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To Russia, with Song!

In just a few days I'll be travelling to Russia to perform as a soloist, with some wonderful colleagues... and with reinforcements!

Back in 2019 I had blissfully filtered out of my mind how terrifying it might be for someone who has never spoken a word of Russian to brave Cyrillic and sing Russian to the Russians...

Yet, rumour has it that when the Guildhall School of Music & Drama announced that it would go along with my somewhat insane optimism, the list of fearless volunteers was rather long!

For several months I began to stir up plans for an ambitious collaborative project between the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the State Saint Petersburg Museum for Theatre and Music. The aim: to lift the two countries out of the recent fog of recent political fallouts by reinvigorating awareness of the longstanding fascination that the UK and Russia have shared for each other’s culture.

The tools for this mammoth undertaking: the coming together of words and music through that humblest of means – song. Working in bilateral partnership with the world-renowned Mariinsky Opera and the State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory of Music, the week long collaborative festival envisaged the coming together of Russian and British musicians to perform Russian music inspired by British text, and British music set to Russian words.

Preparations for the project began with such zeal that it garnered the support from the British Council and the British Embassy in Moscow to become one of the handful of official events in the highly competitive programme of Year of Music UK-Russia.

In the autumn of 2019 that fearless list of volunteers at the Guildhall School was whittled down to five Masters students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – vocalists Alexandria Wregglesworth, Jonathan de Garis, and Liam Bonthrone; and pianists Emelia Noack-Wilkinson and Ugne Vazgileviciute.

L-R Emelia Noack-Wilkinson (piano), Jonathan De Garis (baritone), Ugne Vazgileviciute (piano), Alexandria Wreggelsworth (soprano), Liam Bonthrone (tenor) 

© Paul Cochrane

Behind the scenes I took them through intense schedule of Russian-language and song coaching to tackled some of the most iconic treasures of this repertoire such as Benjamin Britten’s ‘Poet’s Echo’ set to Alexander Pushkin, and the romances of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky and Miliy Balakirev set to Lord Byron and Percival Shelley. Alongside these they prepared some rare, neglected gems of the repertoire that in all likelihood would be as unknown to audiences of the ‘Venice of the North’ as they had been to them – the Shakespeare Sonnets of Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, the romances of Sergei Taneyev and Cesar Cui.

Having had a ‘dry-run’ of the programme – and received many seals of approval from Russian-speaking well-wishers – at London’s Steinway Hall, the students are all set to board their flight that will take them on their first footing on Russian soil, and their first experience of its language and its culture!

Soaking up well-earned applause from the concert at London's Steinway Hall.

And so, in just a few days time: reigniting the love the love-affair between poetry, music, Russia and the UK (and just in time for the new decade’s first Valentine’s Day) the project moves from London to Saint Petersburg.

Saint Petersburg is the spiritual heartland of the Russian romance. It is the city that gathered together that famous 'Mighty Handful' (Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin) sit around the samovar to sip tea from decorative porcelain saucers with teaspoons of jam as they poured their heads over the setting of music and word. It is therefore such an honour that this project joins the culmination of the city’s celebration Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 175th Anniversary.

Vladimir Makovsky, Lovers of Nightingales (1873) around a samovar, oil on canvas

Once in Russia, for a brief moment I can take a back-seat these exceptionally talented students will take part in a day of masterclasses with Russia’s celebrated Mariinsky Soloists Olga Trifonova and Andrei Slavniy in the very apartment of Rimsky-Korsakov in Saint Petersburg. Then, putting their newly-gained inspiration into action they move to the stunning historical Theatre Museum in the heart of the city to perform this song with the help of (pianists - get ready to be very jealous!)... Piotr Tchaikovsky’s piano!

Follow how these Russian adventures unfold on this blog!


Other events in the project 'A Voice Between Nations: Intersections of Russian & British Word and Music' include chamber music performances; an international conference curated by myself and Dr Lidia Ader (Senior Researcher at the State Rimsky-Korsakov Museum in Russia) with keynotes by the world-renowned specialist in Russian song and literature, Professor Philip Bullock from the University of Oxford, and Professor Olga Manulkina from the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory and Faculty of the Liberal Arts of the Saint Petersburg University; and a performance of Russian song – Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov and Medtner – in the Sheremetev Palace with Mariinsky Soloists Ekaterina Shimanovich and Natalia Evstafyeva accompanied by the stellar Scottish pianist and BBC Radio 3 broadcaster Iain Burnside, and myself.

This ambitious project is greatly indebted to its supporters, in particular a grant from the British Council and British Embassy in Moscow; and the Cross-Language Dynamics project through AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative. The visit of Guildhall School students to Saint Petersburg for this project would have been impossible without the incredible generosity and enthusiasm of Professor Sir Barry Ife CBE and Dr Trudi Darby.

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