From Russia - Clarinet Concerto performance and recording

            In June of 2009, cellist Dmitry Kouzov and conductor Vladimir Lande gave the premiere of my Cello Concerto – a piece they commissioned – in the august surroundings of St Petersburg’s Belozersky-Belozelsky Palace, with the St. Petersburg Symphony. It was certainly a memorable trip as we recorded the piece in the Melodiya Studios that week as well. For this trip, we were to record my Clarinet Concerto – scored for clarinet and string orchestra – and it was to receive it’s Russian premiere at perhaps the most famous concert hall in the country, the famed Large Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, also called Shostakovich Hall.

 

            Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, now based in Minneapolis and teaching at the University of Minnesota, was engaged to come and play the piece. Alex and I nearly worked together on at least one occasion before: it was violinist Ilya Gringolts who commissioned my Avatar in 2004 for a clarinet/violin/piano trio which included the two of them and Orion Weiss. The work only saw its premiere in September 2011 at New York’s Symphony Space. Alex had certainly developed in the past few years and his career as a soloist was growing rapidly. I was eager to work with him and encouraged beyond belief after a skype rehearsal a couple of weeks before we set off. The same can be said for conductor Vladimir Lande. He has become a great champion of my music over the past four years as well as a great friend. Just off a neck-breaking orchestral tour of North and South America, he would be landing in St. Petersburg and supervising rehearsals immediately.

 

            June is a magical time in the city, what with all of the White Nights cultural activity and 20 or more hours of continuous sunlight at that latitude each day. It seems as if all of Russia’s youth descend on the city where restaurants, theaters, shops and other establishments close for an hour or two, if they close at all. Concert organizations squeeze in three concerts in a day and it’s not unusual for a restaurant to be set upon by a group of hungry patrons at 2 AM. So it was with great curiosity to see what St. Petersburg was like as it entered its long winter in late November 2011. This would be the first time in my life I would spend Thanksgiving away from my family.

 

            First impressions upon landing: the entire area coated in gun-metal gray paint. As it was raining, every car and bus was covered in mud on the ride in. As I’ve lazily learned very little Russian, my conversations with my driver, Kostya, we’re fairly short by necessity. The long Moscova Prospekt leads from the small and inadequate Pulkovo Airport into the center of the city strewn across large islands and bisected by canals. A few miles in, an enormous traffic circle rings the most imposing war monument I’ve ever seen, a sixty-foot tall crown surrounded by enormous and menacing statues of Red Army soldiers. “Hitler kaput” was Kostya’s answer to my question as to what it was, and so it was that this was as far as the Nazis got in their 900-day siege of the city, a feat of resistance unmatched in history. A few miles on and past crumbling Soviet apartment blocks, Kostya muttered “Napoleon kaput.” You get the picture.

 

            Once again I would be staying at the home of Emma Kouzov, though this time Dmitry wouldn’t be with me. She was kind enough to let me stay in Dima’s room and give me a set of keys for the bank vault of a door that separates the nice apartment from the ramshackle common area of the building. Common areas in Russian buildings are, as a rule, frightening, usually littered with beer bottles, flaking plaster and the omnipresent cigarette butts and the smell of smoke. There’s often someone talking in a dark corner, and not always with another person present. I hadn’t slept on my flight to Helsinki, nor on the short flight from there, so after Emma laid out an extraordinary lunch of pelmeni, sausage, cheese, bread and red caviar, I took a short nap before heading out.

 

            5PM and pitch black. There’s a point in every traveler’s wanderings where a fear of the unknown simply can overtake the disoriented person. Though I knew my way around St. Petersburg well, I was skeptical of every face as I stepped out into the darkness and onto the slippery, icy path along the Moika Canal. Every hundred feet or so, several men would be congregating in a dilapidated metal doorway, puffing away at their cigarettes and whispering. I was certain they were talking about my wallet. The night seemed impossibly dark and quiet despite a lot of foottraffic. I headed down the canal to take in the mighty dome of St. Isaac’s before wandering down toward the base of Nevsky Prospect to have a coffee and pastry in the ground floor of the building where Tchaikovsky lived and died.  Alex was staying in an apartment supplied by the Philharmonic on Sovetskaya and which was as far away from the center of things as I was in a different direction. We managed to find ourselves outside the Moscovsky Station and went over the schedule and piece over a sushi dinner. I wandered around that night and found myself terrified again to return to my area when there were so few people out.

 

*            *            *

 

            3 PM rehearsal the next day in the Grand Philharmonic Hall itself. It’s truly one of the jewel halls in the world and, after a coffee in the Grand Hotel Europe across the street with Alex. Vladimir had just stepped off a plane and the orchestra was ready to go. Not an encouraging first rehearsal, though I wasn’t entirely disappointed. Alex sounded great though with his rich liquid tone seeping throughout the plush venue. Alex was asked to appear at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory to conduct a clarinet masterclass afterward. I tagged along and wandered the halls which stood below the timeless gazes of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Borodin and the old man himself. The masterclass was fascinating and I got to hear some exceptional playing, if overly loud and demonstrative, and without control. It was fascinating to see Alex demonstrate and how further run-throughs opened up in tone color and breath control.

 

            On my last trip, I visited the Shamrock Pub with Dmitry and knew it to be around the corner. Alex and I went for a pint and found they were serving a Thanksgiving dinner, sans turkey but with some excellent chicken as substitute. I was missing my family and lamenting that for the first time in my life I would miss watching the Detroit Lions play. Minutes later, as if to please only me since no one else was watching, the game appeared on the TV while I settled in at the bar. The Shamrock owner is a Virginian who moved to Leningrad during the city’s final days, opening this pub. He was extremely genial and kept me well lubricated with free beer. Eventually, a few others piled in, including someone with a bouquet of roses and the score of Wagner’s Der Fleigende Hollander, a bass from the Marinsky production across the street. Soon the bar was filled with singers, costume folks and the set designer.  A trio of musicians came in – led by a spectacular accordionist/singer – and blew the roof off the place with some spectacular folk songs including a Macedonian tango meets Bartok piece that will stay with me.

 

*            *            *

           

 

            I’ll leave the blow-by-blow in my narrative to focus on the music and process. Our second rehearsal was a wholesale improvement over the previous day’s, shocking in fact. The concertmaster approached his task with real seriousness and the piece began to take shape. Unlike two years previous, we were going to split the recording sessions over two days, which I think made perfect sense. What I didn’t like is that one of those two sessions would take place the day before the concert, but I put my trust in Vladimir that the group could do it and was now seeing that it would be so. The first movement in particular is tricky, Along with a very demanding solo part, the string orchestra is asked to come in at very odd places with pizzicatos that get thrown from high to low, dovetailing with one another. It made little sense in the first rehearsal but was now taking shape. Alex was even more impressive today. Dinner at Zimniy, an excellent club/restaurant around the corner from the Church of the Spilled Blood. We would be returning here several times throughout the trip.

 

*            *            *

 

 

            Dawn in St. Petersburg in November stretches on for hours. After my usual two hours of sleep, I ventured outside for the long walk to Nevsky Prospekt. I was surprised that there were so many ambulating people – dogs and their owners, the click of heels echoing between buildings – then I realized that it was a very reasonable 7 AM, an hour of light anywhere in the lower 48. A van to Vasilevsky for the first day of recording. The Neva splits at the pointed eastern tip of Vasilievsky Island with its imposing Rostral columns. A few blocks inland and we’re at the entrance to the small church that serves as Melodiya studios, home to thousands of chamber and orchestral recordings over the years. Some of the most famous from Soviet times have been made here with the likes of Rostropovich, Mravinsky, Oistrakh, and on and on. In some 20 minutes, Alexei – producer, engineer and studio hand – has all of the chairs and mics set.

 

            I ascend the four flights of stairs to the small space that serves as the control room and place a score on the mixing console. We’re ready to begin. Two bars in Alexei stops the group, and asks for them to start over. Within about three seconds, the opening bars are sounding again. As we did two years previous, this method is continued throughout the day: some small sections, some long. Alexei’s knowledge of my score is astounding, and this after never laying eyes on it before. He constantly insists that inner voices need to come out, intonation needs to be firm, attacks need to be more calculated, and that the timid violas need to be less so. Alex is a wonder. Two hours later and we have my final movement recorded. I had fretted that Russian musicians might not understand the idiom of this movement with Irish and Scottish folk tunes central to it, but they really settled in, and it was never the remotest problem for Alex.

 

            A quick chocolate break and we’re back to recording, this time the expressive second movement. I’m amazed at the Russian musician’s (seemingly) dispassionate, no-nonsense approach to musicmaking, and –by extension – recording. This orchestra was content with a quick flask of tea and a cigarette. Ten minutes later, we were rolling.

 

            Vladimir had confessed that he didn’t quite get my middle movement and we spent a bit of time at the previous rehearsal underlining some areas that needed underlining, highlighting the violas and second violins in the final two pages meant that the clarinet line was a counterpoint to their melody, yet no less important overall. The result was that the recording went even more smoothly and we were done in some ninety minutes. Alex showed not the slightest hint of exhaustion. Kostya took us back across the river. I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Mikhailovsky Gardens, doing a bit of work in the lounge at the Grand Hotel, and walking the canals. Dinner at Zimniy.

 

*            *            *

 

            The next morning I find myself standing in a heavy rain outside the bright blue St. Nicolas Cathedral. I had hung outside its gates last night taking pictures and marveling at its fairytale look of religious folly. Incredible that churches such as these survived the Revolution. But I’m in for the real treat inside. Though somewhat small and deathly quiet, several hundred Russians ambulate across the ornate interior, pausing at each station and statue to kiss the feet of saints, or to prostrate themselves on the floor. It being Sunday, the second level has a service which was roped off with a sign reading, “Russians only. No tourists”. I marvel at the exquisite gold covering every inch of this incredible edifice, the flowing gold robes of the prelate and all of his attendants, and the devout people leaning over each other to touch the hem of his robe. Hundreds of women, all with hair covered, prostrate themselves flat on the floor, stand up abruptly, and repeat this dozens of times throughout the church. A Rasputin-like man drapes a statue of Mary in a giant bear hug. After waiting a long time, I duck under the velvet rope to get a closer look.

 

            And in the midst of it all, the most sublime choral music, a singing that’s only vaguely familiar, when it occurs to me. Stravinsky, who grew up only two blocks away, would have come here regularly. The keening, Slavonic tone of his choral works – think the Russian Choruses, the Pater Noster and even Les Noces – has its roots right here. I walk back out into the rain and am quite literally moved to tears. As I do in all churches, I think of my mother.

 

            Afternoon dress rehearsal in the hall. At this point, I’m well and truly spoiled. Not only did recording go well yesterday, but I’ve enjoyed having each and every rehearsal in this spectacular hall, the scene of tonight’s performance. With a pre-rehearsal espresso in the Grand Hotel among well-heeled French businessmen, I feel like some sort of diplomat. The first movement, longest of the three, is one of the notable examples of my cubist approach to musical material, where something simple and mundane, when viewed from another angle, somehow gains meaning. One could easily shuffle the measures of this movement and perhaps even whole pages, and still make some sense of things. But ironically or otherwise, a poor performance is complete chaos. The rehearsal is tight, focused and a real success. Vladimir drills the orchestra for the next two hours in Copland’s Rodeo, Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite and John Williams’ music from the Harry Potter films. The brass is overloud and crass and the percussion in the Bernstein plays with about as much soul as a Lutheran chorus on Good Friday. Amazingly, when I return backstage later, the sections are playing smoothly and with a feeling that tells me they’re ready for the concert.

 

*            *            *

 

            Performance time and I’m backstage in what may have been a series of anterooms for the tsar and tsarina. Alex practices and his dad – visiting from Upper Nazareth in Israel – straightens his tie, which is actually mine. We take all manner of pictures in the fancy rooms with gilded mirrors and dazzling chandeliers. I’m briefed by a man who is doing his dissertation on American music. He will tell my life story to the crowd. When I ask how he learned of my life story – especially since I’m a bit unclear on it myself– he and Vladimir reply that the KGB has been looking for something to do for the past twenty years.  I of course will have no idea whether or not what he says is true, having virtually no understanding of Russian, and will later feel two thousand pairs of eyes on me while he speaks.

 

            A sounding bell and the opening of doors. Crowds rush to seats and several pay the few kopeks for a program. Within ten minutes the hall is packed with people standing in the upper stalls. I sit with Alex’s dad in a box to the right of the stage. Rodeo goes well. The ballet never fails to completely thrill me, and the gruff Russian brass and woodwinds only add to the excitement. Alex takes the stage after my life story  - or something lengthy about me – is recited. From the first sforzando pizz in the strings, the piece just lifts off and never comes down. Three movements later, it’s over and it’s a spectacular performance, Alex, Volodya and the orchestra playing with fire throughout. The crowd goes wild for everyone and I am one proud composer. Emma rises from her seat and presents roses to each of us. I look for some water at intermission and am literally accosted by dozens of people pushing pens and programs in my face requesting autographs. Kids – there are several – practice their English on me to the delight of their parents. A pair of girls from Moscow sheepishly snap photos, a young woman from Brussels wants to discuss Russian music and why I would wear a pink shirt. Alex is relaxed and relieved, and joins me in the box for the second half.

 

            The Bernstein performance is not bad and the Harry Potter stuff certainly delights the kids. Talk about a brand that has traveled far and wide. Looking over the crowd, I see several kids sporting the young hero’s glasses.  Alex and I meet more folks afterward and congratulate Volodya and the orchestra. Two musicians ask for chamber pieces of mine. Several of us retire to Zimniy for drinks and sushi and I wander the canals home in the middle of the night. As I did after my last Russian performance, I pause at the Stravinsky home to give thanks.

 

*            *            *

 

            Another rainy ink black morning and I’ve slept no more than an hour. I’m simply too energized to sleep. I try all kind of remedies: I take a drink of whiskey. I listen to baroque music. I read about Putin. I give up, shower, and walk back through the dark, past the Stravinsky childhood home on the Krukov Canal, the Marinsky, the narrow streets pierced with the click-clack of heels on pavement, and meet up with the others. Kostya drops us off at the studio for our final day and we settle in to record the first movement. Almost incredibly, the energy of last night’s performance is present yet again some 14 hours later. We’re done in three hours and I’ve taken pages of notes on each take. We cross the Neva to celebrate with an epic Georgian meal. The wine from that country is particularly memorable.

 

            A break and then another late night at the Grand Hotel, Zimniy and more wandering. St. Petersburg is a city full of ghosts. But in many ways, it is the epitome of bounty, facing west and looking distinctly European. Nevsky Prospekt is lined with all manner of shops and Gostini Dvor is surely the mall of Russia, but with a strange traffic pattern. Shoppers must walk through hundreds of stores to get to their destination. The common area is the sidewalk outside. It’s hard to believe that many of these buildings and churches were nothing more than warehouses during Soviet times. The early days of the Revolution the Nevsky Prospekt was more or less an endless funeral cortege.

 

*            *            *

 

            My final day in Russia is one of leisure and I look forward to it. After a tea with Emma, Alex and I meet up at Entrée, a small French bistro on the Gribodeova that I had visited before. A lunch of stroganoff, wine, coffee. We wander all around, down to St. Isaac’s, past the fine hotels, monuments to dozens of scientists, writers and musicians – no country honors its intellectuals like Russia – to Imperial Square and the Hermitage.

 

            If they removed all of the paintings and sculptures the Hermitage would still be one of the greatest museums in the world. The entryway nearly takes the breath away; the Malachite Room and imperial chambers are more impressive than just about any enclosed space in the western world. Many of the doors to each gallery would be ostentatious in the Taj Mahal. We spend a good two hours trying to find a Michaelangelo and the collection of Impressionism. Directly across one of Matisse’s most celebrated canvases, an open window lets in the night air from the Neva. In an adjacent gallery, the distinct smell of someone smoking, a guard.

 

            We spend the evening shopping, checking out dozens of stores in Gostini Dvor, and buying Cuban cigars. We stop for sushi and I nearly choke on some sort of saffron vodka.  After some reconnaissance at Zimniy, we gather some friends and wander in search of a club. A dilapidated Lada car, and an eager driver, takes us to an all-night place near the Catherine Palace complete with karaoke, talent contests, pole dancing and cheap beer. Not for the first time in my life do I close a bar, but when I look at the time I realize that 6AM is surely a record for me.

 

*            *            *

 

            Kostya is idling in his car when I wake up two hours later for my trip to the airport. I say my goodbyes to the city I’ve come to love and which has been so supportive of my music over the past few years. I have an invite to come back soon and have no doubt that I will be here before long. As the plane pulls away from the watery city and banks over the Gulf of Finland, there in the east, a glimpse of something nearly forgotten. A welcome sun follows us to New York.

 

 

December 2011