Magazine article The Spectator

Local Hero

Magazine article The Spectator

Local Hero

Article excerpt

It is not everybody who gets invited to conduct in Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia, and it is probably not everyone who wants to be. Pursuing the fame trail takes people differently. Those who make their name conducting Beethoven's symphonies might well find their diaries very full when the call from the Novosibirsk Symphony Orchestra comes through. But for those of us involved with Renaissance polyphony the idea of going to Siberia to conduct, for example, John Taverner's Western Wynde Mass represents such an extension of normal business that it amounts to a high point in our careers to have been thought of at all. It is not much of a way to make a living of course, and the fame which accrues is purely local -- after a few days I was surely the most famous person (and the only foreigner) in the city - but by the end I didn't want to leave.

Many of my preconceptions about Siberia were wrong. It is not the back of beyond, at least not culturally. Novosibirsk boasts the largest and possibly the most beautiful theatre for opera and ballet in Russia, housing its own repertory company (I heard La Traviata one night, Eugene Onegin the next). There is also a conservatoire which has recently produced, for example, the violinist Maxim Vengerov, a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra (which is due to appear in Chichester this July as part of a European tour), a large choir and a small professional vocal ensemble called Markell's Voices: this I conducted in a programme of Palestrina, Victoria, Gibbons, Taverner, Tallis, Parsons and Byrd. They chose the music, and sang it note perfect from the first rehearsal. The end product yielded just what I had hoped for: a new angle on this great repertoire, sung by these Russians with rock-solid firmness, bass-driven.

But it would be misleading to say that daily life in Siberia has not suffered from the weakness of the Russian currency. Eight days was too short a time for me to feel badly the shortage of green vegetables - they are too expensive to impet and the ground was still frozen solid all the time I was there - but the problem was brought home by the end-of-concert bouquets, which had one flower in them (and I wondered where that came from). All the CDs in the shops, including my own, were pirated, the booklets photocopied, the discs unmarked. …

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