Part II: Cello in the Sun: Целло ин тхе сун – St. Petersburg 2009

Here is the continuation of Sean Hickey’s recording experience in Russia.

Next morning: full dress rehearsal at the Palace goes surprisingly well. The final movement is still challenging. A fast 3/8 flourish that begins the movement still sounds sloppy and the ending isn’t quite as emphatic as it needs to be. I spent the rest of the day wandering the canals and streets, and drinking espresso, which is a silly thing to do to calm one’s nerves. The musical sites of St. Pete’s are so abundant as to be laughable. I had coffee in a building where Tchaikovsky lived and died. I visited the famous Mariinsky Theatre and the statues of Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov at the Conservatory. Most important to me of anything I might do in this city was to visit 66 Krukov Canal, which happened to be around the corner from Dima’s, and a rite of pilgrimage I had longed to take for years. This was the home of the Stravinsky’s until Igor’s triumphant Paris premieres with the Ballets Russe. The Revolution would keep him away from his birth country for another 55 years. A Firebird plaque hangs on the entrance to the building. I would return to this spot over and over, as well as to the Shamrock Pub, directly adjacent to it. Old habits die hard.

Arriving in the Palace again was a sobering experience. It was certainly the most glorious setting for my music, and I say this knowing I’ve been blessed with performances at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully, Steinway and a few smart college campuses. We very nearly had a full house and I was surprised to see Anna, a woman I spoke to on the flight over for no more than 10 minutes and to whom I briefly mentioned the concert. She joined us after the day-long wedding of her sister in Pushkin the day before. Charles, Vladimir and the band gave a strong performance of the Aikman piece, with its wonderfully tuneful middle movement. I’m happy to report that the performance of my Cello Concerto – the product of some six months of labor – went off extremely well. Dima played like someone absolutely possessed and Vladimir held the orchestra together nicely, and created a real sense of pacing. The crowd was more silent than any I had ever experienced, especially in my hushed central movement with its cadenza for cello and percussion. Tempos were as I had them indicated, and the applause for the performers was hard-earned. The US embassy and the St. Petersburg Times sent four officials who I never managed to talk to but I was pleased to hear English spoken elsewhere in the crowd a bit. A bunch of us went out to celebrate afterward to a far-too-hip-for-me club and restaurant. I got a little thrill from seeing my name rendered in Cyrillic on the concert posters. We wandered the streets in the only hour of darkness in the city.

A minor mishap on the way to the studio the next morning: Dima’s car breaks down in the middle of the busiest part of the Nevsky Prospekt. Fortunately, Vladimir and I are able to push it around a corner where, lo and behold, a car is vacating a parking spot. I will tell you this: parallel parking a car without a working motor is no easy feat. But since this car weighs slightly more than a watermelon, we managed fine. We quickly hitched a ride, which is surprisingly simple (and cheap) to do. Also no easy feat is cramming three musicians and a cello into the average Russian car. We all had to pile out just to reach our wallets.

The Melodiya Studios – which some consider the Abbey Road of Russia – resides in a small, rather shabby and nondescript church on Vasilievsky Island, across the Neva. We would be spending some ten hours here. I refused to believe that we could record this three-movement work, nearly 30 minutes of music for 51 players, in one day. Melodiya, established in 1964, was the state-sponsored record label of the USSR, making heralded recordings of classical, pop and jazz in a network of studios throughout the Soviet Union. This was where some of the first studio recordings of the last three Shostakovich symphonies were made and where some of the greatest conductors – Kondrashin, Svetlanov, Rozhdestvensky – put their stamp on the classics. The smoke-stained control room didn’t portend well, and I did my best not to judge the small and primitive mixing board. Up three flights of stone stairs and separated from the recording space by seven heavy iron doors, the control room is certainly isolated. Yosha, the engineer/producer (they are generally one and the same here) opened my score just before Vladimir gave the first downbeat. All prejudices were quickly laid aside. It was clear that this man had a valuable set of ears. In a matter of minutes, he know my score better than I. No detail escaped his attention. After a he uttered a gentle “spasiba” into the control mic, he would ask the group to play again. A few seconds later, they’d be playing. No fuss, no preparation. It went on like this for five hours with only two breaks. His understanding of this group, with whom he has made hundreds of recordings, was humbling to say the least. At one point, I left one of the seven doors open on my way from the bathroom to the control room. Once the mics were rolling, he stopped the orchestra and closed the door.

With the exception of two violists who played dominoes on a piano bench, each fifteen-minute break consisted of the band filing outside for profuse smoking. Most players carried with them a flask or thermos of tea, and a small sandwich. Once the personnel manager clapped his hands, the band gathered and the tape was rolling again in five minutes. After five hours, we took a break and Dima, Volodya and I headed to a Georgian restaurant for an epic lunch, washed down by lagidze, a tarragon-flavored soda, followed by a nap.

Back in the studio at night, which of course feels like early afternoon. Four more hours and we have it, including some good takes of the third movement. In all, we’ve recorded more than 300 minutes of music. Dima is unstoppable. At no point was there a need to stop because he had made a mistake. The third movement cadenza, the trickiest part of the whole piece, took only one take. We did a second just for the hell of it and I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference. After divvying up the cash in the control room and a discussion on mixing, we’re done. I almost feel ripped off because the whole thing happened so fast, but I’m more amazed at the work ethic of these wonderful musicians. They make a meager existence performing and that explains the especially punishing schedule, especially in summer. They would do four more recording sessions in the next week.

After the sessions, I found some time to see more sites, including visiting Peterhof on the Gulf of Finland. A rival to Versailles, and in my opinion more spectacular with its hundreds of gravity-controlled fountains, it’s a forty-minute hovercraft ride from the Neva Embankment. Dima also took me to the impressive Peter and Paul Fortress and the Aurora Cruiser, which fired the salvos that signaled the start of the Revolution. Dmitry, Vladimir, Natasha, Charles and I ended our trip with a great meal and a final visit to the pub, where pianist Peter Laul joined us. Truly one of the most gifted musicians I happen to know, he helped us tow Dima’s broken car over every bridge in the city to find a shop where the sad thing could be parked. A two-hour nap before boarding the plane home, where I will make copious notes on the recording for purposes of mixing next month. I hope to report more soon. Next up: recording my Clarinet Concerto.

-Sean Hickey