the White Nights of St Petersburg

Here in Los Angeles, the sun will set over the ocean at  precisely 8:02 PM this evening. I’m sure it will be spectacular.

But in St Petersburg, Russia, the sun will not set until just before midnight. When you are that far north, summer days never end. June is a magical time in St Petersburg, when nighttime only lasts a few hours, and the darkness isn’t very dark.

Back in June 2007, I got to experience the famous “White Nights” of St Petersburg. I was in Russia to compete in the XIII International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, an unforgettable experience.

But since my father had been invited to St Petersburg as a  guest professor, I decided to go there first. After all, this was my chance to experience the Winter Palace, the Hermitage, and the Mariinsky Theatre. Like any musician preparing for a major competition, I would spend several hours a day practicing… but why stay home when I could just as easily practice my music in this glorious city?

Instead of just singing Tchaikovsky arias, I got inside them. I stood at the very place where Liza throws herself into the river Neva in the final act of Queen of Spades. I sang inside a Russian church. I practiced reading the Cyrillic alphabet as I walked around the city, slowly sounding out words like интернет (internet) and ресторан (restaurant).

I strolled down Nevsky Avenue almost every day, visiting every cathedral and every shopping mall. I took a canal cruise. I saw DaVinci’s Madonna Litta at the Hermitage. I went to Dostoyevsky’s house. I attended the Kirov ballet. I toured the czar’s Summer Palace.

But there was one thing I still had to do: I desperately wanted to see a Tchaikovsky opera at the Mariinsky Theatre. I had tickets for Eugene Onegin.

I was staying with my parents in a little budget hotel called the Vyborgskaya. We were living in cramped quarters and it wasn’t very clean.  It had been an especially hard day; my dad had injured his foot, so walking around town was not very comfortable. We’d had to wait in long lines to buy subway tickets, and whenever we finally got to the front of the line, the clerk would pull out the “technological difficulties” sign and disappear! I was also feeling a little queasy because I had eaten a questionable meat pie at a local bakery. But I was still looking forward to the opera.

When we got back to the hotel, we were informed that we had to change rooms unexpectedly.  The maids had already begun to move our luggage out into the hall to make room for another guest! Meanwhile, we had been assigned to an even smaller room, featuring three little cots and one coffee table. There was no time to be outraged about any of this because in all the confusion, we were now late for the opera.

We stood outside the hotel in despair, trying to flag down a taxi at rush hour.  Finally, a friend asked us if we would be willing to take an “unofficial” taxi. We shrugged and said yes. Our friend told the driver to take us to the opera house… as fast as possible. And that’s how we ended up climbing into a strange unmarked car.

Before we could fasten our seat belts, the car sped off with a screech of tires. Our driver zigzagged around corners and through intersections at breathtaking speed. I had never flown across a suspension bridge that fast. (Of course, I had not yet experienced traffic in Kathmandu.) We were speechless, but this pirate taxi driver took his assignment very seriously: he had been told to get us to the Mariinsky as fast as possible. And he did.

We were dizzy when we got out of the car, but we did make it there on time.  The driver was grinning from ear to ear. We gratefully handed him some extra rubles for his race car skills. Finally, we stumbled inside the gorgeous auditorium with its rich interior and blue plush velvet seats.

And the music was electrifying. What could be better than hearing a Russian orchestra play Tatyana’s letter scene? I don’t think I can describe the sound of the violins surging with perfect Slavic passion. There are no words for that. It was an exquisite performance.

And even after all of that, we still made it back to the hotel well before sunset. I remember the sunlight shining on the river as we drove back across town.

So whenever June rolls around, I always think about the White Nights of St Petersburg… and my wild ride to the Mariinsky!


Starving Artists in Moscow

This is another “blast from the past” blog post. For some reason, I’ve been thinking about all the travel adventures I had before I ever started this blog! In my last post, I took you on a wild ride through Nepal, and this time, I’d like to take you to Russia…

There’s a certain mystique about the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. It’s a prestigious classical music contest, and it has a very old-school Russian atmosphere. But Americans have been quite successful there. Famous gold medalists include Van Cliburn (piano) in 1958 and Deborah Voigt (voice) in 1990.

So I felt humbled to be the only American vocalist invited to compete in the XIII International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2007. This is, after all, a serious international medal competition with several events (piano, cello and voice) and it only happens once every four years. I felt like I was going to the Olympics!

We were even treated like Olympians.  Our travel and housing expenses were covered by the competition. (Even my pianist’s expenses were covered, so I invited Ayako, a friend and colleague from the Mozarteum in Austria, to perform with me in Moscow.) We received free T-shirts, tote bags, commemorative pins and magnets. We all lived in the same mega-hotel, right outside the center of town, just like an Olympic Village.

The officials posted intricate schedules, where hundreds of competitors were organized by name, instrument and nationality. (“Lindsay Feldmeth, voice, USA & Ayako Watanabe, piano, Japan” — I learned to recognize our names in the Cyrillic alphabet.)

The competitors traveled into the city together by bus. (Well, Ayako and I often escaped and used the subway instead, but we’re rebellious like that.) We even took a group field trip to the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin!

So when they announced that we would also receive a certain number of free meals, we were delighted. Like most young artists, Ayako and I were on a tight budget, and good food can be expensive in Russia. We were issued several blue “meal tickets,” for use at the cafeteria in Tchaikovsky Hall.

On the first day of the competition, we landed in the cafeteria after a long and exhausting rehearsal. I surveyed the dishes underneath the glass and pointed to a delicious dish of lamb. But the man serving the food shook his head emphatically. “Nyet.”

“Oh!” I said, looking down at the blue ticket in my hand.  “Well, that makes sense,” Ayako whispered to me in German.  “After all, it’s a free lunch. They can’t give us all lamb.”

I nodded, smiled, and pointed at a smaller dish of chicken breast. “Nyet.”  Hesitating, I indicated a corn salad.  “Nyet.”  Confused, I looked to see what the other competitors were eating. When I saw what they had chosen, I pointed sadly to a burnt piece of meat that resembled beef tongue.  “Da!” said the man happily, scooping it onto my tray.

We were still grateful for the free lunch, but it really wasn’t the best meal of the year. After that, Ayako and I ate out as often as possible. Restaurants are pricey in Moscow, but there are a variety of good places to eat within steps of Red Square, if you know where to look.  I can recommend this website.

But even if the food was underwhelming, nothing could match the experience of singing onstage at Tchaikovsky Hall.  It was a magic moment.  Afterwards, I gave a backstage interview (in English, thank goodness!) for a Russian radio program.

Throughout the experience, I was deeply touched by the Russians’ love for classical music.  I could not believe how many spectators showed up to watch the preliminary rounds of the competition — even on weekday mornings!

After the quarter finals, I went out to the lobby to get some air.  I had only been standing there for a few minutes when I was approached by an older Russian gentleman.  He pointed to my picture in the program.  “Leensee Fyeldmet?” he asked hopefully.  “Yes, that’s me,” I said. He pressed a pen into my hand and asked me to autograph his program.  Then he threw his arm around me and had his son take our picture! It was a sweet moment.

I didn’t win any medals at the Tchaikovsky Competition. But I will always consider Moscow my “Olympic” experience. до свидания!