DESPITE A LANGUAGE BARRIER, TWO PEORIA MUSICIANS ARE A SUCCESS IN RUSSIA
October 30, 1994
Editor's note: Peoria Symphony Orchestra conductor William Wilsen and concertmaster Marcia Henry last week returned from Samara, Russia, where both performed with the Samara Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra as part of a cultural exchange organized by Bradley University. Following is Henry's account of the visit.
Samara, Russia, is not a city visited by many travelers. It is located about 600 miles southeast of Moscow on the Volga River. Formerly known as Kuybyshev, the city of about 1.5 million used to be a closed city because of its aerospace industry.
Our travel to Samara included a flight from Chicago to Amsterdam, changing planes and continuing on to Moscow, then catching a train for a bumpy 19-hour trip to Samara.
In Samara, very few people speak English or any language other than Russian, but Bill (Wilsen) and I were very lucky to have an excellent interpreter, Olga, for all of our rehearsals, meals and social events.
The Samara Philharmonic Orchestra is a state-supported orchestra and the musicians earn their meager living playing in the orchestra. Their salary is approximately $50 to $100 per month, but their housing is provided by the government -- and $100 in Russia goes a lot further than in the United States.
The musicians' salaries are slightly better than some of the common workers' -- especially since they are receiving their pay, unlike the other workers, who supposedly have not received pay since August.
Very few of the people in Samara own cars. The only one we knew who does told us he bought his car about three years ago for 9,000 rubles. Currently, with the ruble devaluation, 9,000 rubles has a value of less than $3! I went to Samara with a bit of trepidation because of the language barrier, and my uncertainty of their reaction to Americans coming in to "take over" their orchestra for a week. Fortunately, all of my fears disappeared quickly.
At our first rehearsal, some of the musicians spoke to me in broken English, and a few tried German, since the only Russian I could manage was "da" and "nyet" (`yes" and "no"). From the beginning, they were hospitable and eager to please. Soon I realized that they were very much like musicians everywhere.
I have traveled a lot in the United States and have come to the conclusion that in every orchestra, the cast of characters is the same, but with different names. Now I know that is true in Russia, too! Several orchestra members I became more familiar with included the concertmaster, a man of 63 who has been in the Samara Philharmonic for 36 years and who also teaches at the Fine Arts Institute for college-age students; the principal bass player, a very gregarious man full of vigor who is 75 and has been in the orchestra for 45 years, and who reportedly swims in the cold water of the Volga River late into the fall season (the Volga freezes in December!); and Elena, a violinist, and her husband, Nick, a bassoonist.
Elena and Nick really adopted me! Each day they brought small gifts to me as souvenirs of Samara. These included chocolate bars from the local candy factory, picture cards of the town, a calendar with photos of the Kremlin, a pin of young Lenin and a beautiful khokhloma spoon (a folk- painting craft). They also asked me to mail letters in the United States to friends of theirs in Urbana, which I happily agreed to do.
One big difference between this orchestra and full-time orchestral musicians in the United States is that the Russians rarely move from job to job as we Americans do. Housing is complicated for them, so they tend to stay put, whereas in the United States, it is not unusual for musicians to audition for jobs and move quite often.
Another difference is in the funding of their orchestra. Since theirs is government- supported, they do not raise nearly as much money as our orchestra does. Approximately 90 percent of their budget comes from the government, 9 percent from ticket sales and 1 percent from contributions, as compared to the Peoria Symphony Orchestra's breakdown of 5 percent (or less) from the government, 45 percent from ticket sales, 42 percent from contributions and 8 percent from program advertisements.
Something I noticed right away in our rehearsals was the quality, or lack thereof, of their instruments, especially in the string section. Theirs looked and sounded rather like the level of instruments that our middle and high school students use. Decent string instruments are a real investment, one far beyond their means, but the other factor is that quality string instruments do not exist in Russia. The woodwind instruments were somewhat better in quality. All of the brass instruments, which are the most affordable, were new, recently purchased by the Samara Philharmonic.
In the percussion section, a few basic necessities were lacking. One piece on our program calls for maracas, not an uncommon need, and their compromise was a Pepsi can filled with gravel! It did serve the purpose. Bill offered to buy them another Pepsi so they could make another maraca.
Our goal was to rehearse with the orchestra and perform the program of American works. This was quite an undertaking, since none of this music was familiar to the musicians. (Works by American composers are mostly a product of the last century.) The orchestral parts are all but unavailable in Russia -- we carried the orchestra parts in our suitcases -- so this music is unknown to them, with few exceptions.
It is rare to play a concert in which none of the selections are familiar, but this was the case in Samara. The orchestra worked throughout the week with diligence.
In rehearsals, Bill would use some Italian terms which all musicians know, and Olga, the translator, helped with most everything else, although Bill was learning and using Russian words and phrases quite well! The Samara Philharmonic Hall is relatively new -- about 5 years old -- but is a copy of the old hall, which was destroyed. It sure fooled me, as I thought it was 60 to 75 years old. The lobby was spectacular and grand, with its three levels connected by marble staircases and walls, gorgeous wood parquet floors (like the Czar's, according to Olga), crystal chandeliers; and numerous statues of Russian composers, some familiar and others unfamiliar to me. The theater itself is less remarkable but still quite nice, and seats about 1,000 people.
The night of the concert, the crowd numbered about 500. Their audience size varies drastically from concert to concert, so this was a good crowd. The concert was being videotaped by a a television station, and Bill and I, with Olga's help, were interviewed before the concert and at intermission. Each of the program selections was introduced and described by a well-dressed woman who presented the information from memory with great enthusiasm, eliminating the need for printed programs.
Our concert consisted of Bernstein's "Candide" Overture, Greg Sanders' "Prairie Dreams: The River's Echo" (written for the tricentennial of Peoria in 1991), Barber's Violin Concerto (with me as the soloist), one movement from Ives' "Three Places in New England," and Randall Thompson's Symphony No. 2. The audience responded with hearty applause for each selection except the Ives (not unlike our audience's reaction), and at the end of the concert, kept applauding, demanding an encore! The concertmaster suggested that they play the Bernstein once more, but the zealous and efficient orchestra librarian (who resembled the character Kramer on TV's "Seinfeld") had already collected that music at intermission in preparation for our departure the next day.
So, instead, Bill repeated the second movement of the Thompson, again followed by sustained applause. The concert hall director appeared on stage and made a speech about how words and ideas divide people, but music bonds them together. Finally the concert concluded. It was a huge success! After the concert, a dinner party was held in the canteen at Philharmonic Hall for Bill and I, and eight others who were involved in the planning and execution of the whole project. Many toasts were made, interspersed with eating, Gillary (the concert hall director) playing a Gershwin song on the piano, jokes in both Russian and English, and Shcherbakov borrowing my violin to render a gypsy song accompanied by Bill. When Shcherbakov was telling of his years playing violin in the ballet orchestra, he recalled numerous performances of "Swan Lake," which was mistakenly translated as "Stork Lake"! The enjoyable evening was a great ending for our week in Samara. Throughout the week, we were treated with great hospitality, kindness, and respect.
Now we have our opportunity as Samara's conductor, Mikhail Shcherbakov and violinist Pavel Boyev are in our city to present their program with the Peoria Symphony on Tuesday.