A Russian Journey

A Russian Journey

By Gail Archer


In summer, 2013, I traveled in Europe for a month from 17 July to 17 August to play eleven concerts in Germany, Italy, Denmark and Russia. The tour began in Tubingen, near Stuttgart, Germany, a university town known for its sophistication and intellectual vitality.  I played in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Johannes on a fine mechanical action organ, hosted by my colleague Jurgen Maag.  From Stuttgart, I headed south to my favorite destination, Italy, where I speak the language and have many friends.  Flying from Stuttgart to Torino, Italy, is one of the great pleasures of European travel, as one soars above the Alps, snow-covered even in high summer.  The first two Italian concerts at Alessandria and Grondona, just south of Torino, were hosted by Letizia Romiti, professor of organ at the Conservatory of Alessandria.  The international summer organ festival in Alessandria, sponsored by a generous grant from the Italian government, takes place in the Church of S. Giovanni Evangelista, which boasts a new two manual organ built by a local artisan.  The instrument has many levels of memory and is placed to the left of the altar in the front of the church to take advantage of the splendid acoustics of the elegant, stone sanctuary.  I worshiped with this community on Sunday morning and thoroughly enjoyed the parish choir,  who led the music of the Mass with enthusiasm and obvious devotion.  About 45 minutes south of Alessandria by train, I traveled to Grondona, a picturesque village in the hills.  The small parish church sits  on a high point of the village, surrounded by stone houses, some of which date back to the fifteenth century.  The organ is an extraordinary  one-manual eighteenth century instrument for which Professor Romiti raised the funds to restore; the sound of this instrument is like crystal bells—a joy to play!  I was a guest at a family hunting lodge, just up the road from the church.  The interior of the lodge was decorated with the heads of deer and boar that were the trophies of the many winter parties that stay in the lodge and comb the woods for game animals.


From the familiarity of Italy, I now began an adventure, both musical and personal, to a land I had never visited before– Russia.  My colleague at the conservatory in St. Petersburg, Daniel Zaretsky, received a grant from the Russian government to send organists around Russia for summer organ concerts. Mr. Zaretsky arranged a five-concert tour with the collaboration of another Russian colleague, Taras Baginets.  The points of call were Irkutsk, Karsnoyarsk, Tomsk and Perm.   I flew from Torino, to Paris, to Moscow, arriving at Sheremityevo Airport amidst crowds of summer tourists, who spoke every language on earth and seemed to be heading in all directions at once.  After clearing customs, I had to find my way to the domestic terminal, as they were sending me to Irkutsk in Siberia to begin the tour.  After the long European flights, this final segment of the endless day took me overnight to the thriving city of Irkutsk—my hosts told me that a flight to China from their city would take about three hours.  I was as far from home as I have ever been with thirteen hours of time difference between Irkutsk and New York.  While Irkutsk is a large modern city, I was struck by the small wooden houses with their decorative, carved shutters and roof lines.  The shutters are typically painted bright colors, blue or green, and similar colors outline the edge of the wooden roof tiles.  I have seen carved wooden houses in  Zakopane, Poland outside of Cracow, but this Russian woodcarving was distinctive—a unique selection of patterns and designs that I observed on the wooden houses in all the Russian cities that I visited.


My hotel in Irkutsk was a modern, international place from which I could walk down the street to the organ hall for rehearsal.  All five Russian concerts took place in the organ halls of the Philharmonic Society in each city.  In the case of Irkutsk, the organ hall was a converted Roman Catholic Church, the upper level reconstructed as a chamber music auditorium with a fine German-built organ in the front, and the lower level, a small chapel still used for worship.  My concerns about Russian-language labels on the stops of the organ disappeared immediately as I opened the desk top of the organ—all familiar German nomenclature for the registrations—this proved to be the case in all five venues.

In Russia, there is a tradition of detailed verbal program notes.  A formally dressed woman welcomed the audience to the concert that evening, and then spoke about the structure and history of each piece before I played.  These lovely women made tea for me in the intermissions of the concerts and proved to be kind, warm ambassadors, both for the Russian traditions of hospitality and music education.  The auditoriums where I played ranged in seating capacity from  300 persons in Irkutsk to 1500 persons in Perm.

At the end of the concert in Irkutsk, some of the patrons of the concert, the Noshenkos family, took me to their home for an outdoor picnic in their walled garden.  The homemade food was simply delicious and then the fun really began.  The women of the family sang Russian folk songs and hymns and then invited me to sing American folk songs and hymns. We went on for several hours sharing the vocal traditions of our respective countries over tea and wine and vodka.  I surely am one of the few Americans who can say that I have tasted Siberian vodka in Siberia.


Traveling from one venue to the next was the most thrilling part of the adventure, as I made my way back to Moscow on  long overnight train trips on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Everyone has a sleeping berth, as there are no upright seats on any Russian trains; in one instance, between Tomsk and Perm, I was on the train for more than 24 hours.  I packed provisions and bottled water and had several good books with me from the beginning.  It took me a while to adjust to the fact that all trains in Russia run on Moscow time. Even though you are starting your journey several time zones east of Moscow, you must be aware that the arrival and departure time on your ticket is Moscow time, not local time.  People were friendly and helpful and we managed to communicate in a mixture of Russian, German, English and hand gestures.  Russia is a vast country with thousands of miles of white birch forests stretching to infinity—one can imagine the luminous and mysterious atmosphere that must be here in the depths of winter when the land is covered with snow.


At Krasnoyarsk, my host, Natalie, met me at the station at 4AM in the morning and took me to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before my practice time.  Similar to Irkutsk, the organ hall is a converted church.  This stop on the journey proved to be very special indeed.  My translator was Alessandra Stepanovich, an undergraduate in linguistics at the university in Krasnoyarsk who is fluent in three languages,  her native Russian, Chinese and English.  My page-turner was Marina, a seventeen-year-old high school organ student.  We all became instant friends in the three days that I spent in the city; all the organizers and hosts were enthusiastic women.  We went on city tours together and they took me to the largest Russian Orthodox Church where I bought an icon which graces the wall of my apartment in New York and reminds me of these beautiful women very day.  I gave Marina a free organ lesson while Alessandra translated—we just laughed and made music together for several hours.  I played two concerts in Krasnoyarsk on successive evenings.  At the end of the second concert, Marina’s father brought me a huge bouquet of white lilies onstage amidst the applause.  His radiant smile spoke a thousand words in a universal language of kindness and goodwill.  We all just hugged and cried when we had to part at the end.


The next stop was the university town of Tomsk—it is much like Boston in our own country, with a number of universities of various specialties all crowded into one small metropolis. The organ hall this time was a converted monastery, the room holding about 750 people, with elegant crystal chandeliers and the walls painted a soft blue pastel color.

The acoustics were marvelous and the instrument was a modern mechanical action organ with great power.  I spent a rushed day, arriving in the very early morning, practicing, taking a nap, playing the concert, and then getting back on the train at 2AM in the morning to head west to Perm. By far the largest city on the tour, Perm is an industrial and commercial city lined with modern shops and suffering from traffic jams at every corner. The organ hall is across the street from the main Philharmonic Hall in the center of the city and I was hosted in a nearby hotel, so I had easy access to the venue for my practice and ample time to prepare over two days.  The organ was built by Gotter- Gotz, a well-known German firm, which has installed concert instruments in many international venues.  The three manual instrument has a digital registration system which was very easy to program, so I could take my time and adjust my choices over the time span of the practice sessions.


Perhaps the most striking aspect of these five concerts was the sold-out audiences at every stop along the way and the enthusiastic response to the music—I played two encores after every performance.  There is a deep, genuine appreciation for classical keyboard music in Russia that reaches back centuries.  The people I met came from every walk of life, but they had a common bond in their love for classical music and the importance of keeping this tradition alive in their communities, schools and churches.  I was welcomed with warmth, kindness and affection everywhere I went and experienced the country on my own terms without the filter of the international political press which often sets countries in opposition to one another.  My respect and affection for those I met has influenced my choice of repertoire for the Barnard-Columbia Chorus this holiday season—we are performing the Vespers (All-Night Vigil) of Rachmaninoff and the chamber choir is singing a set of seven works by other Russian composers including Tchaikovsky, Gretchaninoff, Bortniansky.  With the help of Mr. Zaretsky and Mr. Baginets, I am developing a Russian organ music series which I will play in New York City during the 2014-2015 season and I already look forward to further cultural exchanges with our Russian colleagues in the near future.


The two programs that I played in Russia are found below.


Program #1

Praeludium in f# minor                              Dieterich Buxtehude

BuxWV 146                                                (1637-1707)


Toccata et Fuga in D minor (Dorian)            Johann Sebastian Bach

BWV  538                                                            (1685-1750)


An Wasserflussen Babylon                                  Bach

BWV 653


Sonata III                                             Felix Mendelssohn


Con moto maestoso

Andante tranquillo


Wondrous Love                                Samuel Barber



And the greatest of these is love       Alla Borzova

(b. 1961)

Inspired by the Chagall and Matisse windows at Union Church, Pocantico, NY

(New commissioned work)


Prelude und Fuge uber B-A-C-H                               Franz Liszt



Program #2


Praeludium in d                                                Dieterich Buxtehude

BuxWV 140                                                      (1637-1707)


Allein Gott in der Hoh  sei Ehr                      Johann Sebastian Bach

BWV 662                                                        (1685-1750)

Komm Heiliger Geist

BWV 651


Sonata I                                                              Felix Mendelssohn


Allegro moderato e serioso


Andante recitativo

Allegro assai vivace


Ascent                                                                      Joan Tower

(b. 1938)


Prelude                                                                   Nadia Boulanger

Petit Canon                                                            (1887-1979)




L’Ascension                                                                     Olivier Messiaen


Serene Alleluias

Transports de joie

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