In Veliky Novgorod, a small city in northwest Russia, a packed concert hall clapped at full force in perfect synchrony. The European-style ovation started scattered, then aligned into forceful, coordinated beats that seemed almost mechanical and inhuman in their steadiness. The clapping was unfamiliar to the nearly five dozen members of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, but its implication was clear. We plunged into our encore pieces in response.
The orchestra had just finished the first concert on its summer 2017 tour of Russia. We began in Novgorod, a small city and UNESCO World Heritage Site south of St. Petersburg. Over 11 days, the orchestra performed its way across western Russia, with one concert in each of four cities: Novgorod, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Yaroslavl.
The applause in Novgorod seemed counter to the endless stories we’d heard of tensions between Russia and America. That we, as Americans, could safely enter and exit Russia seemed unfeasible, given headlines about strained relations between Russia and the U.S., Russian influence on the 2016 election and the April subway bombing in St. Petersburg, which left 15 dead and more than 45 wounded. Our itinerary promised palaces, museums and Tchaikovsky, but the news portrayed a different, more dangerous Russia.
Our visa application process made Russia seem even more inaccessible. One week prior to our departure we learned our already-delayed humanitarian visa application process would be further postponed. Everything had to be done the way the visa center wanted, but we were still uncertain about what exactly that entailed. We had prepared a program to perform on tour, but would our music ever make it to the concert halls of Russia?
When it seemed we might never be able to enter the country, the visas finally came through — just one day before our scheduled Aeroflot flight from JFK to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The beige visa sticker occupied a whole U.S. passport page, and was complete with a grainy photo — head tilted at just the right angle, no glasses, no smile — printed above personal information translated into the Cyrillic alphabet.
Onstage at the first concert in Novgorod, we finished our encore pieces, which included 20th-century American composer Copland’s joyful and rustic “Hoedown” from “Rodeo.” As the scent of cigarettes wafted forward from somewhere backstage, a local woman swooshed onto the stage in a floor-length traditional costume. She presented the orchestra with gifts of appreciation, including an intricately woven loaf of bread. A translator explained that the gift of the loaf symbolized happiness and wealth, but the gratitude the woman expressed for the music we performed required no words.
“You see,” our tour guide told us as we boarded the bus after the concert, “The language barrier is not so important when you have your music.”
We drove away from the Novgorod Kremlin, or fortified city center, where the concert hall was located. The gleaming rounded domes of the Cathedral of St. Sophia adorned the Kremlin, towering over a massive bronze monument to over one hundred Russian historical figures. Just outside the Kremlin walls flowed the Volkhov River, reflecting the pale orange sunset clouds and still blue late evening sky, characteristic of Northern Russia in the summer.
As we passed these landmarks — concert hall, church, monument and river — the purpose of our trip became clear. We traveled to share our music and learn about Russian art, architecture and history. Our music created a passageway not only across the language barrier, but also into Russian culture, separate from politics — the part of Russia not featured in today’s news.
We worried our Russian audiences wouldn’t like our playing. Russians are generally considered more discerning classical listeners than Americans, especially regarding Russian music. During rehearsals in New Haven in the weeks leading up to the tour, YSO Music Director Toshiyuki Shimada jokingly threatened tomatoes as punishment for a poor interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in Russia. With Tchaikovsky, just as with the visa process, we had to try proceeding the Russian way.
Perhaps the Novgorod audience’s positive response was in part due to the familiarity of the music. When we began our encore piece “Waltz of the Flowers” from Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker,” we didn’t introduce the piece, but instead leapt into the opening phrase. Applause of recognition immediately rippled across the hall during the first flourish of the harp.
We received the same warm response at our other three concerts. Just a few distinct chords of a notably Russian piece in both composer and genre of ballet were enough to merit our audience’s applause. The clapping seemed to mean not only that the audience knew the music, but also that they thanked us for devoting ourselves to its performance, and travelling over 4,000 miles to share it.
Even in the cultural center of St. Petersburg, where we expected a more critical audience, our Tchaikovsky Symphony drew raucous approval. The audience in Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University’s White Hall stood and waved to us as we left the stage, and some audience members even held out programs for us to autograph as we exited. A young girl collected signatures and darted back to show off the program to her parents. On our way down the main staircase, listeners milling about the lobby and waiting in line at the coat check cheered, as though we were celebrities on a red carpet.
In Moscow, however, we were the star-struck ones. We performed in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory, which boasts scores of world-renowned alumni in composition, performance and teaching. Outside the hall stood a statue of Tchaikovsky, whose Fifth Symphony we’d devoted ourselves to, and inside, portraits of great composers gazed down from the walls above the balcony.
Tchaikovsky’s looming portrait seemed to scrutinize our performance on the stage of the Great Hall. Our time spent as tourists in the city also felt scrutinized; in Russia, officials stop people at will and demand to check for passports, visas and migration cards. In Moscow, the threat of being stopped for simply appearing foreign felt real with many police officials patrolling the streets.
We never ran into a political conflict, but we never forgot how close we were to that possibility. When we visited the Moscow Kremlin, we strolled past a workplace of the Russian president. Someone asked, “Is he really in there?” to which a tour guide answered, “Mr. Putin could be there, but probably not right now.” But without any further mention of government buildings and the president’s offices, we were promptly escorted to massive ornamental bronze monuments — the Tsar Cannon and Tsar Bell — and a beautifully painted cathedral complete with shimmering icons covering every wall and ceiling space.
On a sleepy bus ride back to our hotel in Moscow, our tour guide asked several musicians if our families were nervous about the trip, given what she called “rumors” about Russian politics. Whether or not the media portrays fact or fiction, perhaps a trip to Russia was cause for concern. We traveled safely, but about a week after we left, opposition protests erupted in Moscow. In July, the U.S. Congress placed economic sanctions on Russia, to which Russia responded by downsizing the number of U.S. diplomats and associated workers permitted in Russia, escalating tension between the two nations.
Despite foreign relations, we could bypass political turmoil and focus on art because we traveled for music. In a small field sprinkled with dandelions between a monastery and a still lake that stretched across the Novgorod landscape, global politics could not be further away. As I gazed from a drawbridge at the glittering baroque facades of St. Petersburg caught in yellow lamplight, international strife felt just as distant. And when the orchestra played together on stage one last time on tour, the elegant final chords of the “Waltz of the Flowers” brought our visit to its end, in a Russian farewell to Russia.