In little more than 24 hours, the Emerson Quartet blasted in and out of Moscow to perform at the December Nights Festival for the first time. Despite the exhausting travel schedule, David took every opportunity he could to fully experience this amazing city.
In David’s words
Not many soloists or ensembles from America plan and execute run-outs to Russia. The fact that Moscow sits on the east side of the vast country does little to make it seem any closer. Having flown into Boston Sunday morning, rehearsed, and played a concert for the Celebrity Series, the quartet shared a few hurried minutes with the series’ donors, well-wishers, and autograph seekers. The Celebrity Series, always the efficient and thoughtful host, had a car waiting to rush the quartet to Boston’s Logan Airport for a 7:45 p.m. Air France flight to Paris.
My formula of avoiding alcohol or coffee, plus a sleeping pill, worked like a charm, and I slept the whole way over. At Charles de Gaulle, there was another mad dash for the connecting flight to Moscow. During the long flight, the new-found daylight faded to dusk and eventually the sky turned dark as we had changed time zones into Monday evening (Russia has nine time zones). And the days are short during the Moscow winter.
Getting through customs at the airport is a crazy prospect for anyone carrying an instrument. The officials, wanting to make sure you don’t take any instruments out of Russia that aren’t yours, insist on a long, drawn-out procedure that requires musicians to arrive with sets of detailed photos of instruments and bows, plus papers stating ownership and value. There have been recent stories of musicians not having had the proper paperwork and going through nightmares, so we were all well prepared. I am thankful every day that I have a crackerjack staff who takes care of most of the work for me; I don’t know how other musicians manage to find the time. Maria, our charming host from the festival, was waiting for us at customs, ready to explain everything we needed to know. Without her, one torturous hour could have easily turned into three.
After the very slow process of customs agents examining our instruments, copying passports, stamping documents, etc., we emerged into the cold Moscow night, cramming ourselves into a van. We were warned of traffic going into Moscow (at 7:30 p.m.) and sure enough, we sat on the highways for nearly two hours on a trip that should only take 30 minutes.
Arrival at the elegant Marriott Tverskaya was a relief. I was quickly in touch with my good friend Igor Naidin, violist of the Borodin Quartet, and within 40 minutes he arrived at the hotel, ready to take us out to dinner. We enjoyed a brisk walk to the famous Pushkin Café, a reconstructed, historically-informed environment that harks back to the days of the founder of modern Russian literature.
Alexander Pushkin lived roughly during the time of Beethoven, and was the first to introduce international concepts into Russian literature, excelling in every genre he tackled. Such was the magnetism of his work that it became the inspiration for composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. The stories of the famous operas we know – Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, the Queen of Spades – all came from Pushkin’s pen. He died tragically in a duel at the age of 37.
Monument of Pushkin in Pushkin Place
Igor Naidin is both the youngest and longest-tenured member of his quartet. The Borodin Quartet, famous and beloved by audiences the world over for its definitive performances and recordings of a wide range of literature, has had many personnel changes since it was founded in 1945 at the Moscow Conservatory. The original cellist was none other than Rostropovich, who soon left to pursue, understandably, his unparalleled career as a soloist. His replacement, Valentin Berlinsky, was a fantastic cellist, one of the best in a quartet ever. His tone, technique and musicianship helped guide the group throughout its history until he passed away in 2008. (Several years ago, I became the proud owner of Berlinsky’s bow, which he used for concerts for duration of his career).
Having a tireless, generous and fun-loving local as a guide in a foreign city like Moscow is an indispensable asset if you want to make the most out of a short stay. After dinner, we headed back to the hotel where we took Igor up on his offer to drive us around Moscow during the late-night, low-traffic hours. The sights were so extraordinary that I hardly noticed the bitter cold.
Our first stop was the street monument in memory of Rostropovich. The stunningly realistic sculpture was unveiled in 2012, five years after the great musician’s passing. What a triumph for Slava and his family to be so embraced by the government which once persecuted them and stripped them of their citizenship. Slava is positioned facing the building in which he and Shostakovich owned apartments, with the Conservatory where he learned and taught only couple of blocks behind him, and a beautiful old church to his left.
Although Slava is hunched over his cello in a way that I never saw, the perspective from the street is a familiar one that so many people experienced while sitting below him at a concert, staring up his unbelievably intense face and long fingers running over the strings like a giant spider. The statue certainly brings back memories, and captures Slava the way so many hundreds of thousands remember him.
It was a very short hop from Slava’s memorial to that of another great Russian musician, Tchaikovsky, who is imposingly positioned directly in front of the Moscow Conservatory.
From there we headed directly to the Kremlin, passing the magnificent Bolshoi Opera House on the way.
One of the great tourist sites of the world, the Kremlin looks even more spectacular at night, and perhaps more friendly as well. We returned to the hotel exhausted but dazzled and inspired.
Up early the next morning, I squeezed in several hours of practicing before being met by Maria and our faithful driver Maxim, who had volunteered to take us to the Novodevechy cemetery, one of, if not the most legendary cemetery in the world. Literally all of Russia’s cultural heroes lie there, including the recent arrival Rostropovich. I simply had to go, but unfortunately, my colleagues in the quartet were either too tired or busy to go (some of them had seen it on our last visit here, seven years ago). On the way we encountered stunning sights like this one-of-many Stalinist-style buildings (now a Radisson Hotel) and the Russian White House.
But the sight of the beautiful Novodevechy Convent (once a 13th century fortress) heightened anticipation of a profound experience.
There was a gentle snow falling, the light was on the dim side, and upon entering the cemetery one is captivated by its magic.
With headstones chiefly black in color, it is somber without being depressing. Most of the tall stones have sculpted heads on them, so the place feels full of personalities. The capping of snow made many of them look like cone-heads, for those of you who remember these characters from Saturday Night Live.
Slava being Slava, unstoppable and refusing any answer but yes when he wanted something, somehow posthumously secured for himself the absolute prime site in the cemetery for his grave, right on the corner, halfway down the main pathway. You can see his headstone from the street. They must have moved someone out of there for him.
It is still shocking for me to see his dates written. They delineate the earthly life of a man who all of us expected, somehow, to be around forever. Thankfully, Slava’s great legacy is one of the most well-documented in musical history, and I need only to put on his early recording of the Saint-Saens Concerto to recall the excitement and inspiration I felt when I first heard it at ten years old.
Next, we went to see the grave of Shostakovich, and it makes one realize how much changed in Russia between 1974 and 2007. Off to the side, in another area walled off from the main part, Shostakovich’s plain stone block sits on a narrow path that had not even been shoveled. It is, however, completely in character with the composer: simple, not wanting to call attention to itself, modest and withdrawn.
The cemetery map, even after one wipes the snow off, is almost impossible to read, and then proves inaccurate once you do find your destination. We had to ask the snow-shovelers where the grave of Shostakovich was. There are no markers directing you to famous people.
After paying my respects to the composer whose music I’ve played perhaps more than any composer save Beethoven, we circled around to find the grave of the violinist David Oistrakh, a colleague of Rostropovich with whom he performed often. One of the great violinists of all time, his legendary recordings still set the standard for beauty of sound, for the most heartfelt renderings of the major classics such as the Brahms Concerto, and for the great works he premiered by Shostakovich. His grave, although not well marked, is relatively hard to miss, as a sculpture of him playing is positioned atop the stone.
On our way out I happened upon a gravestone with music on it, and instantly recognized the beautiful first phrase of Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations. The grave, I learned, belonged to the great Russian cellist Sviatoslav Knushevitsky, who performed in a piano trio with David Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin.
I dashed to the hotel just in time to gather things for the rehearsal and concert. Cramming into the van again, we drove a short distance to our venue, the Pushkin Museum.
The Pushkin Museum is one of Moscow’s great art museums; it has nothing to do with Pushkin save the name, which was given to it in 1937 on the hundredth anniversary of the writer’s death. The grand building houses a stunning collection, including the only painting that Vincent van Gogh ever sold, and the famous trove of gold looted from Troy by the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. The museum has been the home of the December Nights Festival since the festival’s founding in 1981.
The concerts take place in a large, high-ceilinged rectangular room with a stone floor and booming acoustics.
The pre-concert preparations included all kinds of challenges (no music stands, no cello platform, a wandering recording engineer setting up microphones hovering precariously over us, etc.)
But we were rewarded at the end of the rehearsal with a dressing area in one of the sculpture galleries, with food graciously laid out and many people to tend to our needs. It was truly a unique backstage scene. The bathroom is two long flights down.
Larry consulted Igor about note discrepancies in the viola part of Shostakovich Quartet No. 12. Igor told us that his quartet – the leading authority on the works – has discovered many inconsistencies and questionable notes in the cycle.
The concert went off without a hitch and the public was very appreciative; the Shostakovich Quartet carried an understandably special intensity. (I will describe in detail, experiences of playing under heightened, extraordinary circumstances, in a forthcoming Huffington Post blog, sometime after May.)
At the conclusion of the concert, the audience and musicians all race to get through the same door which is about 10 feet wide. It was quite a challenge.
Igor was backstage ready to whisk us off to dinner, but not before we met two distinguished ladies: Irina Shostakovich, the third and final spouse of the composer, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, widow of the great dissident writer whom Rostropovich housed in his dacha during the writer’s banishment from Moscow.
Irina Shostakovich, right
Dinner was at the Tchaikovsky Restaurant near the hotel, a musician hangout, where we all had lots of good food and vodka. As we ate, violist Yuri Bashmet, the director of the December Nights Festival, passed by after his dinner, saying a nice hello without apology for having missed our concert.
I’m not sure when or if I will return to Russia in the future. But on this visit I accomplished some important missions and had a very wonderful time. A future trip, if it happens, will be for much longer duration, and will provide many mre opportunities for playing, teaching and learning.