Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Trip to Russia: Palaces and Polyushkes

If you had predicted 18 months ago that I’d one day perform Russian a capella music in the czars’ palaces to sold out audiences, I’d have thought you were nuts. But that’s what I did this week!

Late last year I joined Voices in Harmony, a championship a capella chorus that was invited to participate in Russia’s 10th annual International Barbershop Harmony Festival in St Petersburg, Russia’s cultural center and historical capitol during the Romanov dynasty. St. Petersburg, Russia's most European city, was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 first to serve as a shipyard in his campaign to defend Russia from the Swedish navy, and then to compete with other European centers as Russia's showcase for great architecture and culture. St. Petersburg was built along canals like Venice, and boasts more palaces, I'd guess, than any other city. It is splendid, clean and fashionable.

We participated in the festival along with the world’s #2 ranked quartet Old School (photo right, singing in the Peter Paul Fortress), our sister chorus Pride of the Pacific, and about 10 Russian choruses comprised mostly of students from the conservatory who just want to swing to English a capella. These are accomplished young vocalists who have forsaken opera for showtunes and swing, and they were great fun to hang out with (photos right of Lazy Bones and Phoenix). Our musical director Dr Greg Lyne enjoys a global reputation, and so he leads the workshops and master classes. And this year Voices in Harmony served as his instrument for demonstrating his techniques to the musical directors in Russia.

The week had started off as a business trip. I met some interesting Russian startups, like Speech Technology Center, whose algorithms (developed in house and published for peer review) can identify speakers from a cacophony of voice files. I was particularly pleased to meet RekSoft, a great resource (with 400 developers) for outsourcing hard web and mobile applications. As I visited lots of buildings I did learn one lesson for travel in Russia: Watch Your Step. Door thresholds in Russia are not flat, and sometimes there are steps on the floor without any big red Watch Your Step signs like we have in nations with more developed litigation industries. Often I would trip, to the surprise of my Russian hosts who wonder why Americans don't just look where we're going.

I had the pleasure of staying in a fabulous hotel – the Taleon Club, right down the street from the Hermitage Museum. It was completed for St Petersburg’s tricentennial celebration, and its lobby is on par with the czar’s palaces. The rooms are unbelievably lavish – huge spaces furnished with antiques and unique oil paintings (photo sbove). The gym has state of the art equipment (though I never saw anyone else using it), and the restaurant is simply the finest food I can remember eating in a very long time. (I especially recommend the blini’s, the buttery smoked fish, and the pumpkin soup.)

I toured many St Petersburg sites, such as the Hermitage Museum (photo right of Hercules) and the Church of Split Blood, with its 7000 square meters of mosaic art. The church marks the spot where Alexander III was blown up by terrorists while cruising down the city’s canals in his boat. If you ever visit St Petersburg, email Yana to arrange your tour.

Once my fellow singers arrived, our schedule was filled for 7 days straight with master classes, rehearsals, performances and tours. The first and third performances were at Capella Hall (photo below), which Catherine built 200 years ago. The acoustics are said to be the best in Europe. The theater is associated with a 500 year old conservatory that Peter the Great sang with and then moved to St Petersburg the day he inaugurated the city in 1706. We filled the house (the US Consul General was there) and had to turn away hundreds of people. Oddly, the Russians go nuts for this music!

We generally sang our regular repertoire (check out our new CD), plus a couple of songs that we performed with Pride of the Pacific: California Dreaming and Tribute to World Peace. But the consistent highlight was Polyushke Pole (lit. "the fields"), a Russian ballad about soldiers drudging through the snow who come upon a village of supportive women and children. It is a stirring song that brings Russian audiences to their feet.

Our second performance was at the Rose Pavilion in the City of Pavlovsk.

Our fourth performance was the most exciting. We performed in a pavilion (photo below) by the fountains of Peterhof, the czars’ summer palace by the Gulf of Finland. Peterhof is the Versailles of Russia, replete with hundreds of fountains powered naturally from reservoirs.

Our final performance was at the Musical Comedy and Ballet Theatre next to the National Art Museum.

We ate in various restaurants along the way, but on a couple of occasions we were invited to dine in the palaces themselves. One such dinner was followed by a traditional folk show in the palace theatre in which I ended up somehow dancing on stage (too much Stoli).

If you're a singer interested in learning about and potentially auditioning for Voices in Harmony, please visit our rehearsals any Tuesday night 7:30pm at the IES Hall, 1401 E. Santa Clara St in San Jose.

На здаровье!

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