Thursday, 8 December 2011

Curtains up, lights up, cue the music and let the show begin!

My time in Russia is coming to an end. I have only two weeks left in this magnificent country, and that time is passing me by with an increasingly alarming rapidity. I feel like I have been somewhat complacently caught unawares, like the individual who, deciding to set off a few minutes later than usual, has to suffer the ref-faced ignominy of entering the lecture theatre late under the silent, accusatory scrutiny of his fellow students and of the professor who had, until just moments before, been animatedly explaining a point of great significance. As you can probably tell, this is a feeling I get on a regular basis, and thus I am determined not to let these last few weeks slip disinterestedly through my fingers. 'Carpe Diem' as my Grandad would tell me, although it's only recently that I finally understood the saying and no longer believed there to be a massacre in his fish pond.

So, with fifteen days left to go and only 5 posts on the internet, this next couple of weeks will be spent in feverishly reporting on my experiences in Russia. I promised you thoughts on 'a nation and its people' and by God you'll get them! Of course, it would be overly optimistic to try and tap off a blog a day, and there is much left to do and see before I can really give you something close to a picture of this beautiful country. For this reason, much of my writing will take place over Christmas when, mince pie in one hand and mulled wine by my side, I shall nostalgically reminisce on my time here and comment with the benefit of distance.

But there is time left to fill, evenings left for contemplation, and so, with food, drink and (bizarrely) roads under our belt, what is there left to discuss?

Today I'm going to to talk about a whole host of thoughts that I am neatly and perhaps somewhat vaguely gathering under the umbrella of 'The Stage'. Since this really isn't much of an introduction, and may have a few of you wondering if you missed one of the groups on this year's 'X Factor', I shall elaborate. Tonight I will be writing to you about Russia's long and noble tradition of live performance, of theatre and music that single her out as a nation of beauty and spectacle, that capture the imagination of those who have the great fortune to bear witness and, for those such as myself who are privileged enough to engage with it themselves, captures the heart and soul in a way that is unforgettable.

That, my friends, is an introduction, if I do say so myself. And now to live up to it, or to try at least.

Needless to say, the Russians are a people of great cultural wealth, and nowhere is this more evident than on their stages. I live, as you know already, in a fairly small regional capital, and yet the cultural scene here is truly staggering. The city is home to the Karelian Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Marius Stravinsky, a descendent of the great composer himself who, having been educated in the UK and being a great fan of the students who come to the city, is a brilliant contact who regularly gets us free or dirt cheap tickets to his performances. And what fantastic performances they are! We have been privileged to see a beautiful symphony by Prokofiev, a stunning violin concerto by Tchaikovsky and a range of other pieces, both Russian and international, that can only excite classical music lovers such as myself to the point that we wander home ready to burst into solos on imaginary violins, deterred only by the cold and by the number of people out and about who might think we were having some sort of involuntary spasm.

Wander down the road from the concert hall to the Musical Theatre and more delights lie in wait. The theatre itself is truly a thing of beauty; fronted by Grecian columns and fitted internally in marble, mirrors and chandeliers that give it a very elegant yet surprisingly comfortable feel. You can hardly believe it was built by the same people responsible for the oh-so-Soviet eyesores around the town. And, for such a small city, the amount on offer at this venue is very impressive; within the space of a week there might be three or four different performances, ranging from the classic to the modern, and, with the Finnish theatre only across the road and similarly busy (amusingly, watching a performance there will require you wear a headset to listen to the Russian translation, a feat I'm told that is easier said than done), it would be impossible to see absolutely everything Petrozavodsk had to offer. And yet I could not let the opportunity pass me by and, being a great fan of Tchaikovsky, top of my "must see" list was the opera 'Eugene Onegin' ('Евгений Онегин') and the ballet 'The Nutcracker' ('Щелкунчик').

I have to admit, having never been to see either art form on a previous occasion, I was somewhat dubious as to what I would think of opera and ballet, but I very much enjoyed them both. Ballet was by far my favourite of the two; far from pink tutus and very camp men dashing across the stage, it turned out to be incredibly impressive, both due to the beauty of the dance and in terms of sheer skill and physical prowess, and was certainly not at all what I had in mind. You know something's fantastic when you feel emasculated by a man in tights, although the tightness of said garment did leave me feeling somewhat uncomfortable throughout. The opera was similarly beautiful, with some truly magnificent moments and performances (particularly by the lead males) that were mind-blowing. I have to admit, I am undecided on my opinion of opera as an art form; the songs may be beautiful, but when you sing absolutely everything from "I love you Olga" to "pass the tea will you love?", all the while throwing one's hands about and wearing pained expressions, I can't help but find it all a bit over dramatic.

One thing was consistent in both, however, and indeed is consistent throughout everything I have seen thus far, and that is quality. From the huge, elaborate sets to the beautiful period costumes, all was a masterpiece to the eye, and the performances, from both the orchestra and the actors, singers and dancers, were truly second to none. The Russians set the bar high when it comes to professionalism in the theatre, yet what is surprising is just how little it costs to watch such magnificent productions; such theatre cost a matter of pounds, whilst the quality would have warranted tickets ten times the price in the UK. In these last few weeks I will be seeing two more ballets (Stravinsky's 'Opuses' and Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet' ('Ромео и Джульетта'), and the sum total of both was about £7.50. That, ladies and gentlemen, is value for money; the kind that would have Yorkshiremen rushing from miles around only to realise that they don't really like dancing.

Yet perhaps one of the most wonderful things I have discovered about Russia is that such high standards are not limited to the realm of the professionals. One of the best, most fulfilling experiences of my time here has been singing in the University choir. When I arrived I had no idea such a thing existed, indeed I had been told that student activities in Russian universities would be somewhat limited (a complete myth that I shall perhaps touch upon in a future entry), and so it was with great pleasure that I discovered said choir and was fortunate enough to be put in contact with a member. Attendance of my first rehearsal was somewhat intimidating; meeting three times a week for two and a half hours a time, this was a dedicated bunch that would make the average British amateur singer cower in fear, quietly humming 'Pomp and Circumstance' to themselves. As I began to attend more regularly, got to know members and generally overcame my shyness to talk in Russian (I still can't understand half of what the conductor's saying most of the time, but he's an expressive bloke, and you can usually tell from his gestures exactly what he's driving at) I came to love and respect this remarkable group of people. There is a huge variety of background, both musical and vocational: some are from the local Conservatoire studying music at a professional level where others had never sung chorally before and are only now learning to read sheet music; some are students, others are ex-students now in full time employment, and still more are still at schools dotted around the city. Yet all are welcomed, encouraged and developed regardless of their proficiency, and there is a wonderful sense of community that is truly extraordinary to witness.

Yet my deep appreciation of the talent and dedication of this wonderful group came when performing at their biennial choral festival. This was an event dedicated to their late and much loved former conductor Georgii Ervandovich Teratzuyanitz ('Георгий Ервандович Терацуянанц'), lasting four days, performed in four different venues around the city and attracting choirs from all over Russia and even from as far afield as Barcelona. It was a truly amazing weekend, a really surreal yet wonderful experience (translating from Russian into Spanish is something of a challenge, especially as it's been quite a while since I studied the latter!), yet the moment that really stood out for me was standing on the stage of the Musical Theatre, performing to a hall so full that the term "standing room only" couldn't even apply. The sound produced by this choir of such mixed ability and experience was simply breathtaking, a sound that British choirmasters could only dream of, of a quality that I have simply never experienced in all my days of singing. It was such an incredible honour and privilege to perform with them, an opportunity I will never forget, and I cannot praise Russia highly enough on its stunning theatre, music and attitude towards the performing arts.

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