Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ensemble of Violoncellists of St Petersburg

Somewhere between the trips on vodka-vapoury buses that move at a rate of inches-per-hour and the trips on sleek express trains, where electronic cigarettes guarantee the cleanliness of the air as the kilometers between Moscow and St Petersburg are swallowed up, I have found my way to hear some cellos, and more besides.

First off, right at the bottom of the classical music listings, there was the Ensemble of Violoncellists of St Petersburg. I turned up at the venue, a recently restored Estonian church, with no idea of what to expect. I was vaguely recalling the night, some ten years ago, when I went to a jazz club in Samara: I had been thinking intimate smoky basement -- and I joined orderly rows of audience in a vast hall to listen to a four hour long concert of hopping big band music on a stage hung with a banner proclaiming, Soviet-style, glory to geologists.

(Lest I was overstating the dissolution of all difference between Russian and Western ways in my previous post, let me just say that on the way to the concert I had an amusing experience of Russia's all-too-often flagging (but evolving) culture of customer service: I went into a shop and asked for a bottle of mineral water. The sales assistant pressed some buttons on the till, then--ever so slowly--turned away from me, took up a comb, looked into a small mirror that was hanging on the partition that divided the drinks counter from the dairy products counter, and carefully combed her fringe a few times. She turned slowly back to me, and asked, moodily, "Is that all?")

On entering this cleanly painted, plain wooden Lutheran church just round the corner from the Mariinsky Theatre, we were handed a programme and a pen, with the instructions to rate each piece with points on a scale of one to ten. For an instant, I thought I'd come to see some kind of strange talent contest, and not convinced I'd understood correctly, I asked my neighbour what this was all about. "Just so they know what people like best," she told me. No contest, then -- just a bit of audience engagement.

There were 17 short numbers on the programme -- ranging from Rachmaninov to Chuck Berry, from Ukrainian folk dance to the Pink Panther. The arrangements were pretty great, and the eight cellists were joined by a soprano from the Mariinsky for a few numbers -- including, to my delight, Villa-Lobos' Aria from Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, which I had stumbled through, piecemeal, in the string orchestra workshop in San Francisco last summer. My other favourite was probably the arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's Night in Tunis...translated into marvellous jazzy cello riffing... Biased toward the cello I may be, but with that versatility, who needs any other instrument...

I'm not sure I was fully committed to the point allocation aspect of the evening -- but I nonetheless recorded my scores for each number (minimal distinctions between generally superlative responses--an opinion largely shared, my sneaks revealed, with my neighbour, and judging by the hall's response, with most of the audience, too) and dutifully handed in my sheet at the end.

I'd never heard a cello choir concert before, nor a concert with such a varied programme -- and as well as great musicianship, there was also what seemed like a good dose of adventurousness in exploiting the cello's potential. A couple of pieces were a little heavy on the romantic-sentimental side for me, but overall there was something quite refreshing about the whole concert (and which made me think of the conversation some fellow cello-bloggers had had a while back about concert programmes and the profiles of dwindling audiences): moving easily between such a range of genres, these Petersburg cellists quite openly and enthusiastically combined some serious artistry with music's emotional transports and an unabashed experience of entertainment. And as a result, while the music wasn't at all amateur, the feeling of community among the public (of around 80 people, probably) was somehow more akin to my memories of (English) village hall events than to the solemnity and urbanity of a concert hall.


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Wishing you well!