St. Petersburg: May 2016
Beth Weisser Helgeson

At the very end of May, Talea had a whirlwind trip into St. Petersburg to play at the Mariinsky Concert Hall as part of the reMusik Festival. What the trip lacked in length (we were there for just slightly less than 48 hours) was made up for in intensity. It was an incredible experience and we were overwhelmed by the hospitality and reception we received.

We arrived in shifts. Cellist John Popham and I got there first in the early afternoon. After getting through the airport, we met some wonderful representatives from the festival who got us to the Ambassador Hotel in the old city center where we did a fast turn around to embark on our plan: Mission Hermitage. Basically, the plan was to walk to the Hermitage Museum and see it. And we did! It was about a 25 minute walk from where we were staying on Rimsky-Korsakov Prospekt and it was stunning- everything everyone says about it and more. If you’re redecorating, this is far superior inspiration to the IKEA or CB2 catalogues. Room after room with totally different floors, walls, ceilings, precious metals- so much to look at and that’s even before the art, which is spectacular. I’m pretty sure we did a 10K in the museum alone just to try to see everything before they closed so we left there feeling a little exhausted but mostly energized by the entire experience thus far.

We arrived back at the hotel just in time to greet the second Talea shift. No matter how weary we felt from the seven hour time difference, everyone looked stunning with the backdrop of elaborate chandeliers and fresh flowers everywhere in this lobby. Some people chose to rest or walk around while others made a dinner plan. For those of us who decided to go for the dinner option, we headed to Severyanin (bottom left photo-, a charming place serving very traditional Russian food. Pelmini (dumplings), borcht, bird cherry noodles with beef ragout, and of course, vodka! As a bonus, we found ourselves treated to a poetry reading by both people from the restaurant and patrons. It was delightful but quite a bit for our jetlagged brains to handle so we finished up dessert and headed out for a walk across the Griboyedov Canal and over to the Yusupovskiy Park near our hotel.

Despite the fact that it was nearly 10 pm (bottom center photo) it was still quite light. A lot of people were on the lawn having picnics and relaxing. We were about a month away from the official White Lights, but the sun set after 10 pm and rose around 4 am so our window to get vitamin D and a suntan was certainly greater than in New York.

The next day’s itinerary for the majority of the group was a morning rehearsal and a dress rehearsal in the afternoon. I wasn’t in the piece that was being rehearsed in the morning so I woke up early to take in as much as I could see before the dress rehearsal. Following the elaborate breakfast on the top floor of the hotel overlooking the beautiful city, I headed out to walk around and see the cathedrals, gardens, forts and the birthplace of the city. It was incredible to be surrounded by so much history and although I was walking nearly continuously for five hours (during which I saw a very small portion of this large city), the discoveries at each corner turned kept me going.

Then I headed to Mariinsky to meet with the rest of the band for dress rehearsal. While I found the hall easily on my own, finding the Talea Ensemble within the hall proved to be a bigger challenge, highlighting some deficiencies in Duolingo’s offerings. While I could easily say “Hi”, “Thanks”, “Borscht” and “You’re not my mom” in Russian, I didn’t have the words to ask how to find my people. Thus a few rounds of charades ensued. Charades: the real universal language.

The hall, with over 1000 seats, sounded amazing. Every sound we made, no matter how subtle, was clear. And the hall was full for the concert! We offered a program of Georg Friedrich Haas’s tria ex uno, Carter’s Triple Duo, and Timothy Dunne’s For B (Oiseaux Pétrifiés) and ended with Pierluigi Billone’s Δίκη Wall. The Billone was quite an interesting experience because the audience didn’t know what to expect, seeing musicians spread out on stage with Percussionist Alex Lipowski in the center with a gong strapped to his chest, but at the end of this thirty-minute work, the audience was transfixed which they demonstrated with a standing ovation and many curtain calls.

I ran back to the hotel after the concert before the reception and arrived at the reception a few blocks away from the hall along with reMusik’s Artistic Director, Mehdi Hosseini. The rest of Talea had still not arrived and after about ten minutes of being there, Mehdi learned the delay was for the van drivers to have a mini photo shoot with the ensemble. Everyone at the reception was so kind and it was such a pleasure to speak to other members of the community, composers and people associated with the festival.

We left St. Petersburg the next morning feeling like we hadn’t had enough time to enjoy what the city had to offer, but also with great admiration of what reMusik brings to the community every year. We extend heartfelt gratitude to Mehdi and the reMusik Festival for an amazing experience.