Moscow: Galina, Oleg, Dasha, Nadia, Natasha, Natalia


Russian Federation

September 16, 2011

Dear Family and Friends,

Eight years ago, on a bus ride from the Thai beach resort of Hua Hin to Bangkok, I met Galina and her teenage daughter Christina.  Galina spoke no English, but Christina spoke a little.   I learned they lived in Moscow and were headed for the Russian embassy in Bangkok.  Galina’s husband was an officer in the Russian Navy.

Over the years Christina and I corresponded.  When she was at University, she invited me to visit Moscow to teach a course in English.  One summer, I helped Christina find a place to live with my friends in New York City.

Of course, Christina was delighted that I finally decided to visit Russia.   And of course, she was not in Moscow.  She had already graduated from University and was taking additional courses in Washington, DC.  But she gave me her parents’ email address.  And so I met Galina and Oleg on the very first evening of my stay in Moscow.  (We corresponded by using Google translation tools.)

Galina and Oleg are proud of their city and they wanted to be sure that I enjoyed every moment.  We took the Metro (underground subway) to Red Square where they pointed out all the major sites: Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the Lenin Mausoleum and the GUM department store.   Outside the square we witnessed the changing of the guard at the Russian version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  Then we traveled again through the city for the highlight of my evening.


(Oleg and I discovered that we both knew a few words in German.  So our communication improved ein bisschen.) 

The Tchaikovsky Concert Hall featured the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra with Yuri Simonov, Artistic Director and Chief Conductor.  The demanding program opened with Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) Symphonie Fantastique (1830).  After the intermission the orchestra continued with Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) Pictures at an Exhibition.  This piece was originally composed for virtuoso solo piano but in 1922, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) arranged the piece for symphony orchestra.  The fitting conclusion of the evening was Ravel’s La Vase (1920).   Did I say conclusion?  The orchestra played not one, not two, but three encores – one by each composer.

The Tchaikovsky Concert Hall is neither large nor ornate.  In fact it is quite simple in design.   The seats in the auditorium are arranged in a semi-circle and they span up and around, and rise to the very top with no balconies or overhangs.   The feeling is spacious and airy.  Everyone has an excellent view of the stage.  And, oh, the acoustics! 

Our seats were about fifteen rows up and slightly off to the left side.  I had a clear view of the entire orchestra.  With a few exceptions, to these old eyes, I was watching and listening to a very young group.  But could they play! 

Just to my left the two harpists articulated their notes and glissandi with dignity and flair.  The timpanist displayed a technique I don’t think I have ever seen.  He anticipated his notes by bringing his arms down, hesitating a moment, then striking the skin. 

The energetic, female principal flutist and her equally energetic female oboist partner played together as if they had practiced in the womb.  I heard every note of the English horn and the oboe as they called to each other in initial contemplation, yet final sadness and loss, in the Berlioz.  (The oboe was properly placed high up in the last row of the auditorium.)

How many percussion instruments are there in a symphony orchestra?  Ravel found them all.  A noisy, yet precise and musical crowd of bells, Chinese gong, glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, tam tam, rattle, whip, cymbals, triangle, castanets, bass drums, snare drums, tympani.  

How may brass instruments in an orchestra?  Ravel hired them all.  A bold mass of trumpets, trombones, French horns, bass trombones, tubas. 

Did you know I played bassoon?  Emphasis on ed.  As a reed man I always pay particular attention to the woodwind section.  Ravel does as well.  Besides the usual complement of two each of oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon, Ravel added piccolo, soprano clarinet, bass clarinet and contrabassoon.  With the marvelous acoustics, I could here every note of the normally (as my musician cousin Art Finstein would say) “soft spoken” bass clarinet and contrabassoon.  Finally, a real anomaly: alto saxophone.  Ravel was a Twentieth Century man, after all.

I haven’t mentioned the strings.  Not one slouch in the expanded choir of violin, viola, cello and double bass.  The ensemble was playful, serious and always, always, perfect.   As was their conductor.

Laszlo Fecske, my good friend from Miami is fastidious with regard to musical nomenclature.  He insists, for example, that the term “maestro” not be applied to an accomplished concert pianist or even to a tenor of international renown.  “Maestro” is reserved for the Master of the Band….The Master who commands with authority and grace, gravity and gaiety.  The Master goads, coaxes and demands that each member play his or her very best, performance after performance, night after night.

With his thick mane of white, Yuri Simonov, 71, presides over the orchestra as an aging yet athletic field marshal.  I had to force myself to look away from his arms and hands and flying baton to find the players or section of the moment.  And after he took his bow and left the podium, his gait, his strut really, was one of a proud father who had just witnessed his children perform a miracle.  Had Laszlo been with me in Moscow, he would have acknowledged that Simonov is il maestro di tutti i maestri.   And along with the appreciative audience that night, Laszlo would have cried “бис, biss,” another word he taught me, that translates to encore!

After the concert (almost three hours long!), Oleg and Galina introduced me to Kasha, a friend of their daughter.   When Kasha learned that I adored Russian pancakes, she invited me for dinner the following evening.   The next day, when she called to confirm, she asked if she could bring two of her friends.  On the telephone, she could sense that I was reluctant (terrified) to take the Moscow Metro alone so she and Natasha and Nadia met me at my hotel.   At first glance, Nadia and Natasha appeared to be more than friends.  Sisters maybe?   Then I looked closely.  They are twins!  Identical!!     

The four of us had a great time.  Dasha chose The Kazan Pancake Hut, with an international menu:  Italian cheese and tomato salad, Ukrainian borscht, Russian-Siberian pelmeni (dumplings, ravioli), and finally, pancakes…drenched in chocolate sauce.  (BTW, I learned to order “voda minerale gaz.”) 

Even though the twins’ English was limited, Dasha demanded that I tell some jokes.  I had to dig deep into my memory bank from my days as a Training Director.  I came up with the one about the American football player, his young wife, and the hotel manager, with the punch line from the manager, “Would you believe I am waiting for a train?”… and another one about the flying insect carving contest between the chefs from Germany, England and France that ends with the punch line in a French accent, “It lives, it lives, mais oui, but it will never love again.”  Even with Dasha’s translation into Russian, the Twins howled.  

After dinner we saw a bit of Moscow at Night:  the brilliantly lit Christ the Savior Cathedral (Moscow saved from Napoleon), the pedestrian bridge over the Moscow River, and the multi-colored Moscow skyline.

What a blast in Moscow!  Galina and Oleg were so generous and understanding.   Dasha and the Twins were attentive and enthusiastic companions. 

Finally, I must add a very big “thank you” to Natalia Esselevich who works at a travel agency in the hotel where I stayed.   She was enormously helpful. 

My new friend Natalia is a serious singer-songwriter who is determined “to be famous.”  She gave me a copy of her CD, The World of Dreams.  I can say that I know Nat Essel now; and one day, you will too.

Ян Полачек

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