2nd May 2014

ECO in Siberia: a tour blog by David Corkhill

During the orchestra’s recent and highly successful trip to Vadim Repin’s Trans Siberian Arts Festival in Novosibirsk, ECO principal timpanist and longest serving current member David Corkhill kept a journal of the orchestra’s activities. Here is an behind-the-scenes look at what an ECO tour…to Siberia, is like!

Thursday morning, April 3rd

Every tour begins in the same way, with a suitcase. In my case, my suitcase. After that there’s a battle through the rush hour, an hour or more of boredom at the airport when the airport authority no doubt expect you to spend on food, literature or other unnecessary goods and services, and then another queue to get on board, turning right at the door of course, and probably walking down the aircraft as far to the rear as possible.

Yesterday I’d taken the precaution of checking in with Aeroflot on-line (a facility not offered by BA to groups for some reason) to make sure of an aisle seat near the front, on the side away from the sun. Port out. Call me fussy if you like.

After all the preparation and the queuing, the ECO finds itself enclosed in a metal tube at 37,000 feet traveling east at 510 mph, with all faith resting in Messrs. Boeing. A typical day.


Friday 4th, very early

Somehow the double basses in their white coffins have made it through LHR baggage handling, Moscow customs and Novosibirsk baggage control without question and in one piece, and most of the ECO human cargo is in equally good condition considering the 5.30am arrival at Hotel Novosibirsk.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of Siberia. Deep snow of course, a biting wind from the north naturally, distant views of dachas from the transfer bus perhaps. When your childhood is fixed with images of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in fur coats and ushankas, with a distant funeral in the Steppes, then there are expectations. As it happens it was 14°C, quite balmy in fact, the only snow was occasional hard driven piles of dirty frozen slush by the roadside, and unloved peri-Soviet-era concrete buildings dominate the landscape. Pasternak’s story was set in Moscow anyway. So much for pre-conceived ideas.

From the outside the Hotel Novosibirsk retains all the charm of a 1950s Brutalist style, but the rooms (at least my own) are comfortable enough. The mini-bar is empty – maybe experience of British visitors has taught the hotel managers a thing or two – and there are 61 channels on the wide-screen digital television although all 61 are entirely Russian. It’s a big country.

I give this detail partly because I know that Siberia is on your holiday destination wish-list and all information is useful, but also on first and even second sight there’s not a great deal to see in the city, and the preceding paragraphs fill space nicely.

My guide book recommends Lenin Square, so regardless of my pessimism and putting off sleep (it’s 4am in the UK) I walk there after breakfast.

It’s a little unusual, even for a well travelled orchestra like the ECO, to be somewhere where road and direction signs are completely indecipherable. From the few Greek characters I know (not Phil the Greek of course, I mean the letters) I can have a stab at pronouncing some of the words, but that’s not much help with orientation. Ф for example is pronounced ‘ff’ so кофе is ‘coffee’, and с sounds like ‘ss’ and р like ‘r’, so ресторан means ‘restaurant’, but that’s not going to get me far if I’m in search of Soviet monuments. I see three bold letters on a small building near the square – NУР – and I can’t work out what it means. ‘Noor’ or something like that – a brand name perhaps? No, it’s actually a branch of New York Pizza. And I’ll avoid the obvious jokes about how I went into a paint shop to look for some quick drying paint but it was all in acrylic, and then I went to a vegetable shop but I couldn’t understand what they were selling as it was all in celeriac. Earlier an assistant in the supermarket near the hotel was impatient with me for not understanding her question. I think she was asking if I had a loyalty card.

Sorry, I’m still putting off relating the Novosibirsk experience. Well, if you’re still listening, it’s very dusty. Very dusty indeed in fact. I don’t know if it’s anything to do with the Saharan sand the UK is inundated with (although I haven’t seen any evidence of it in my neck of the SE London woods), and maybe Novosibirsk is, like Beijing, situated in the middle of a desert, but it’s very dusty. I may have already mentioned that.

I’m really looking for some Soviet architecture – bas-relief flag-waving heroes of the Revolution with an optimistic outlook, that kind of thing – which I find fascinating and quite moving. There’s plenty of it in Moscow Metro stations and on other buildings there which manages to demonstrate a great pride in Russian history no matter who’s in charge; and I love the way the Soviet star proclaiming from the top of the Kremlin spires faces the Romanov double eagle that flies above Saint Basil’s Cathedral. But the roads in Novosibirsk are forbiddingly wide and crossing places not very evident, so although there must be a way of getting closer to the statue of the great man in the middle of Lenin Square I fail at the first sight-seeing hurdle. There’s a small park close by, where a bride and groom are having their photos taken by a smart-looking wedding party in front of a large screen depicting half a dozen stern monochrome portraits of official and military characters who have been awarded the medal of Hero of the Revolution. The benevolent image of the Trans-Siberian Festival’s genial artistic director, Vadim Repin, on the other hand is colourfully depicted opposite the park on large banners outside the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Society’s Chamber Hall.

Back to the hotel to brush off the dust and pick up the thread of some work I’m doing for a project at the end of June – I try to do some every day – and suddenly it’s 8.30pm. I don’t normally eat in the hotel but the restaurant attached – it’s fetchingly called Beerman & Grill – looks good, and is. The Russian beer certainly helps with sleep.


Saturday 5th

I’ve agreed to be interviewed by Channel 94 TV (one of the few that doesn’t appear on the hotel television) together with John Mills who is leading the orchestra on this trip. In the absence of a lawyer Pauline (General Manager) joins us to make sure we don’t say anything untoward or that would drive a wedge between Anglo-Soviet relations, and Natasha from the Philharmonic Society interprets. Fortunately the interview is recorded for transmission early tomorrow, and John and I exchange pleasantries with the charming host of the morning show. The impossibly small studio is decked out in traditional breakfast TV colours – peach and pale green – and the interviewer says I look like a distinguished member of the Politburo. I don’t ask if it’s a compliment in case I’m disappointed. By the time we’re back at the hotel it’s time to meet the concerts manager Tom for an early visit to the hall – him to set out the orchestra, me to make sure the local timpani are what we expect and hope for.

We rehearse tomorrow’s programme – the Schumann ‘cello concerto, Chopin piano concerto, and Beethoven’s really excellent 2nd symphony – in a noisy rehearsal room that is part of a larger concert hall building. The most significant factor in how we play is the room – its size and how resonant or dry it is – and a room like this with hard wood walls and floor and a tall ceiling bounces the sound back to us sharply and makes it noisy to rehearse in and difficult to hear detail. The science of concert hall acoustics is very advanced now (go and hear a performance at the Guildhall School of Music’s new Milton Court and you’ll hear a sound that isn’t bettered anywhere in the UK), and it’s a pity that this relatively new (2013) building still has acoustics that are deceptive in this room at least. We’ll see what the main hall is like tomorrow. The building’s benefactor Arnold Katz’ 4 times life-size portrait looks down on the orchestra discouragingly.

Nicolai Lugansky is flying in from goodness knows where and lands at 5.15pm making it to the rehearsal just in time for the Chopin concerto. He’s such an accomplished pianist – technically perfectly secure and musically completely prepared – that the notes (and there are plenty of them in this florid piece) fall effortlessly from the rather inadequate and out of tune piano. Fingers crossed (except Lugansky’s) for a Steinway tomorrow.


Sunday 6th

As it’s Sunday I’m off to visit Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Despite its magnificent large gold covered dome and fair sized building footprint (as we must now call a building’s area on the ground) the interior is comfortably small and there are worshippers everywhere, entering, leaving, grouped round one particular chapel, lighting a candle in another, and to a simple non-conformist Protestant boy the personal ceremonies of the Russian Orthodox Church seem complex. A group of three parishioners – a soprano, a mezzo and a baritone – leads the worship with two priests, but only the priests are dressed ecclesiastically in simple blue robes; the 3-part choir blends with the small congregation in everyday clothes. The lack of formality contrasts with most English ecclesiastical traditions; with all the coming and going the mezzo-soprano is called out to help out with candle sales and the now 2-part chants continue as well as before. It’s clear from the outside the central place the church has in Russia: this beautiful place of an ancient faith is perched between a Soviet monument in the middle of the road on one side and the twin pairs of parallel tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway on the other.

And on the way back I actually manage to cross the road to see at close range Vladimir Lenin’s statue. After all these years he still looks optimistic but his accompanying figures rather than a hammer and sickle are holding a torch (knowledge perhaps?) and an olive branch (peace surely).

After lunch it’s back to the Arnold Katz concert hall, this time in the main room. From the back of the orchestra everything is audible, but distant rather than intimate. Even with the best conductors we still rely for good ensemble on what we hear and this large hall with a quite strong resonance takes some adjusting to, but everyone seems happy with the result. The back stage crew insist that we arrive on stage simultaneously, and for the beginning of the concert we do to some good applause from the full house. And the concert? Well, you had to be there. But as you weren’t, Lugansky was flawless and topped off the concerto with an encore of even more dazzling technical display in another Chopin œuvre; Mario Brunello attacked the Schumann concerto with gusto and brilliance, but his encore completely changes the atmosphere with a most extraordinary and breath-taking performance of an ancient Armenian folk melody. You should have been there. But of course you weren’t. Where were you anyway? Not satisfied with that, piano and ‘cello played (allegedly unrehearsed) the slow movement from Rachmaninov’s sonata. If that was unrehearsed what on earth would it have sounded like if they’d put aside ten minutes to prepare?

The ECO is brilliant at accompanying – you know that – but the second half of the concert was for the orchestra to show what it’s made of. Sugar and spice and slugs and snails mostly. No really, the Beethoven symphony was terrific. They liked it so much we played half of the last movement again. The second half, since you ask. And as the icing on the cake or the gilt on the gingerbread or both, we had a very nice reception afterwards hosted by the Festival. If there’s one thing guaranteed to keep an orchestra happy it’s the offer of free food and drink. Concert promoters, are you listening? What made it special was not just the delish canapés and wine, it was the charming speech by Vadim Repin – it sounded as though the best part of the evening for him was not having to play, but he seemed genuinely touched not only by the soloists’ playing but by the orchestra’s superb contribution. Which was nice.

Back to the hotel for most of us although quite a few are really keen on maintaining their UK time zone. I would think a 6am turn-in should be about right for them.


Monday 7th

I’ve been invited to give a masterclass at the Novosibirsk Conservatoire this morning, and I’m meeting my host, Dmitry, at 11.15am. He is a 3rd year (of 4) percussion student and turned up at yesterday’s rehearsal apologising for his poor English. It’s actually very good. At least he doesn’t stop his glottals. (I would like to draw this to the attention of our parliamentarians who believe they will be better loved, or even loved at all, if they choke off their consonants: “employmen’”, “gonna” – it makes them sound so ordinary. There.) We drive via the Conservatoire itself where we collect one or two extra instruments, and on to Dmitry’s former high school which has better instruments he says. Everyone is charming and full of questions that are fielded by a helpfully fluent bi-lingual double-bass player who even wonders where my Liverpool accent went. The instruments both here and in the conservatoire are not what you might call factory-fresh, but there is some very neat and thoughtful playing and I try and help with some technical and musical advice. I’d love to spend a week with them, hearing more and listening to their aspirations and finding out what motivates them. I stay longer than planned so no time for lunch and we leave for today’s venue 45 minutes’ drive away.

It’s difficult to tell from the road signs but I think we’re in Akademgorodok, a 1950s town specially built to house Soviet academics, and the concert hall where we play is new - 2 years old – and like many concert halls world wide it has to perform many functions. Its design is principally theatrical, and black drapes and backcloths drop from behind a proscenium arch soaking up all the resonance and the ECO sound, leaving it dry and difficult to play in. So, cue extra fuller sounds and turn up the expression to 11 and I think we have it. The great reward for the audience is the appearance of their local hero and international star Vadim Repin, and his performance of Prokofiev’s 2nd violin concerto delights them. No encores tonight, not even a duduk solo from Mario Brunelli, and we’re on the bus back to Hotel Novosibirsk.

The question now is, to stay awake or grab some sleep. It’s a 4.30am departure from the hotel tomorrow so you can see the dilemma. Most seem to opt for remaining in UK time and no doubt spend the few night hours in worthwhile activities. One of the ‘cellists next morning appears particularly happy with his decision to stay up. Call me boring – go ahead – but I’ll feel better tomorrow for at least a handful of sleep.


Tuesday 8th

Up betimes as Shakespeare said (oh, yes he did. Actually it’s probably a view with which ECO colleagues would concur: “…not to be abed after midnight is to be up betimes…”; Twelfth Night, 2:3), and everyone is vaguely awake. The journey to the airport, check-in, departure to Moscow, all pass in a blur and now we have three hours in Sheremetyevo airport. My daughter who has flown through here many times between Beijing and London recommends TGI Friday’s. Well, maybe. I’ve been trying to think in terms of UK time ever since we began the journey which means we left at 10.30pm yesterday and now is time for breakfast, but I’ve been up seven hours already. Time possibly to reflect. What have I brought back from Siberia? Well, there was a nice party bag from the Festival when we arrived on, gosh, was it only Thursday evening? Actually I think party bags are the way forward for music festivals. I now have a Trans-Siberian T-shirt (size XXL), a very heavy Festival book of personalities and events, a shiny new ball point pen, an ‘All Areas’ pass, and a Vadim Repin coffee mug that will sit nicely next to my Richard III mug. Edinburgh and Salzburg take note.

Actually, it was unforgettable. To visit somewhere you would never usually consider is an adventure. The world is of course full of people like us – working, studying, making a living, complaining about politicians, bringing up a family – but in Novosibirsk they do it against a background of historical drama and a struggle for personal and social identity in an isolated corner of a vast country, and in a city which sits poised and balanced on a narrow strip of railway line that joins Europe with the Pacific Far East. The city is proud of its past; the railway station, the westwards-facing statue of Lenin, and the cathedral are crucial to its spirit, and remoteness, leadership and faith are important elements in its nature. From this central point those students I had the great good fortune to meet are looking out on the world with optimism and seeing its possibilities like new Russian heroes, and are ready to play their part in the opportunities presented by Novosibirsk and the wider world.

Oh, and that dust? Apparently the snow that is pretty continuous during the winter months brings down with it tons of dust particles from the atmosphere, and when the snow disappears and the ice melts, all that is left is dust. Then on May 1st (a most important day in Russia – you knew that – and a public holiday) everyone turns out and sweeps the streets clean. Brilliant. So if, or rather, when you visit Novosibirsk make it any time from May 2nd onwards. Or better still, arrive on April 30th and bring a brush.