visited St. Petersburg, Russia, to hear Armstrong perform a solo recital including a movement from The Right Weather—Wait, for piano and drone. When we learned that Bielawa kept a journal of her experiences during her stay there, we asked if we could publish a few excerpts.]

In January, the pianist Andrew Armstrong was invited to play as a ‘special guest artist’ at the Maria Yudina International Piano Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia. When he presented repertoire options to them for his various appearances throughout the week, they settled on Chopin, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky, and—much to our delight and surprise—my piece for solo piano and drone, Wait, based on an excerpt from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought a ticket to Russia to see how my little piece would acclimate to a Russian piano competition atmosphere and audience. My own contacts in St. Petersburg came through a recent trip I made there with the Philip Glass Ensemble—promoters and presenters of world music and multi-media avant-garde, a roiling, volatile new scene in Russia. Andy’s hosts were at the opposite end of the spectrum—denizens of a long-cherished system of musical education that has continued, virtually uninterrupted, throughout all of the cultural upheaval of the last 15 years.

These are excerpts from my journal over the dense, four-day trip.

Wednesday, January 7, 8:15 p.m.
St. Petersburg

I almost missed my flight—increased security at Newark, combined with the unfortunate concurrent departure of a 747 to Bombay. A full hour in line at security with many big Indian families. Such a culturally dissonant scene—incredulous Indian women of all ages trying to remove all of their copious gold jewelry—bangles, anklets, multiple necklaces worn under the clothes, rings, toe rings, gold-decorated sandals. Husbands helped with safety pins, young women sat on the floor to breast-feed.

But I made the flight, changed planes in Heathrow. Today I arrived in St. Petersburg—it’s Orthodox Christmas here. Seva Gakkel (part of the production/presenting team for the Philip Glass Ensemble’s appearance in St. Petersburg just a couple of months before and organizer of the Sound Lab Festival in St. Petersburg) picked me up at the airport—such a gentle guy, fun to get him to laugh. I reminded him of the time on the last trip when I was practicing reading Cyrillic, and I asked about the words on a particularly imposing building in the Leningrad section. He reported, bemusedly, that it was the former Ministry of Furs.

He helped me get settled in a beautiful apartment off of the Nevsky Prospect. The stairwell is all rusted iron and damp concrete. The stairs leading down from the entryway door lead directly into indiscriminate sludge. But once you turn the heavy old-style key four full times to the left and open the heavy door to the apartment, suddenly you find yourself in a turn-of-the-century Parisian drawing room.

But I didn’t stay long because I wanted to find the hotel where Andy and all of the competition judges were staying. I had only the name of the hotel—no address.

Unaccountably, I found Andy in his little practice room at some tiny music school near his Soviet-holdover hotel. My broken Russian, luck, tenacity—all of these helped me locate him, and Tamara Poddubnaya, the judge who had invited him. In the hotel there are monitors on every floor who manage passports and meal vouchers. The rooms are uniform, non-descript. The café is a carpeted room like any other, with a Dutch door where one can order any number of microwaved selections.


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Thursday, January 8, 12:15 p.m.
Malle Sal (Glinka, the smaller Philharmonic Hall in St. Petersburg)

Tonight is the winners’ concert. Andy will open the festivities with a Chopin prelude. I am now watching the winners as they have their time in the hall. A young cellist is playing—it seems that everything distracts him and yet nothing distracts him. Whenever anyone enters the hall he looks at them and smiles, but his sound doesn’t change at all. But his young accompanist has an utterly private musical voice, unfolding concurrently with technical flawlessness. Clearly the sometimes-garish public trappings of music competition playing doesn’t distract her from her more private musical world.

Now there is a piano trio—the coach is dancing, singing, holding her hand up to the cellist’s bow while he plays so that he has to bow exactly straight, through her fingers. I hear the sound color change, improve, as she coaches him, even though—again—the expressive contours are so fixed that they seem unaffected by her edits.

Seva told me last night that he was a cellist for years, in an underground band. His Soviet jobs were numerous, but he always pursued the posts that allowed him to read all day—several stints as a security guard came to mind. His ‘real life’ was after hours, and his band was outrageously successful, if illegal. After perestroika, however, he gave up playing. His friends who continued playing were suddenly enjoying sanctioned status. But it seemed to me after talking to him about it that he saw many of his former underground colleagues divide into two camps—those who were taken over and eventually defeated by drinking, and those who are now receiving special awards and honors from Putin himself. Seva ran a club during the years after 1994 and now organizes a festival. The founder of this SKIF festival brought it to the Knitting Factory in New York in 1997 and had such a dismal financial failure that within two months of returning to Russia, he had committed suicide. The shame and hardship of such financial failures are not tolerated well here.

Seva hasn’t touched alcohol in 20 years, and hasn’t played the cello since 1994. He couldn’t really explain to me why he had to give it up, but I get the impression that he feels fortunate to have separated himself from his former context when things really started to change. He gets some residuals now, but only for the master recordings, which have been released gradually over some considerable time. Piracy is rampant, and there is no recourse for him, so he seems basically unconcerned.

His formal musical education was incomplete—a mere four solid years of intensive study, which falls quite short of the 13-15 years of formal training usually required before a musician can be considered to have left student-hood for Free Artist status. His failure to fulfill the official path opened up a whole world to him.

Today I am watching many students who are wholeheartedly dedicated to the fulfillment of that path, in the uninterrupted traditions of Russian musical pedagogy. Here the teacher-student hierarchy is everything, which explains why Tamara, who heard Andy play in the U.S. and invited him as a special guest of the competition on the basis of simple cross-generational musical simpatico, is widely assumed to be his teacher. Andy, like me, had some strong musical training very early, but pursued a liberal arts degree in college and has begun his professional life more or less as an autodidact. This is unheard of here. They are always asking me who my teachers are, and when I answer that I have had wonderful guidance from many senior colleagues, they want to know when my long-term training will really begin.

Later, 7 p.m.
Glinka Hall

This afternoon I heard the young people’s concert, designed to give children something to do in the afternoon since school is closed for the holiday. I got to see what Russian presenters think suits a young audience. The answer seems to be virtuosity, and its manifestation in a few exemplary young people. A 12-year-old harpist in a white dress worthy of her first communion or bat mitzvah played the most touching, richly textured solo piece—I don’t know who wrote it. And then there was the arrangement of a movement of Vivaldi’s Winter for a teenage xylophone wonder, with piano accompaniment. Many of the pieces we are hearing here are presented like this—in part, and/or in arrangements that jettison intended instrumentation in favor of featuring players who excel, on whatever instrument. Then there was the young soprano, whose set began with Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” delivered entirely with hands folded in earnest prayer. Every hand movement was just as rehearsed as every musical nuance.

Later, 11 p.m.

The long prize ceremony was like a graduation. This year the competition had as its main sponsor “Aquaphor,” a water filter container company. It was strangely sad to see each young pianist presented with a certificate and a filtered water pitcher, both touching and unsettling to see ‘product endorsement’ operate in such an un-mainstream context.

Friday, January 9

Today Andy played his solo recital at the little Samoylov Museum. Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata, Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition,’ and my piece. Andy had enlisted Olga Nazarenko, the director of activities at Glinka Hall, to help me sing the drone. Seva had enlisted a friend named Polina Runovskaya, a jazz and extended-techniques singer from his idiosyncratic musical world. Before the house opened, the three of us tried singing the drone together from several spots around the room. Maria Petrovna Panfilova, president of the Maria Yudina International Piano Competition, seemed so irrepressibly fascinated with the drone during our run-through that I invited her to be a part of it. Later I saw on her Government Committee of Culture business card that her official title is, “Chief specialist, Honoured Worker of Culture of Russia Chairman of Leningrad Region Section Of Concert Union of Russia.” Polina has no title and no business card, but she gave me two CD’s of her recent collaborative projects with various other artists. Between the Rachmaninoff and the Mussorgsky, my piece felt—to me at least—delicate by comparison but in warm and gracious company. Maria’s rough but expressive contralto, Polina’s expert ear and warm tone, and Olga’s exuberant, flighty soprano combined with my own voice, made less reliable with emotion, in a truly memorable, if motley, shared note. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to concentrate my full attention on the magic that Andy was weaving with this piece, after a week of such close company with masterworks that everyone in the audience already knew backwards and forwards. People were listening in a way that I hadn’t seen them listen before. They were fully engaged in hearing something new. Perhaps they listen in such an engaged way because they usually DO know every note, and are therefore accustomed to a very intimate way of listening.

Natalia Entelis, another of the generously-titled women of the competition (“Vice-president of Association of lecturers-musicologists, The International Union of Musical Workers”), was so delighted with Andy’s performance today that she invited him to play—for a fourth time!—at Glinka Hall tomorrow on another variety program.

Sunday, January 11, 3:35 p.m.
Pulkovo 2, second largest international airport in Russia

Andy played Chopin again yesterday, a performance with unheralded lightness and joy. And the rest of the day was carried along in a constant stream of cognac, vodka, and long, tearful toasts. Polina came to the concert, but I didn’t find her afterwards because Andy and I were whisked away before the end of the first half (!) by the competition matriarchy—Tamara, Maria, Olga, and Natalia—to put a proper finish on our auspicious visit here. All of them were full of ideas and plans—new pieces for me to write, more chances for audiences at competitions in other countries—Bulgaria, the Netherlands—to hear Andy play. And they gave us lovely gifts—mine is a Lomonosov ceramic teacup, so delicate. Their toasts were personal and emotionally urgent. Andy and I responded in kind, making tributes that would seem like purple prose at home, I suppose, and yet it felt so good to speak so purely about the searing humanity that comes forward in music-making. Maria Petrovna said she could hear in my music the feelings and lives of all of the people whose hearts I have seen into. Tamara said there was neither a note nor a silence that wasn’t absolutely essential in my music. I praised Tamara for the balance she strikes between the confidence, excellence, authority and vitality she brings to her teaching, and the generous openness and spirit of discovery that surprises it, which turns it all into something so free, after all.

It seems that however keenly one feels one needs to “find one’s place” in one musical world or other, it is when these worlds shift around us that we discover the greatest presence of musical humanity in ourselves and in each other.

This trip yielded two new projects for me, a projected collaboration with ‘underground’ vocalist Polina Runovskaya and a commission to write a compulsory piece for the 2005 Maria Yudina International Piano Competition. These two musical worlds may not meet often in the musical life of St. Petersburg, but I know now that every time I go there, I will be immersed in both of them.