Part I: Cello in the Sun: Целло ин тхе сун – Ст. Петерсбург 2009

At Naxos, we are fortunate to have a very eclectic group! Our National Business Developer for the USA, Sean Hickey, is not only a great salesman, but first and foremost a talented composer. Here he recounts his experience with his first Russian recording.

Part 1: Cello in the Sun – St. Petersburg 2009

In late 2007, I was commissioned to write a concertante work for cello and orchestra by the brilliant cellist Dmitry Kouzov, in collaboration with Vladimir Lande, principal guest conductor of the St. Petersburg Symphony. I completed the three-movement concerto in 2008, working very closely with the soloist in New York, particularly in the cadenzas, and dedicated it to the spectacular artistry of Dmitry. Composing this work in this degree of collaboration was new for me and I think I gained a lot from it.

In May, Maestro Lande led the Chamber Orchestra of Southern Maryland in two performances (in two different towns) of the work with Kouzov as soloist. Though the semi-professional orchestra clearly had difficulties with the score, it allowed all of us – composer, conductor, soloist – to address the hurdles in the work before taking it to St. Petersburg for its official world premiere. That concert took place on June 21st, 2009, in the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, one of the many palatial residences Catherine the Great built for her lovers in St. Petersburg.

Never traveling to Russia before but knowing a good handful of St. Petersburg musicians based in the States meant that this would be an interesting trip in a lot of ways. I would be staying with Dmitry and his parents on the Moika Embankment. Dima and I had organized a series of chamber music concerts in New York over the previous six months to raise money for the recording of my concerto. We were helped along by a couple of generous donations from individuals who have supported my work over the years.

Dima picked me up in a newly-purchased but old-as-dirt Soviet Lada, which required two strong hands on the glass in order to roll up the passenger window. Driving up the broad Moskova Prospekt, we sped through Soviet history: a statue of Lenin high on a pedestal in front of a hammer and sickle bas relief; the spot where the Nazis stopped in their siege of Leningrad, now a memorial dedicated to the defenders of the city; rows of Soviet housing estates, most of them looking like they could be toppled by a light breeze. At Dima’s comfortable flat, his mother served us an array of Russian delicacies and we set out to explore the city at night. St. Pete’s is the world’s northernmost city with more than a million people. In fact, nearly 5 million people call it home and it’s easy to see why in June. During this time of White Nights, the sun sets for about an hour and a half. It’s only truly dark for about an hour, around 2:30 AM. Most Petersburgers don’t seem to go to bed at all and I wouldn’t sleep much either.

Entering Palace Square, with the Alexander Column in the center, the massive Hermitage surrounding, and the Admiralty and St. Isaac’s in the near distance, was an unforgettable experience. Dima and I walked around extensively, along the broad Neva and across the exquisite bridges that bisect the many canals and rivers of the city: Fontanka, Moika, Griboeveda. Summer time usually means dinner around midnight, and most restaurants on the Nevsky Prospekt – Russia’s most famous street – make accommodation for diners at all hours. Amazing to think of this city built on islands and swamps, made to order by Peter the Great in the 18th century and where some 200,000 people perished in its construction, is actually younger than New York.

Next morning Dima and I drove to the pink and graceful Palace of Beloselsky-Belozersky on the banks of the Fontanka. The grand staircase was opulent, the enormous rooms of the palace sumptuous in their rococo detail. We ascended staircase after staircase to reach the smallest room on the whole place: the rehearsal space for the St. Petersburg Symphony. All composers feel anxiety in rehearsal and I’m certainly no exception. As soon as Vladimir gave the downbeat, the strings struggled with intonation, the nicely-dovetailed chorale-like wind passages weren’t so in tune or chorale-like and the overloud percussion sounded as if they were playing instruments manufactured in the Stone Age. My greatest fear, of course, was errors in parts, much of which was ameliorated in the Maryland performances. I was confident everything was proofed and reproofed. Alas, it was not quite. A xylophone part went mysteriously missing and though I had my files on disc, we couldn’t find a copy shop or hotel to read the files. Dima later bought some manuscript paper and I stayed up late the second night rewriting the part from score. Rosemary, a great friend from Ireland, came with me to the first rehearsal and after lunch the two of us headed to the impossibly opulent Church of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood. With more mosaics than any church in Europe, the place is almost too extreme in its color and detail. Inside, the stones where anarchists assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881 form the centerpiece opposite the altar. The church’s setting on the banks of the Griboedov makes it one of the most photographed places in Russia.

Alas, I’m getting carried away. I used to do a lot of travel writing but this is supposed to be about my musical experience. We had some late-night discussions with Vladimir before the next morning’s rehearsal. Dima played like a demon and the orchestra had improved, though not to any great degree. I was worried and Dima was clearly tense. Alexander Titov, music director of the orchestra and a well-known conductor, gave a few pointers and tried to rally the orchestra to concentrate. We were two days away from our concert, which also happened to feature another concerto premiere, the Violin Concerto of James Aikman, performed by an extraordinary violinist, Charles Wetherbee. Two American premieres in one concert! To the disbelief of the non-Russians present, the orchestra was recording this work the day after mine. In fact, between rehearsals, concerts and recordings, the orchestra worked some ten days straight, in many cases for 8-10 hours at a time. Their calm and quiet determination was astonishing.

The contrast between the opulent, wedding-cake facades and behind-the-scenes areas is shocking throughout St. Petersburg. Dima dragged me to the stage door of the Large Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic where a friend was waiting. She led us through a cavernous catacomb of dripping light bulbs, rusty pipes and exposed wiring. Then up a few flights of crumbling stairs and through a musician’s lounge of cigarette butts and chessboards, through another long hallway where she then parted a heavy velvet curtain. In an instant we were on stage with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic – mid-concert mind you – in the most sumptuous hall, replete with glittering chandeliers. We sat close enough behind the basses to read their parts of Prokofiev’s L’enfant Prodigue.

Dima and I had some serious discussions with Vladimir on this premiere and recording and I was reminded that I carried not an insignificant wad of US dollars in my pockets on the plane, and I wasn’t going to see it go to waste. Volodya assured us that the concert would be good and the recording – scheduled for the next day – would be better than good. Russians like to smoke like Americans like to eat and it was obvious that Dima was worried as he took drag after drag at a café on the Nevsky Prospekt. I wandered around on my own, snapping pictures of the Yussupov Palace (where Rasputin was poisoned and dumped, still alive, in the Moika), and climbed the steps to the top of St. Isaac’s, where I could look out over the entire watery city. That night, I got caught up in controlled mayhem and ran into a tank-reinforced line of hundreds of police officers. Hundreds of thousands of graduating 17-year-olds descend on the Neva to watch fireworks and hundred-foot tall fountains spew from barges. As all intersections to Nevsky were closed, I had to backtrack several blocks and canals, going against a tidal wave of traffic, each person with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer or champagne in another. For a few moments, I was genuinely scared as bottles flew, a few pretty close to my head. I met up with Dima in a sudden downpour which turned the million-plus crowd into a writhing, soused, but well-dressed mess.

I commented to Sasha, Dima’s dad, how their television always seemed to be showing scenes from WWII, or the Great Patriotic War, as it’s considered by Russians. As I was reading Antony Beevor’s book on Stalingrad, I should have known that my premiere would take place on the very anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Russia. In my concerto’s second movement, there’s a not so thinly-veiled quote from Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony “Leningrad”, first in the flutes, then in the bass clarinet. The musicians picked up on it in the second rehearsal. Talking to Sasha over a couple of scotches, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the very fact that the two of us could talk about growing up in our respective countries; he, born in Leningrad during the siege where family members starved or later disappeared during the Stalin purges; me, growing up safe but with a Cold War suspicion and even hatred of anything Russian, helped by Reagan’s endless rhetoric. The truth was that the two of us could not have had this discussion even fifteen years earlier.

-Sean Hickey
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1 Comment

  • mattmclaughlin1 says:

    “Thanks for the post!

    I would surely love to learn more. According to me music is one thing which requires more of practice than theory lessons. One should keep practicing to master the art.”