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Conversations in Words & Song with the Masters

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

As the morning arrived on the opening day of the Saint Petersburg part of the project, Alexandria, Emelia, Ugne, Jonathan and Liam had absolutely no time to think about their jet lag, or that back home in London it was barely 6am. Their minds were focused that in just a few minutes all their hard work would be scrutinised by one of Russia’s top singers and soloist of the Mariinsky Opera, Olga Trifonova in the music salon of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s apartment on Saint Petersburg’s famous Zagorodniy Prospekt.

A peep inside Rimsky-Korsakov's Apartment, now a State Museum, on Zagorodniy Prospekt.

Trifonova had already been in touch to find out which repertoire the students wanted to present to her. That awfully long silence on the other end of the phone when I had told her the list of songs and romances we had been working on will be difficult to forget.


Arias – that is where you develop the voice and demonstrate that you can use it. The Romance, that is very difficult. That is where you announce that you are indeed a Master. When Valeri Gergiev is looking to cast an artist for a particular role he never listens to arias. He knows: he goes straight for the Romance,’ was her stern reply.


Alexandria Wreggelsworth, in partnership with her pianists Emelia Noack-Wilkinson and Ugne Vazgileviciute, were first up with some demanding Romances by Rimsky-Korsakov, followed by that great psychological drama – Benjamin Britten’s ‘Poet’s Echo’. Liam Bonthrone and Jonathan de Garis had brought a mix of Taneyev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and some rather eclectic Ippolitov-Ivanov.

Hardly had they started that it became clear that all would be well. Trifonova’s posture relaxed and she looked over at me with that distinct Russian shrug that says, ‘not bad at all!’

Trifonova could not have had any higher praise for the level of technical accomplishment and skill from all three singers, nor their two pianists.

Touching on a few tricky moments she spoke with them as with equals, urging them not to get weighed down by thinking about doing the ‘right thing’, but instead to respect and trust their own bodies – ‘singing is chemistry.’ For the pianists, to remember that they were the psychological drama that embodies all the unsung emotions of the vocalists. The language she felt was impeccably prepared – sung with native-like ease and clarity.

Here are a few bits of advice and encouragement that they were offered, that you might enjoy:


Brining out the emotions of these gems – that is all that matters. You must take yourself to the edge. If it doesn’t begin to feel dangerous, it cannot be sincere.

Your eyes can’t lie. I can hear you are trying to say it, but I can see from your eyes that you don’t mean it from your heart.

The most wonderful thing about Romances are that they are like brilliant cut diamonds. You shine your light through them here, or here, or like this… and whatever you do it is endlessly beautiful. So don’t fixate yourselves on one idea. You must have the confidence to know you will illuminate the room with brilliance no matter what path of light your interpretation traces.


Maestra Olga Trifonova with Guildhall School musicians under the watchful gaze of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

A quick lunch of traditional Russian ‘bogatyr blinis’ with tea, and it was back for more. This time, with Andrei Slavniy, a former soloist and now the Dean of the Vocal Department at the State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory.

Saint Petersburg is a small city and one in which rumours spread quickly. As Maestro Slavniy slipped almost unnoticed into the music salon he warned:

Right, well the operatic charm you mustered this morning is all well and good, but now let’s see how you condense everything right down to its essence – how simply, and yet with integrity, you can capture its soul. Essence, not brilliance is what captivates the salon.

The dynamic of the masterclass indeed traced different paths that afternoon. Impressed by the professionalism and preparation of all the students the conversations very quickly settled into a collegial tone. Maestro Slavniy’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the repertoire reflected an entire career dedicated to championing the complete oeuvre of Russian Romances in the concert hall and on record. He drilled down to fine details within the score, but also gave many invaluable insights into how tradition has swept some of these aside. Of particular importance to him was to coax the students to sustain each sound far more than they would for German lied.

Tackling ends of phrases, he demonstrated how dovetailed opulence in the texture needs to sit alongside exaggerated breaks creating that tense ‘musical silence’ that is so integral to the psychological drama of these Romances.


Don’t forget,’ he pleaded, ‘these are sketches for the great operas. Sketches, not canvases – but nevertheless intense and rich. The more compressed the space for the composer to speak, the more distilled and concentrated he demands your emotional landscape to be.


Maestro Slavniy with the Guildhall School musicians at the end of a thrilling survey of Russian song

As they gathered up their things at the end of this exhausting day, Slavniy wished them good luck and good rest for their recital the following evening. With this came perhaps the greatest compliment of all – ‘Don’t be nervous. I’ll be there in the audience to support you, colleagues.’

I would like to #thank, both from myself and on behalf of the students, Professor Sir Barry Ife and Dr Trudi Darby their support that made it possible for Ali, Emelia, Ugne, Jonathan and Liam to come to Saint Petersburg for this experience, which in their words was 'a bit of paradise'.

@BarryIfe @GuildhallSchool @BritishCouncil

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